I had always thought that when Harold Macmillan’s “winds of change”, as proclaimed on 03 February 1960, were “blowing” through Africa they skirted only that bastion of monarchic dictatorship, Swaziland. I was wrong.
The contagion is broader than originally thought. Now add to the list of ignominy, a certain district of the Republic of Botswana which is just to the north of the Capital Gaborone where a powerless old man was given a thorough beating by a purported or minor chief and his hangers-on for allegedly stealing a bridle. Like a hit and run job the notorious Sipho Sithole would have been proud of, the thrashing was executed commando style without a hearing. For our purpose, we shall call this episode of darkness “the Bridle Incident”. The drama, and its subplots, has been laid bare vividly elsewhere so I will not deign to bore you with the gory details. Suffice to say that some of the goings on in that district beggar belief given the times we live in.
However, the sometimes mindless antics of our “blue” blooded brethren here and yonder need to be put into context. They are not a happy lot I can tell you that. You see, in days gone by these folk held sway over every aspect of their people’s lives. They used to distribute land, a source of extreme power in Old Africa, but that role has now been taken over by Land Boards.
All matimela livestock were theirs to keep and dispose of as they wished.
Hell, these chaps became rich without the need to break into a sweat. Their fields, I gather, had to be ploughed first by villagers and by the time they got to theirs they had been sapped of all useful energy. They could also wake up from a deep slumber and simply decide to club you to death because you had appeared suspicious in a chiefly dream (well, I exaggerate here but you get the drift). Reminiscent of the Bridle Incident, many were whipped for innocuous indiscretions. There was no justice because the chief was the customary court. And back then, there was no Minister of Local Government, or of Justice, to answer to. If there was ever a “Heaven On Earth” period it was then.
Then came the Bechuanaland Protectorate and then the Republic of Botswana and the party came to an unpleasant and unceremonious halt. Now chiefs had to provide performance reports to someone.
Imagine that! They no longer monopolized the distribution of land, abused the law, took matimela and all other goodies that went with their jobs. I gather they now have to retire at some age bringing an end to jobs for life. It should therefore be of no surprise that there is a misguided hankering for all these. Frustration is now being unleashed on harmless citizens by thumping them at will. We now all, chief or no chief, have to fight for the same morsels to survive.
Many ordinary folk are even wealthier than their chiefly friends. It is a scandal indeed. The lion has now been turned into “a barking chicken” as someone I know would say.
History however bears us out that only one local chief was intelligent enough to realize that the situation was fluid and decided to make hay while the sun shone. He opined that it would serve him well and indeed it did, to have people give him power through a democratic process rather than simply rely on an accident of birth for that much sought after opiate. His successors are now reaping the benefits of his foresightedness and one doubts if some of the other chiefs are amused by this. Certain chiefs, to their credit, later followed the example of this republican chief. As for another lot of chiefs, they decided to vent their frustrations by harassing the innocent, a practice which has over the years repeated itself with irksome regularity. The boundless will of tyranny lives on but it should be a matter for grave disquiet. This should particularly be so for those who are gluttons for tranquility and progress.
Perhaps the best illustration of how undemocratic and dictatorial chieftaincy is, is illustrated by those royals who are enlightened, especially in the law, and yet brazenly disregard the principle of natural justice. The principle has as its twin elements that anyone who is accused of an indiscretion, even if it turns out that he had stolen a bridle for example, must be given the opportunity to state his own side of the story and the other that no one should be a judge in his own case. Legal training is supposed to imbue students of law with a sense of fairness, justice and equality.
However, you know that there is serious trouble when a lawyer goes against these elements. Our princely friends would also do well to read Nicolo Machiavelli’s classic manual of realpolitik, The Prince. Machiavelli states in various places that “a prince has of necessity to be so prudent that he knows how to escape the evil reputation attached to those vices which could lose him his state…a prince must want to have a reputation for compassion rather than for cruelty…a prince must be slow to believe allegations and to take action, and must watch that he does not come to be afraid of his own shadow.”
Based on the conduct of some modern royals, if one had always thought that it was more entertaining to stare at a mud wall in Old Africa as there was nothing much going on, then you better think again. Life in old Africa must have been one “of tragedy, of injustice, (and) of oppression” to use the words of Clarence Darrow during his closing speech in defence of Henry Sweet in 1926, a black man who had reacted with force against a white mob trying to evict his family from their home in a white neighbourhood in Detroit.
