Sunday, September 20, 2020

Chieftaincy in the Modern State

In 1970, Kgosi Neale Sechele was compelled to resign as Chief of the Bakwena following a two-man commission appointed by President Sir Seretse Khama to look into alleged negligence of duty and abuse of alcohol levelled against the Kgosi. Recently a team consisting of former Ministers and Speakers of Parliament Matlapeng Ray Molomo and Patrick Balopi together with a Ngwato royal Sediegeng Kgamane and former Police Commissioner and Kweneng native Simon Hirstchfeld were commissioned by President Ian Khama (Seretse’s son) to probe into the troubles of Kweneng District, particularly the factional tussles in the Bakwena royal family. This recent commission on the Bakwena royal row did not impress most people and compelled Mohumagadi Kgosiemang to caution Kgosi Kgari III that he should have let Bakwena resolve their own problems as opposed to bringing in Ian Khama to do it for them. She reminded him of the 1970 debacle where Neale Sechele was compelled to abdicate Bogosi and summed it up by saying ‘Noga e Tsala Nogana’ (‘a snake begets a young one’) as recently reported by some news paper article.

In 1973, Kgosi Seepapitso IV was suspended for one year because he was purported to have on several occasions behaved in a manner deemed unbecoming for a Kgosi and was perceived as a poor performer in the execution of his chieftaincy functions. In 1977, Sir Seretse Khama’s administration dismissed Kgosi Besele II of Barolong for dereliction of duty. Earlier in 1969, Kgosi Bathoen II of Bangwaketse was compelled by law to quit bogosi in order to pursue a political career on an opposition Botswana National Front (BNF) ticket. Today President Ian Khama by virtue of belonging to the ruling party enjoys special privileges to wear two hats of being a politician and Kgosi, contrary to constitutional provision. The poor Kgosi Bathoen had to trade-in his leopard skin for politics. Similarly Kgosi Tawana Moremi II of Batawana just like Kgosi Bathoen has had to trade his leopard skin for politics and was not accorded the special dispensation given to King Khama IV (Ian Khama) of the Bangwato. In sharp contrast to this image in 1979, Sir Seretse Khama appointed his son Ian Khama (then a Brigadier in the army) Kgosi of the Bangwato tribe, whilst still serving in the army. The ceremony took place at the Bangwato’s main kgotla in Serowe where Ian Khama was wearing his military attire. The government owned Kutlwano magazine of this period has a photo of Ian Khama clad in military tunic bringing firewood to the kgotla in line with custom. Seretse Khama installed Ian Khama as Kgosi of the Bangwato despite an undertaking Seretse and his uncle, Tshekedi, made in the mid 1950s that they were abdicating chieftaincy of the Bangwato for themselves and their children.

On the 31 March 1998 Lieutenant General Ian Khama (King Khama IV) quit the army. The following day, on April fool’s day 1998, he was appointed Vice President and Minister for Presidential Affairs and Public Administration. According to Mpho Molomo (2000:101), the appointment of Ian Khama to the position of Vice-President and also to head a powerful ministry of Presidential Affairs and Public Administration was well received by Bangwato. They perceived the move as grooming their heir apparent to eventually take over the high political office. Previously, according to Molomo the perception of Bangwato, when Masire succeeded Khama after his death in 1980 was that he was only holding the fort for Ian Khama, to enable him to develop a career in the army, grow up and eventually take over as President. Ian Khama’s appointment and practice in political office has flouted a precedent that was set by Kgosi Bathoen II. Bathoen resigned his position as Kgosi in 1969 to join opposition politics. For his part, Khama retired from the army on 31 March and the next day took up a cabinet position in the BDP government. To this day Khama remains the only politician in Botswana who is also a paramount chief. Time and again he brags about it in his political rallies. He has also gone on record saying that some people think it is ‘Fashionable’ to call for constitutional review despite the imbalances that exists and that he himself enjoys to the latter. It is not far fetched to say that the only thing he knows in life is privilege and nothing else. Small wonder that his intolerance to dissent has led to a split in the BDP for the first time in the party’s existence. He is not aware of how critical trade-offs and give-and-take are to the well being of political parties. He demands to have his way even if it is destructive to the organisation.

