As he bows out of the presidency next year, Lieutenant General Ian Khama thought he could talk up an institution that he is a part of by accident of birth: “The institution of bogosi fosters peace, law and order and our cultural traditions through its customary courts and coordination of community initiatives.”
However, the public record suggests that Khama, who is the supreme traditional leader (Kgosi) of the Bangwato, knows precious little about bogosi ÔÇô traditional leadership. Born of a white mother and black father, the president is culturally western and according to Wikileaks cables, is more comfortable speaking English than Setswana in private settings. For his education, Khama first went to Southern Rhodesia (present-day Zimbabwe) and later Swaziland. Thereafter, he would attend the elite Sandhurst Military Academy in the United Kingdom. None of those institutions teach the history of Tswana tribes and Khama’s own tenuous link with Setswana culture means that he would not have learnt anything about bogosi. On such basis, he should be the last person to describe the institution but somehow sentiments that he wants to associate himself with appeared in his state-of-the-nation address.
If Khama had studied Setswana history, he would know that main the reason why there are so many Tswana tribes is due to disputes over bogosi. Ngwato, the titular founder of Khama’s own tribe, broke away from an established one (Bakwena) with a group of followers after one such dispute. Such disputes occurred almost always within a state of war when there would have been total breakdown in law and order. Khama is himself a direct beneficiary of a coup that was masterminded by Bakwena leader, Kgosi Sechele I. Having first helped place Macheng on the Bangwato throne in 1857, Sechele helped Khama III (President Khama’s great-grandfather) overthrow him in 1872.
The most high profile bogosi dispute in recent times was between two descendants of Bakwena’s Sechele I: Kgosi Kgari Sechele and one of his cousins, Kealeboga Sechele. While no weapons of war were used, at its height the dispute divided the tribe deeply. To date there are still disputes over bogosi and peace is the last thing that is fostered when such incidents occur. Enmity between subjects also threatens law and order.
Personally, Khama has done a lot of harm to the bogosi institution. Rightly determining politics and bogosi to be like chalk and cheese, there was a strong sentiment in the immediate pre-independence era to not mix the two. The thinking was simple enough: a politician, who is partisan, can’t build bridges the way a kgosi, which is non-partisan, can. It was on such basis that Bathoen Gaseitsiwe stepped down as Bangwaketse kgosi when he joined politics. Khama upset the apple cart because when he became Serowe North MP in 1998, he also remained kgosi.
Taking cue from him, Dikgosi Tawana II (Batawana) and Lotlaamoreng II (Barolong) also went into party politics while retaining their bogosi. It has been alleged that the opposition Umbrella for Democratic Change has actively courted Batlokwa’s Kgosi Puso Gaborone. Ahead of the 2019 general election, the ruling Botswana Democratic Party has recruited Mmusi Kgafela, who is the younger brother to the derecognized Bakgatla tribal leader, Kgosi Kgafela II. As a senior member of the royal family, Mmusi Kgafela plays a prominent role in tribal affairs.
Contrary to what Khama said, a situation where someone can be a kgosi today and a politician the next day is unlikely to foster peace as well as law and order. Such a person is also unlikely to foster cultural traditions through the customary court because his political opponents cannot realistically expect him to treat them fairly when he adjudicates disputes they are party to.