Sunday, June 16, 2024

Dibotelo Report silent on critical national-security issue

When President Ian Khama epically fell out with Kgosi Kgafela II in 2012, there was grave concern among some in the Ministry of Justice, Defence and Security (as it then was) about what this meant in the larger scheme of national security. Largely on account of the history of the Bakgatla-ba-ga-Kgafela, Kgatleng District has the largest geographic concentration of small firearms in Botswana.

After he was publicly flogged by the future Transvaal president, Paul Kruger, Kgosi Kgamanyane of the Bakgatla fled into Botswana with some of his subjects and settled in Mochudi. As they made their way into what was then only known as Kweneng, Bakgatla men were armed to the teeth and no Boer community dared confront them. In a period that African communities were transitioning from traditional to western warfare, firearms were a coveted commodity. In a part of Transvaal where they lived, Bakgatla were surrounded by firearms. They amassed and brought this into Botswana.

Gun ownership culture continues to date and so when Kgafela started asserting himself during Khama’s administration, some were worried about what a possible stand-off with law enforcement could involve. To be clear, Botswana’s arms of force have formidable firepower and would have been no match to any militia that might have sprouted in Kgatleng. However, such stand-off would have resulted in loss of human life on the losing side and that wouldn’t have looked good on the government.

Down the road, the stand-off between the two men came down to control of the kgotla, the royal seat of power. The kgotla is central to not just tribal administration but is also the command-and-control centre from where a kgosi (pl: dikgosi) exercises his/her power. Either actively or passively, the kgotla can also be used to shore up or undermine the authority of political leaders. The latter explains why politicians always want to ensure that custodians of a kgotla serve the former purpose and that those who serve the latter are deposed.

In deposing (“derecognising” is the term the government used at the time) Kgafela, Khama effectively usurped control of the Bakgatla kgotla. Going back to the immediate post-independence period, presidents have always fought with dikgosi over control of the kgotla. The first such incident was when Sir Seretse Khama determined that Kgosi Bathoen I of Bangwaketse was knee-deep in opposition politics, thus undermining electoral support for Vice President Ketumile Masire. At a point where Sir Seretse was about to depose Bathoen, the kgosi resigned and the former could better could control the Bangwaketse kgotla. Masire would himself fall out with Bathoen’s son, Kgosi Seepapitso and in one episode of that saga, the latter was deposed but would later be reinstated. Festus Mogae stands out as the only president to not have had an ugly public fight with a powerful Tswana kgosi, one who is an ex-officio member of Ntlo ya Dikgosi.

Karma visited Khama almost a decade after his fight with Kgafela. With the current battle, President Mokgweetsi Masisi continues the tradition of presidents fighting for control of the kgotla with dikgosi. With his decades-old knowledge and experience of the kgotla’s political role, Khama (who is also Bangwato kgosi) seeks to press his own in Serowe into such service. As three of his predecessors – Khama included, Masisi will have none of that. Through the Minister of Local Government and Rural Development, Kgotla Autlwetse, Masisi has wrestled control of the kgotla from Khama and still has the option of karmically deposing him like he did Kgafela.

As in Kgafela’s case, the feud over the Serowe kgotla could degenerate into a national-security threat. A couple of days ago, rifle-wielding riot police were rushed to the Serowe kgotla to prevent a group of Khama’s supporters from holding a meeting at the kgotla.

The framing of the issue in the media is mistaken because those supporters are generally referred to as “Bangwato” when a good many of the people in this campaign are members of a party (the Botswana Patriotic Front) whose office is in Gaborone and a Mongwaketse is among leaders of this campaign.

The fact of the matter is that Bangwato are actually divided over this issue and not enough people are showing up at the kgotla in support of Khama. Given the nature of Tswana society, subjects would naturally want to support their traditional leader. However, Khama has erased the line between bogosi and tribal affairs. If as, the media claims, Bangwato supported Khama, the government would long have backed off.

In a video that went viral on social media, a former army general and staunch Khama supporter, Brigadier Iphemele Kgokgothwane, dares armed police officers to shoot him. Enraged by government’s decision to deny them access to the kgotla, some of Khama’s supporters openly called for the use of physical violence.

If nothing else, the Mochudi and Serowe incidents amply demonstrate that control of the kgotla is presents a national security threat. For that reason, one would have expected the Presidential Commission of Inquiry into the Review of the Constitution of Botswana (which seeks to put Botswana on new footing) to deal substantively with this issue. At the heart of the matter is who, between the state and the tribe through the kgosi, actually owns the kgotla. At least in the case of main dikgotla at which ex-officio members of Ntlo ya Dikgosi sit, there is incontrovertible evidence of such dikgotla having been established by the respective tribes and so they own them. However, such dikgotla are staffed and maintained by the government. It has become evident that the government doesn’t see this arrangement as anything akin to a joint venture but sole proprietorship.

Not that it is going to be easy to determine who owns the kgotla but it could well be that the government is intentionally avoiding such determination process because as an alien (western) creation, the government can’t realistically stake claim to an indigenous institution. It is thus abusing its power to perpetuate the status quo and the Report of the Presidential Commission of Inquiry into the Review of the Constitution of Botswana, which is supposed to ensure continued peace and harmony, has not been helpful in that regard.

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