Since pre-colonial and in recent times, it is an undeniable fact that the chieftaincy institution has been subjected to the margins of the society. This hitherto most revered institution has since independence experienced worst turbulence and has been turned into a government instrument and subjected to abuse and exploitation by politicians. From a position of strength, the state has sought to co-opt and marginalise the chiefs within its bureaucratic mish-mash as mere auxiliaries. The prevailing institutional and legislative framework point to the gradual bureaucratisation of the institution of chieftaincy. The question is what can the Chiefs do? Do they just have to sit and watch and be subjected to abuse by the democratisation rhetoric? Clearly this is related to their prerogatives in empowering and developing their communities and with the appreciation that good governance and development can not be achieved through elective mechanisms only. While the institution serves to mediate between the past and the present by imaging itself as a ‘symbol of tradition’ it can at the same time strive to serve as an agency for modern projects. If I am not mistaken this is the vision and the drive that Bakgatla-ba-Kgafela and their Kgosi Kgolo Kgafela II are striving to achieve and they must be given an opportunity to present and implement their development model and not be castigated negatively as evidenced by the recent upsurge in popular protest by some individuals. By so doing they are not projecting themselves as non Batswana. Their project should be seen as a welcome development, something that different communities in Botswana can bench mark against and have it as a pathway to relief dependence on government. It must, therefore, have the full support and backing by the government as opposed to making it fail, merely on account of political egocentric behaviours.

It is without doubt that the Chieftainship Act of 1966 conned the Chiefs to the authority of the state as well as adumbrating their functions in the tribe. Of particular significance was the authority which is vested in the President to recognise the designation of the Chief by the tribe and to suspend and dispose him following a judicial commission of enquiry. Subsequent legislation substantially consolidated the power of the President and the responsible Cabinet Minister. The Chieftainship (Amendment) Act of 1970 removed the right of a Chief to a judicial enquiry before his suspension or deposition by the President. Under the Chieftainship (Amendment) Act of 1973, the President was to determine the nature of administrative enquiry preceding his judgment on the removal of a chief from office and such an enquiry could be instigated without there being, as was previously the case, a complaint from the tribe about the conduct of a Chief. In asserting its authority over the Chiefs, the government has sought to make them agents of the state administration and have in consequence become employees of the public service. Kgosi Linchwe II of the Bakgatla -ba- Kgafela in 1978 challenged this set up and stated in the House of Chiefs that a Chief is not a civil servant. Kgosi Seepapitso II of Bangwaketse reiterated the statement and stated that ‘just because chiefs receive a salary from government, they are not civil servants ….. And so it is wrong of us to entertain the idea that chiefs are civil servants’ (Jones 1983).

Compatriots who view chieftaincy as incompatible with democracy argue that because of the seemingly inherent succession disputes as those evident with Bogosi among Bakwena, Balete, Barolong-boo-Ratshidi and others, the institution, should be abolished.

It is viewed as too archaic for modern times. Currently there have been debates going on in Botswana about the merits and demerits of chieftaincy as an institution. This was primarily prompted by the eruption of issues involving Kgosi Kgolo Kgafela II of Bakgatla-ba-Kgafela. Since the matter is still in the Courts I don’t go into detail here. While some arguments favour the institution of chieftaincy as worthy to drive development and incorporate traditional values, others dismiss the institution as archaic and most retrogressive.

Post-colonial impact has greatly affected the autonomous powers that were originally vested in traditional chiefs. Modern system of governance being imported culture only educates Africans to reject their own traditions and cultural heritages to the advantage of post-colonial fashions, the so called modernized democracy? In Botswana, chieftaincy is a dynamic institution with pre-colonial roots. Within this framework, chieftaincy is seldom credited with the ability to liberate or to work in tune with popular expectations, even when such expectations are largely unaccounted for by such competing rhetoric as liberalism and socialism. Thus, despite the fact that liberal democracy prescribes cultural diversity, our own politicians, the legislative and institutional frameworks have suggested that the continued existence of the institution of traditional leadership in our country is a fundamental contradiction of this democratization process. Almost invariably, such critics have argued that because traditional authority (chieftaincy) is based on birth-right as opposed to elections, it compromises our hard won democracy. A case in point is the statement uttered by the late Englishman Kgabo in 1971 at a seminar that chieftainship would no longer be a birth-right but a job like any other public office. Subsequent to Kgabo statement there was a legal case involving Kgosi Seepapitso IV of Bangwaketse in 1972 and the Chief Justice C J Aguda ruled that recognition was synonymous with appointment there by confirming the claim by Kgabo that persons are no longer born to these positions but appointed to them. Again in 1978 the late Lemme Makgekgenene reiterated Kgabo’s statement, and stated that ‘Chiefs are Civil Servants like any other civil servants’.

