Friday, April 16, 2021

Enter Honorable Khama the “Magician”

In less than two years time, Ian Khama will become the President of the Republic of Botswana and given his tuck-shop management approach to issues of national concern, one is inclined to ask, “Will Khama offer the leadership that Botswana needs?”

This essay seeks to extend my commentary on Khama starting from the premise that it is imperative for citizens to understand him in order to comprehend and appreciate how his government is likely to operate and, in the process offer their active support.

It is only when citizens know the precise direction of their destination that they could unreservedly offer their services. The essay opens with a set of questions most of which are left unanswered for the readers to make their opinions and possibly give answers: Barring his mythical stature, does Khama have an ideology? Put differently, is there a central strand of thinking that informs his politics and policy choices? Can he articulate a clear vision for the country? The essence of leadership is that one should have a vision that s/he can articulate clearly at every occasion.

I propose to present my commentary on Khama in isolation from the BDP. Yes, Khama has been born into the BDP and not vice-versa but his imperial personality facilitated by his inherited political pedigree, his high handed response to criticism as well as the craven praise and paranoid defense of him by his spineless inner circle enabled him to float above Domkrag. In this instance, the party’s central strand of thinking is subsumed under this mystical figure with obscure powers of political and economic maneuver.

I am inclined to believe that Khama may be determined to create his own image and strive to separate his style of leadership from his predecessors.

Powerful politicians always have this irresistible impulse for cultivating a self-image that mostly serve their personal interests and confirms their limited democratic sensibilities.

In consideration of this, it is highly likely that Khama will effect significant changes to the presidency office upon his ascent. Already, he operates with his chosen team, the same way the shrewd Thabo Mbeki did when he became President of the Republic of South Africa. Mbeki, against all expectations, pushed out Mandela’s team, except for one staff member and constituted his own team with a view to setting himself apart from his predecessor.

Indications are that Khama will quickly initiate changes that will centralize power in the presidency office more than is the case now, in order to ensure absolute control of every aspect of government. It seems Khama’s presidency will be built around the ‘hands-on’ philosophy that requires government to be integrated and centrally coordinated.

This generally requires that the center must have total control over the machinery of governance, translating into a powerful presidency. This is the perspective that informs my choice to look at Khama in isolation from his party.

Thus far, my commentary will avoid commenting on Khama as the father figure of Domkrag or Domkrag as the mentors of Khama, but my premonitory feeling is that Khama is likely to interpret the relentless attack on Domkrag as an attack on himself and perhaps his late father and the counterattack will be devastating.

Khama’s imminent presidency comes at a time of intense demands on Botswana’s policy making and governance. The luxury of inheriting a vibrant economy will not be available to him.

The accolades for upholding multi-party democracy and political stability that was the preserve for the country in the whole of war torn Africa will count for nothing. He will not be required to simply preserve the country’s political stability and economic performance but more significantly, Khama will have to restore and cement this lost pride.

The economic slowdown experienced by the country requires massive presidential leadership, not the irritating interference in the professional work of credible economic institutions.

Yet the mythical stature ascribed to him by his praise singers makes him a magician with whom nothing is impossible. Can Khama turn his political charm into an economic miracle for the benefit of Botswana? It is possible he can but only if he stops personalizing national issues.

His economic management style will be tested and stretched to the fullest limits once he ascends to the presidency. So far, he seems not economically sophisticated but perhaps charismatic; he is not a textbook theorist but perhaps pragmatic and urbane.

Indeed Khama seems to harbour an abundant motivation for economic prosperity but has little awareness of concepts that constitute ideas for successful economic planning and management.

The modern world is past the ‘I can do’ type of leaders. It requires leaders who have the will to work with others. So far Khama seems to trust only himself and is suspicious of everything not done by him and is generally hostile to distant voices.

Newspaper reports of his recent crash landing of the BDP chopper indicate that when it was clear that the gadget was having mechanical faults, Khama pushed aside the substantive pilot to take control even though the pilot would have been able to handle the problem.

Does he mistrust black or indigenous Africans? Is this a sign that he is still struggling to be an African prodigy but finding it hard to so accept? His brandishing of MPs as ‘vultures’ is akin to the white-man’s view, dislike and mistrust of blacks; hence they say ‘a black man is always a suspect’.

Vice President Khama rarely makes significant public speeches that could be used to discern his ideological posture or policy direction. He prefers to remain silent on major challenges facing the country and subject commentators to some guess work regarding his thoughts. He once commented that ‘people do not know me’.

He has never publicly expressed his views on the country’s economic performance preferring to show his disguised sympathy for the poor by dishing out food stipends and other fragile commodities most of which were donated by the Botswana Red Cross.

His silence on major policy decisions is frightening and harming his national and international profile, more so because Khama is charged with coordinating the work of other ministries and ensuring implementation of government policies and programmes.

