This is sort of hard to imagine but the mental image that readers are invited to conjure up is of President Ian Khama sauntering into a “spot”, where the shebeen queen is spiking bills in between making half-serious physical-violence threats at resident career lager beggars. The president orders “the usual”, takes a really long swig from a chilled quart of Black Label, visibly enjoying the pleasant coldness cascading down his parched throat. He sets the bottle back down on the bare ground letting out a manly grunt, then shuffles to a nearby coin-operated pool table. Picking up the cue stick, he challenges one of the patrons to a game.
Granted, all that descriptive detail is made up but we are only trying to flesh up a skeleton cobbled together by an American newspaper.
“Mr. Khama, whose father Seretse Khama was the country’s first president, is a former general known for personally doling out blankets and food to the poor and dropping into local taverns unannounced to share a drink and game of pool with ordinary patrons,” reads a story in Christian Science Monitor.
Western journalists routinely cross the line between creative writing and reporting when the subject is Africa and this description appears to be one such instance. However, those who laugh off the description will certainly react very differently to other parts of the article, including the blurb which states that “as Botswana’s citizens freely cast their votes in today’s presidential election, critics warn incumbent Khama has a darker side.”
The Christian Science Review was in Botswana in the week that the nation went to the polls and its reporter followed Khama to Serule where he addressed a political rally. One of the issues that he spoke about was of unethical journalists who publish lies “to spoil our party.”
In that same article, Edgar Tsimane, a Motswana journalist living in South Africa as a refugee, is quoted as saying that Khama “embodies the darker side of the country’s seemingly staid politics. The wildly popular president is a proud leader who set up a powerful spy agency, has appointed military cronies to top government posts, and has an increasingly acerbic relationship with the country’s rowdy press.”
Christian Science Monitor is one of three international newspapers that launched an unprecedented attack on Khama in the same week.
A day earlier, Washington Post ran a story by Amy Poteete of Concordia University with a question headline: “Does Botswana deserve its reputation as a stable democracy?” The answer the article suggests is a resounding “No!”
“Developments in the run-up to the Oct. 24 elections have revealed a significant gap between Botswana’s reputation and reality. The campaign took a tasty turn at the end of July, when charismatic opposition politician Gomolemo Motswaledi died in a suspicious automobile accident.
In September, another opposition politician was abandoned for dead in a ditch but survived; he claims to have been kidnapped and tortured by agents of the Directorate of Intelligence and Security Services. Other opposition politicians and activists complain about threatening phone calls and being followed. Some have been attacked but got away while others have moved to protect themselves,” writes Poteete who has studied Botswana’s political system over a long period of time.
Poteete notes that under Khama, the composition of the Botswana Democratic Party has changed. “With the old factions marginalised, Khama has promoted members of his entourage ÔÇö former military colleagues, business associates, close family friends and relatives who followed him into politics ÔÇö and recruited new members united in their professed loyalty to Khama. Critics depict these newcomers as “tenderpreneurs” who entered politics with the hope of material gains,” she wrote in Washington Post which, alongside The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal is one of the leading daily newspapers in the United States.
Khama’s party went on to win the general election but she sees trouble ahead: “If the BDP wins a narrow legislative victory, it will be vulnerable to future splits and individual defections.”
Poteete is not just a scholar who managed to put her views across via one of the leading international newspapers – the US government thinks well enough of her to turn to her when it wants in-depth analysis of Botswana politics. A month before the immediate past US Ambassador to Botswana, Michelle Gavin, took up her post in 2011, Poteete made a presentation for a briefing seminar for her at the State Department in Washington D.C. The title of the presentation was “Political Pressures arising from Structural and Institutional Changes in Botswana and their Implications.” Three years before, she had offered similar service to Gavin’s predecessor, Steve Nolan. The title of Poteete’s PhD dissertation was “Disaggregating State and Society: Accounting for Patterns of Tenure Change in Botswana, 1975 ÔÇô 1996.”
The Guardian of London also piled on Khama stating that “To his critics, the retired army general … is an ascetic and increasingly authoritarian figure with a particular antipathy towards journalists and a callous disregard for the Kalahari Bushmen, who, he says, have an ‘extinct’ and backward way of life.” This would mark the first time that the paper, whose online edition was the third most widely read in the world as of June 2012, has gone to critics whom it quotes at length.
The attack on Khama is a first because the president has always received excellent press from western publications which enjoy better access to him than local ones. The Wikileaks cables from the US embassy in Gaborone say that Khama “has yet to (and may never) develop a close relationship with the local media that would help him communicate his goals in a more informal manner; he tends to disdain them as unprofessional and instead focuses on international media, like CNN, the New York Times, and the Financial Times, with all of whom he has developed a positive rapport.”
Worried about what the relationship between Khama and the local private media might do the country’s international image, the Botswana Confederation of Commerce, Industry and Manpower has been quietly trying to mediate a truce. At this point there is no success to speak of and that may partly have to do with the fact that some alleged (and yet unnamed) racial supremacists have hijacked this exercise for what would appear to be mean-spirited self-indulgence that supersedes national interest. Three weeks ago, the chairperson of the Editors Forum, Spencer Mogapi, asserted in the Botswana Gazette that some of the government officials at the said talks have subjected private media representatives to verbal abuse “bordering on racist contempt.”
The recent press suggests that there may be another damage control exercise to carry out in Boston, London and Washington. Khama’s depiction might colour western governments’ estimation of him. As confidential documents show, such estimation has also been favourable. Authors of the Wikileaks cables (US diplomats based in Gaborone at the time) were themselves impressed with the president’s performance, writing that while he “may never morph into a natural politician, he clearly possesses the courage and conviction that mark a true leader.” They also sought to characterise him as one of their own, noting, “The President was not raised as a typical Motswana and still prefers English to Setswana in personal conversation and public speeches. Hence, while his role as paramount chief of the Bamangwato should have exposed him to Batswana cultural traditions, his overriding political and cultural influences have been Western in nature.”