If your name starts with a K and you have a Dr. title, are a big-shot politician from Serowe and happen to disagree with the sitting president over a couple of issues, then there is pretty good chance that one or two paragraphs in the state-of-the-nation address (SONA) will be wholly dedicated to you.
The trailblazer was Dr. Kenneth Koma, the veteran opposition politician who founded the Botswana National Front (BNF) in 1965. Koma may have had his weaknesses ÔÇô and there were many, but he built the BNF from the ashes of the Botswana People’s Party into the on-off political powerhouse it is today. Once when contributing to a parliamentary debate, then Palapye MP, Boyce Sebetela, said that members of Botswana’s opposition should be applauded for resisting the urge to “go to the bush.” If any such thing had ever happened, Koma would have had to greenlight it and there was actually a time when the BNF considered going down that route. Then South Africa was still an apartheid state and freedom fighters were, on the basis of similar political ideology, aligned with the BNF. At tremendous risk to life and limb, some party members harboured underground operatives and weapons for South African liberation movements. After successive losses at the ballot box, a section of young Turks in the BNF began agitating for an armed struggle. They already had access to an arsenal of weaponry in safe houses across the country, they reasoned, and so it wouldn’t be too hard to wage an armed struggle. Koma overruled them, the BNF continued (and continues) to suffer humiliation at the ballot box and alongside Mauritius, Botswana continued to hold the record of most peaceful nation in Africa. It is likely that Sebetela, who was a cabinet minister at the time, was fully aware of this historical perspective.
During his administration, President Festus Mogae offered Koma a presidential award – which was historic in that it would have been the first time an opposition leader was so honoured. The award, which had recently been given to accomplished chorister and future founding president of the Botswana Movement for Democracy, Gomolemo Motswaledi, would have been conferred on Koma at the Independence Day celebrations. Koma declined and Mogae used the opportunity of his SONA two months later to excoriate “you Mr. Koma” for snubbing the honour. The text of the speech didn’t contain “You Mr. Koma” but it was a measure of Mogae’s ire that it was ad-libbed into it. This was the first time that an individual’s conduct became part of this premier address. When the issue became public football, BNF’s spokesman at the time and present-day Molepolole North MP, Mohammad Khan, would defend Koma by saying that he (Koma) had done a lot for Botswana to be honoured with an award for choir conductors.
Both Koma and Motswaledi are late now, one of natural causes, the other of unnatural causes. Mogae and his successor, Dr. Ian Khama, are now out of office. In 2018, SONA was delivered by President Mokgweetsi Masisi who, while never mentioning Dr. Khama by name, certainly referred to him in the speech.
“Mr. Speaker, Batswana are all aware that the transition from the previous administration has not been as smooth as expected,” Masisi said towards the end of a very long speech.
Historically a trailblazer of dubious pedigree, Khama becomes the second person and the first president to be mentioned in a SONA in unflattering terms. As a sign of the times, Mogae’s similar mention of Koma in his was over as bothersome an annoyance as the snubbing of a presidential award. Masisi’s mention of Khama was in the broader context of a national security emergency that some see taking shape in the not-too-distant horizon. The current feud would certainly have been on the Masisi’s mind when he stated: “As a nation that is well known for peaceful co-existence and tolerance for diversity of cultures, we have to continue to work together to achieve our common goals.”
A day after Masisi’s address, Khama issued a press statement contradicting what the address said about this feud. Historically, the first official rebuttal to the president’s address comes from the Leader of the Opposition and not a former president who belongs to the same party as the sitting president.