In the absence of any pronouncements on his economic vision, everything else becomes speculation and speculation can be damaging to those who speculate and who are the centre of speculation.

Vice President Khama is yet to publicly express his views on Vision 2016. His silence may only suggest that most of his deeds are diametrically opposed to the Vision’s ideals.

Khama’s government will have to deal with cross border crime that is threatening to become a national crisis. Yet Khama is believed to have less confidence in the police to effectively combat crime.

His inability to control his military style impulses will be put to test when he will be required to show faith in the police service. Leadership imposes the burden of self-restraint on the leaders in instances like this. He certainly has more confidence in the soldiers.

Will Khama then deploy more armed troops to do civil policing? If he does so, which of course is a viable option, Khama must know that the increased presence of BDF personnel in the streets might create a ‘war mentality’ by militarizing the society and in the process rendering our streets even more unsafe.

Their increased presence may also make the gun a ‘status symbol’ since criminals may up their methods and become brutal in their attacks. The youth may also be exposed to the sight of weapons of war and may admire them and do everything to own one.

Another crisis could be increased lawlessness among the soldiers since their behaviour is such that they have the impression that the army is entitled to a degree of immunity from the norms and controls under which the rest of the society lives.

This is exactly why there are reports that some soldiers forced some foreigners to publicly perform steamy sessions after being rounded up.

How is Khama going to deal with the Zimbabwean crisis, which essentially requires him to deal with Mugabe? At home Khama does not condone being crossed and Mugabe does not have a soft heart for light skinned Euro-Africans. Is a tussle in the offing?

Taking over from the technocrat intellectual, diplomat and internationalist Mogae as the President of the Republic of Botswana, Khama will have one of the easiest jobs in world politics. (He doesn’t have to do much to surpass Mogae’s negligible achievements).

Surely he cannot claim to have been in the shadow of greatness ever since he was dragged into politics. He can claim that he inherited nothing worthy to be maintained and consolidated.

He can thus, upon his ascent, rough ride established public institutions and upon this Botswana could pass from the era of dependence on credible public institutions and democratized political culture to the era of reliance on personal whims of the leader.

For starters, it has been commented that Khama’s leadership is unpredictable but more than that it is a naked fact that Khama exempts himself from normal checks and balances by established and trustworthy state institutions in a way that depicts him as independent of the state and its agencies.

He has reduced the Ombudsman to a filthy busy bee. He has turned Parliament into a club of gigolos. Indeed the process of roughing institutions of governance has long started and all that is left is for him to finish them off.

In his present position as Vice President, his love for the politics of command may not be very worrying but it will certainly worry when he becomes the head of state and government.

Will Khama continue rubbishing off state institutions he is expected to shield? Khama may assume a more direct and personal role in policy decision making than his predecessors. While this is not worrisome in its entirety, it certainly requires individuals with sound values and respect for others and establishes state institutions.

Upon this a few questions arise: Will Khama allow the Vice presidency to be more powerful than the presidency office as is the case now? Will Khama maintain the vice presidency office in its present format- being headed by a minister without portfolio?

I maintain that in its present format, the responsibilities of the office do not justify its retention and for someone so keen to consolidate control of the government, it is possible the office might be discontinued and it will be justified though treacherous. If it is retained, it is highly likely that it will be ceremonial.

Will Khama grant concessions and favours to his juniors in the same way Mogae did for him and if not what would it mean of him? Is Khama not puzzled by what others consider as inaccurate public perception of him?

He should be if not, I am afraid. How will Khama deal with issues of corruption when he always clamors for special dispensation and in the process crushing laid down procedures and practices?

Under his presidency, what role does he see government institutions playing in the administration of the country? By boisterously ignoring genuine queries such as those relating to his piloting of BDF choppers, Khama has already commenced abuse of state power.

The fact that a powerful, over-confident, arch-manipulator and a cunning secretive magician will soon become our president should elicit unprecedented curiosity. His praise singers are excited that their master strategist is finally taking over.

As a result, politics in Botswana is invariably hostage to corrupted leaders, feckless bootlickers, rapacious leeches and the odd mixture of political prostitutes (opportunistic party switching or turn-coating) none of whom evince the slightest concern for the public welfare.

That is precisely why Batswana today believe that in order to make it in this world of dog eat dog, one has to become a Khama’s doll or puppet. This has led to loss of purpose and direction culminating in our absolute indifference and passivity like sheep to the slaughter.

The majority of the people behave like a raccoon which has been hypnotized by lighting and ready to be shot dead with the slightest resistance.

Critics, detractors and levelheaded spectators are developing instant pubic hair on their faces because Khama’s approach to the use of power is less avuncular, full of arrogance and all pervasive.