The second President, Sir Ketumile Masire gives an illustration of his aversion towards chieftainship in his memoir Very Brave or Very Foolish based on his dealings with Chief Bathoen II as follows: “Time after time he had frustrated me and my fellow tribesman in our daily lives. He tried to control us and our commercial activities and to prevent individuals from innovating unless he personally approved. All these experiences had a profound effect on how I saw the future of the country.
If Batswana were to really experience freedom to develop their own potential, I felt we had to find ways of democratizing the Society at the local level as well as the national level”.
One also begins to understand why the British Monarch has been limited to a ceremonial role which includes the harmless event of granting honours and why Americans fought so hard for their independence against Britain from 1775 to 1782. Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address on 19 November 1863 where he said that “our fathers brought on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal” does not ring hollow to Americans. Winston Churchill in a speech titled “The Upkeep of the Aristocracy” delivered with much gusto on 17 December 1909 derided the view of one Lord Curzon who had stoutly defended the hereditary principle of the role of the unelected House of Lords. Churchill stated that the idea that “we should maintain in our country a superior class, with law giving functions inherent in their blood…should be rejected with instantaneous contempt”.
And, oh, I get worried when a lawyer who appears to have transgressed the law resorts to the media not only justifying his actions but effectively cocking up his finger at the State and the rule of law rather than simply asking to have his day in court. You see, the famed economist John Kenneth Galbraith writing on “The Theory of Social Balance” states that an “understanding of our economic discourse requires an appreciation of one of its basic rule: men in high position are allowed, by a special act of grace, to accommodate their reasoning to the answer they need.
Logic is only required in those of a lesser rank”. Thus when one considers the statements of the protagonists of the Bridle Incident even in the context of economic analysis, the elder who was whipped appears to have his ducks in a row compared to the chap who branded his back. And, I say the last part without mirth. Of the two, the elder, his alleged indiscretions elsewhere aside, also comes out as the better man in the sorry saga.
But why has the negative conduct of Old Africa been allowed to survive? A friend rightly noted that undesirable remnants of Old Africa live on because politicians depend on chiefly support for survival given Africans’ affinity to chiefs and tribes. Until politicians, including the Minister of Local Government, show bottle and clearly draw a line in the sand by managing wayward chiefs and their relations, abuses against ordinary folk and other excesses will not stop. That is so because chiefs know that politicians fear them.
Therefore that the Bridle Incident has attracted the eye of the Minister of Justice as reported this past Sunday in a local newspaper is not enough. Botswana cannot be run like Pakistan or Afghanistan where politicians, in order to preserve their survival, leave tribal leaders to do as they please.
It is also an incontestable legal known that in terms of sources of law, customary law comes below statutory law, the most important of which is of course the Constitution. It therefore befuddles the senses that customary law could be said to be the only legal standard applicable to those in a tribal area. It is also a fact that Botswana is not a federal state where there are various centers of power, thus no chief, real or purported, can claim to be the be-all and end-all.
As a republican, one of my other concerns is that our Constitution provides fertile ground for the undesirable elements of Old Africa to continue being irritants. References to tribe need to be expunged from the Constitution. You know which sections I am talking about. There is also the problem of naming districts after tribes which is unhelpful especially given that anyone can settle wherever they prefer in this vast land. Tribally named districts, in my view, help fuel tribalism. That is why someone can whine, confidently for that matter, that “this fellow was insolent for reporting me in Gammangwato”. I had never thought, until this statement was made that we had “Police With Borders”. It appears to have been forgotten that the first President, Sir Seretse Khama, advised in his address to the Botswana Democratic Party Conference in Molepolole on 28 March 1970 that “we must fight against all the forces which could divide us as a nation. One such danger might stem from differences in tribe or race”.
I do not have a problem with chieftainship. In fact, a number of my friends are chiefs and one of them sits in the House of Chiefs. However, for chieftainship to contribute meaningfully in a progressive society it needs to be managed properly. While there is an African saying that “rain beats a leopard’s skin, but it does not wash out the spots” as A.A Taylor reminds us in Sam Johan and the Remaking Of Ashanti, with chieftainship we must tranquilise or pin it down if need be and scrub out the harmful spots, leaving only those that are useful to nation building.
Until deliberate measures are taken therefore, Old Africa will continue to fight to regain what, in my view, it was sensibly and correctly denied. The royal mentality will subsist that having subjects equals there being no need to treat them with respect or to be accountable to anyone. Having public goodwill, including from their own tribesmen, also appears not to be a consideration.