It is interesting to note that the so-called negative characteristics of chieftaincy which make the institution repulsive to its detractors are rather ironically present in any system of governance in the orbit of either Western or Eastern ideology. For instance, the issue of hierarchy, which was evidently necessary as a means to maintain order and stability in traditional society, is not the preserve of chieftaincy, but rather present in any governance system. In his observation of American democracy, the sociologist C Wright Mills, made it clear that the major decisions in that society are made by a few overlapping interests and not by the majority of people as their brand of democracy will have us believe.

The traditional authority set up in Botswana is such that the Chief does not rule and make decisions all by himself. He is not a dictator who makes unilateral decisions which have to be echoed by his tribal parrots. But however, has his uncles (‘Council of Elders’) who serve as a central structure guided by the cardinal principle of “balance” (through representation by all sections of the community). This system is indeed akin to the present-day cabinet under the liberal-democratic system of governance whose decisions are open to consensus at the Kgotla and not the internet fora. The chieftaincy institution in Botswana like elsewhere in Africa is an ongoing modernization process and has to be protected from abuse and misuse by politicians and their hangers-on.

Many people have called for the modernization of this institution, however, such calls to “modernize” the institution flies in the face of the facts on the ground for if we accept that Western formal education is one of the coordinates of change and hence modernization, then their reasoning becomes circular in the face of the fact that most of our chiefs are now university degree holders. This means that they are highly educated much more than some Cabinet Ministers and other politicians whose academic credentials to this day remains a mystery. As most of our chiefs are family men (married husbands and fathers), their tribes (subjects) are assured and certain of heirs to the throne, as opposed to having a series of life long regents that create and breed conflict going forward. Because many of our Chiefs are now educated it is logical that they can lead their peoples to pursue causes that can only be described as modern.

Chieftaincy remains part of the cultural and political landscapes.
President Ian Khama, who also doubles as Chief of the Bangwato, appears to have embraced this institution and he is on record as saying ‘my government’s position is that arts culture and heritage must be celebrated nationwide so that we can truly enjoy our unity in diversity’. In 2008, Khama set up a Presidential Task Force on the promotion of good social values chaired by Kgosi Puso Gaborone, a young Chief of Batlokwa. This was set up following concerns and realization that our value systems, both traditional and christian, were being compromised and eroded by other value systems, as such resulting in Batswana generally replacing good traits of respect with self-destructive and anti- social behaviors, poor discipline and low self-esteem.

The terms of reference of the committee were to consult with the public amongst other things on social ills afflicting the nation and recommend strategies for addressing such ills. Its brief was also to determine the role that can be played by traditional leaders in re-instituting the good social values. The White Paper accepted 24 recommendations without amendments as well as recommendations with amendments, while 11 recommendations also involved ongoing efforts to tackle the challenges mentioned. The White Paper also states which government ministry will be responsible for driving a particular action. Where the recommendation is rejected, it is also stated why it was not accepted. The Dikgosi have been tasked with reintroducing traditional initiation rites in all their communities as this has been very helpful in discipline, peer education, and upbringing of children and could also be done during the school holidays. The White Paper also says the flogging of people at ward level for disciplinary purposes will be re-introduced with dikgosana (village and ward heads) empowered to administer corporal punishment and deal with minor offences such as use of insulting language at ward level. The flogging will be on the bare back. Teachers will once again be allowed to administer corporal punishment on pupils or students showing deviant behavior. The Chiefs will have the mandate to control and maintain law and order in their respective communities. President Ian Khama has issued a directive to implement with immediate effect the National Strategy for the Promotion of Good Social Values.

It is time for Chiefs to realize that those of them holding political office contrary to the constitutional provisions are not in any way superior.

Botswana is not a Kingdom. They must not run to such political chiefs for advice and seek political intervention. They are all equals. As experienced educated Chiefs and some of who are married family men can resolve their internal tribal squabbles without seeking intervention from some ‘Superman.’

The Chiefs and different ethic groupings (tribes) in Botswana, i.e. Bakalaka, Batswapong, Babirwa, Bayei, Bakgalagadi, Bangwato, Bakwena, Batlokwa, Barolong and Bakgatla, etc, must all come together and call for amendments of the legislative and constitutional provisions that relegate this institution as mere auxiliaries and that subject them to political abuse and exploitation. They should also strongly advocate for reforms in their co-option into the public service and challenge the right to represent their tribes at ‘Ntlo ya Dikgosi’

Thabo Lucas Seleke is a lecturer of Public Policy in the Department of Political and Administrative Studies at the University of Botswana.


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Sunday Standard September 20 – 26

Digital copy of Sunday Standard issue of September 20 - 26, 2020.