His erstwhile critics may be contemplating to tone down, panic into utter silence or alternatively join his proposed BDP traditional dance troupe. Skeptics hold the view that Khama has the ability to ruthlessly crush or sideline his opponents and those who question his leadership credentials; that his sensitivity to criticism borders on desperate paranoia.

Khama has done virtually nothing to refute these accusations except to say some people are jealous of him. In the absence of any assurances from him to the effect that his critics are not in danger, it is safe to assume that indeed his critics are an endangered species.

If Khama has chosen to remain silent on this matter, his team at the vice presidency plaza has come out to threaten his critics.

At one point they wrote a frigid and cold-blooded letter openly telling the Finance Permanent Secretary to toe the line. In another instance they warned citizens to be wary of this writer and advised people to feed the devil with a long spoon (ga o ora molelo le setsenwa, e re ga se kgotetsa molelo o eme ka dinao).

The maid always prepares her/his master’s favorite meals. Nigerians say ‘a man does not wander far from where his corn is roasting’. Medical professionals say ‘you are either pregnant or you are not, you can not be a little pregnant’.

Nelson Mandela in a speech in 1997 remarked that ‘there is a heavy responsibility for a leader elected unopposed. He may use that powerful position to settle scores with his detractors, to marginalize ….to get rid of them and surround themselves with yes-men and women.

His first duty is to ally the concerns of his colleagues to enable them to discuss freely without fear within internal structures’. So far indications are that Khama is keen to consolidate control over every aspect of government.

His supervision of other Cabinet Ministers has given him an opening to develop and consolidate his power. His writ of authority runs top-down crushing those who wonder aloud and in consequence an air of trepidation scares his colleagues, with only occasional and inarticulate protests at freedom squares where the culprits can claim to have been misquoted when he confronts them.

His distaste for disagreement and his non-negotiable approach to decision making means that his Cabinet will be a club of yes-men and women.
Machiavelli says, ‘upon this a question rises: whether it be better to be loved than feared or feared than loved.

It may be answered that one should wish to be both, but because it is difficult to unite them in one person, it is much safer to be feared than loved when one of the two, either must be dispensed with’.

Aspects of his record since he joined active politics make him a suspect and it shows that those who profess to love Khama do so because they fear him. And Khama is in the habit of making fun of his colleagues, even those older than him.

Interestingly, his colleagues cannot do the same to him not out of respect for his position but simply out of fear of offending him and thereby harming their political career. Sample this: Khama jokes that he intends to form a traditional dance band within the BDP whose lead players will include among others Cabinet Minister Nasha as the lead vocalist, Secretary General Kwelagobe as the lead dancer who should tumble up and down like scantly dressed young traditional dancers. On the surface, this was a pretty funny joke but on deeper scrutiny the joke has all the ingredients of a control-oriented master and metaphorically, the joke points to Khama’s love to direct others. His jokes always tend to belittle and shame his colleagues who then pretend to enjoy the fun.

A great and yet politically and economically vulnerable country like Botswana cannot be governed on the basis of love for Khama alone, reasoning must be paramount. Khama’s lively public image might have served his local political needs very well but the popularity may not suddenly translate into proficiency.

Can Khama translate his lively public image into a magic wand?
Khama will be required to wield power in a more conventional way, by building and fortifying a capable core base and constantly cultivating support among the business community.

He must strive to prop up his international profile by developing a soothing rather than a confrontational style of diplomacy. His style and approach to major challenges is certainly not suited to diplomats, foreign statesmen and international businesses that prefer open and rational discourse with possibilities for compromises.

His political charm on the local scene simply requires him to crack jokes (as when he refers to Minister Mfa as Kabila) and shame his opponents but this rousing chants politics would not command attention from a serious international audience. Botswana can no longer afford the luxury of politicking and political oratory.

Before being forceful, he will need to be brainy and must exhibit considerable intellectual curiosity and insight into global issues. Yet, Khama has the entire world on his side. His designer outfits, awesome and supreme self-confidence as well as his sense of authority would earn him respect among contemporaries.

His looks exude charm and project an image of sophistication, contemplation and of being shrewd, composed and confident, a mysterious as well as an alluring and dashing figure that could tower over President Bush. We wait curiously.

A little while ago a study in the USA probing qualities of great leaders revealed that great presidents were found to be low on straightforwardness; that they could bend the truth a little to suit their purpose; that they could bully or manipulate people to get their way and that they were often willing to fight if picked on.

Stubbornness and disagreeableness are an integral part of their living. Vice President Khama is not deficient in most of these attributes which most of us find offending. Thus, Khama may as well become the greatest Botswana President of all times.

Kenneth Dipholo
South Africa

*Kenneth Dipholo is Lecturer at the University of Botswana. He is currently studying at Wits University in South Africa


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