For the past few weeks now, they have been massing at the Serowe Kgotla, seething over former President, Lt Gen Ian Khama alleged harassment, jeering his nemeses and cooking up plans to enlist the services of powerful witch-doctors who will relieve them of the Mokgweetsi Masisi presidency. The most radical among them are even calling for the secession of the Central District from Botswana.
This group of Ian Khama zealots has for more than four decades been a whispered consequential presence in Botswana’s state affairs, shaping the course of the country’s politics.
De-classified British government documents reveal that for the four decades following the death of Botswana’s founding President, Sir Seretse Khama, his Sandhurst trained son Lt Gen Ian Khama’s cultic personality made him the country’s political wild card.
A March 3rd 1981 confidential dispatch to J.V Kirby a senior official in the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office by one R.J.S Edis a representative of Short Brothers, a British government owned aviation company that was bought by Bombardier in1989, suggests that Botswana’s second president, the late Sir Ketumile Masire was cowed by the Ian Khama’s cult.
“Although our assessment remains that probably President Masire’s heart is still in the right place, it is becoming increasingly difficult to determine where influence lies in Botswana. There have been signs that the Botswana Defence Force and its leaders may be flexing their muscles in relation with the civilian government…. There is also the well-known political ambitions of Brigadier Ian Khama the son of the late President to consider: He almost certainly has his eye on the next Presidential elections in 1984. President Masire’s voice seems recently to have been somewhat ominously muted”, states the dispatch.
Ian Khama did not contest the 1984 elections, but his popular appeal among Bangwato continued to haunt Masire’s presidency.
Another declassified letter dated 1984 from William Turner a diplomat with the British High Commission in Gaborone to one Michael Long a British national deployed at the Botswana Defence Force (BDF) quotes Masire’s successor, then Governor of the Bank of Botswana Festus Mogae saying, “for the present, President Masire does not feel strong enough to oppose Ian Khama partly because of Ian Khama’s position in the Bamangwato.”
Mogae felt that the BDF was a “monster, obsorbing more of the national wealth than could be afforded and diverting funds from worthwhile projects.”
The dispatch stated that, “Mogae thought it would take two years for President Masire to consolidate his position enough to tackle the BDF.”
When Mogae, a technocrat lost to politics, succeeded Masire as Botswana third president, he found himself without a political base inside the BDP. With the all-powerful BDP giants like Daniel Kwelagobe and Ponatshego Kedikilwe closing in on him, he decided to hitch his presidency on the coat tails of the Ian Khama cult. This helped to secure his presidency and launder Khama’s hitherto foreboding political appeal into what came to be known as “the Khama magic.”
It was believed that Ian Khama, the scion of the BDP political dynasty would heal the party factions and restore it to its former glory. After ten years of Botswana’s worst dictatorship, human rights violations and corruption, Ian Khama then a national hate figure left the party and the country worse that he found them—riven by political strife and haunted by corruption scandals. His legion of Bangwato militants, however remained loyal to their “kgosikgolo.”
Following in the footsteps of a defamed predecessor, Masisi assumed a revisionist agenda pledging to fix the country. This earned him the hearts and souls of most Batswana, but cost him the support of Bangwato, hitherto the ruling BDP’s power base.
During the 2019 general elections, for the first time in the history of Botswana, the BDP lost most constituencies in the Central District – the Bangwato dominion, but swept almost all political constituencies South of Dibete.
Masisi’s revisionist agenda and his administration’s new political base pushed the “Khama magic” to the dark side. Botswana now is caught up in the feud of two headstrong leaders who seem more fond of hurling fiery threats at one another than resolving their differences. True to form, most of Khama’s supporters in the Central District, feel it is unfair that he is being stopped from using the Serowe main kgotla to continue waging his fight against President Masisi.
Towards the end of his presidential term, Khama mobilised donations for the upgrading of the kgotla. A star fundraiser, Khama managed to raise a substantial amount of money and resultantly, the Serowe main kgotla is now one of the most beautiful in the country. The leobo (shelter) was tastefully furnished with natural stone pavers and a fair portion of the area around the shelter was also paved with the same stone. Some Bangwato thought that upon stepping down in 2018, Khama would assume tribal duties at the kgotla – a tough proposition because he knows virtually nothing about Setswana culture. Khama remained a politician and went on to found his own political party, the Botswana Patriotic Front.
BPF is an opposition party with the explicitly stated mission to unseating Masisi, who is head of a government that officially “owns” all dikgotla in the country. The government’s ownership of dikgotla is not a black-and-white issue because culturally, these traditional seats of power are owned by traditional leaders – like Khama. The Serowe kgotla was established by Kgosi Khama III, General Khama’s great-grandfather. Khama III and all his successors have been recognised as the custodians of the Serowe kgotla. However, the nature of this custodianship was fiddled with during the colonial era when the British came to control both dikgosi and the institution of bogosi (traditional leadership). Nothing changed at independence when a home-grown government, led by Seretse Khama, was established in 1966. Seretse Khama (later Sir Seretse) was Khama III’s grandson and General Khama’s father.
Throughout his fight with Masisi, Gen. Khama has sought to use the Serowe kgotla, both directly and directly, to further what some see as personal agenda. When he hasn’t been able to use the kgotla himself as a staging ground, his foot soldiers, most of them BPF members, have. Going back to late last year, when what is either the Khama-Masisi feud or the Khama-law feud intensified, access of foot soldiers of the Bangwato kgosi to the kgotla has been severely restricted. In one instance late last year, they forced the Regent, Kgosi Sediegeng Kgamane, to grant them access to the kgotla. Kgamane, whose official residence is near the kgotla was spotted fleeing early in the morning on the day that a public meeting was to take place.
A letter that the Minister of Local Government and Rural Development, Kgotla Autlwetse, has written to Sediegeng now makes clear the fact that the Serowe kgotla will no longer be used in aid of Khama’s campaign. While the government will certainly prevail, this action doesn’t resolve the broader issue of who, between the Ministry of Local Government and Rural Development and dikgosi, owns the kgotla. Generally, and going back decades, most government officials have acculturated into western identity and don’t care too much about indigenous culture. That might explain why this issue was never resolved. However, the kgotla presents an unusual challenge.
Autlwetse’s highly legalistic letter to Kgamane strongly suggests that law enforcement officers will be deployed if the kgotla is ever used without official sanction. In accordance with indigenous culture, dikgotla around the country have been traditionally and supernaturally fortified with the most potent royal charms. Thus, officers deployed to the kgotla to prevent a meeting from taking place might themselves (not those who sent them) come into harm’s way.
For now, the Jury is out on whether Masisi will be able to cast out the Khama “black” magic.