A quad-biking enthusiast, former president Ian Khama was indulging that sporting passion in the Makgadikgadi Pans last Wednesday but with an unlikely group of companions. In terms of the Presidents Pension and Retirement Benefits Act, former presidents are entitled to state-provided bodyguards – some of whom are elite commandoes seconded from the Botswana Defence Force. The sitting president determines the number of bodyguards that are allocated to a former president and the Director General of the Directorate of Intelligence Services and Security, identifies and deploys the bodyguards.
So far, the two DISS heads have been officers who have operational knowledge and experience of what this monumental task involves.A picture that Khama posted to his Facebook page (“Seretse Khama Ian Khama”) on Wednesday following the Makgadikgadi excursion shows him flanked by six men, three on either side. All seven have mounted quad bikes which appear to be about to take off. The picture is captioned: “Riding quad bikes escorted by private security!” It is a seemingly simple statement but one that communicates an awful lot in both words and a rarely used punctuation mark. Khama himself rarely uses the exclamation mark and on his Facebook page, you would have to scroll down to August 12, 2020 to find his most recent use of it. Even then, there is nothing eyebrow-raising about using that mark for World Elephant Day! However, there is with using it in the manner he did with regard to his use of private security.
The comment board shows that some people made the same conclusion. “I like the private security part!!,” wrote Sye Tshekedi. (Ending her gushing comment with string of six smiley-face emojis blowing a kiss, Daphne La-Pruu Balisi liked something else: “Yhoooo dats a top notch bike check the shoes…Ski hle o ija bonana.”) Most importantly, the caption raises the most obvious question: if the Presidents Pension and Retirement Benefits Act states in explicit terms that a former president should be provided with government security, why is a former president trundling over dusty pans in a quad surrounded by private security?In answer to the latter question, Khama tells Sunday Standard that “the government security provided by DISS as per the law has been depleted overtime in order to degrade my personal security.”
The other revelation he makes is that recently “they” meaning officials at the Office of the President) took away quad bikes “that they have provided all these years when I go to the pans or Khawa for example.” A small, gloriously sand-duned village in the Kgalagadi desert, Khawa is the staging ground for the hugely popular Khawa Dune Challenge and Cultural Festival that was founded by Khama himself when he was still president. He has also been a contestant in the Challenge since its inception, winning virtually all the races he participated in.Khama says that as a result of effort to keep on downgrading the security around him in terms of the number of bodyguards and equipment they need to do their job effectively, “I have had to provide for myself with private security.”
He adds that the quad bikes in the Facebook picture are all private “with some coming from well-wishers.”He believes that the relevant government officials (who would be President Mokgweetsi Masisi and the DISS Director General, Peter Magosi) are about to further remove more of his bodyguards.“They have removed about seven to eight personnel in the last two years, with more to follow I hear,” says the former president, adding that he is never consulted when personnel changes are made or equipment taken away.
In the 1980s, Winnie Mandela, the wife of the Nelson Mandela, who was liberation-struggle stalwart in her own right, formed what was called the Mandela United Football Club, an amateur football club that never played a single match. The team would later be revealed to be a vigilante group whose members acted as Winnie’s bodyguards. It has been reported in the press that Khama’s own football team (called Super XI) is actually a cover for a militia-like structure that acts as Khama’s bodyguards. The former president says those allegations are untrue. While still in place, the team is currently inactive due to the COVID-19 restrictions.Going back to when Khama left office in 2018, his personal security has always been a thorny issue and one that became thornier last year when he decided to leave the Botswana Democratic Party. The latter was co-founded by his father (founding president, Sir Seretse Khama) and on leaving it, Khama founded his own – the Botswana Patriotic Front. Khama is also the supreme traditional leader (Kgosi) of the Bangwato, whose tribal capital is the village of Serowe.
At a point where it became evident that Khama was on his way out, he called a public meeting at the Lady Khama Hall in Serowe (which is named after his mother) that was mostly attended by subjects who also happened to be BDP members. One of them, who was party of the high table, asked of Khama: “Are you safe?”Beyond the surface intrigue, this is a hugely complex issue and one with monumental implications. By necessity, bodyguards occupy the very private space of a protectee principal – precisely because they have to ensure that such space is safe for occupation. On the other hand, principals are also understandably very protective of their private space and want to allow only those they can trust within it. DISS bodyguards are civil servants who take orders from their superiors and it so happens that at this point in time, Khama doesn’t see eye to eye with those superiors. Understandably, he doesn’t feel comfortable about having bodyguards assigned to him by his enemies and feels more comfortable with private bodyguards. However, whatever his feelings about DISS bodyguards, they necessarily have to occupy his private space to ensure that such space is safe for occupation.
This saga has evolved to a point where Khama is protected by one group that he trusts and another that he doesn’t trust. These groups have to work together because they protect the same principal and for them to work together well, trust is vital. Good sources tell Sunday Standard that there is dissension in the ranks of the two groups that protect the former president. Ironically, a security threat borne out of mistrust has been the result. Sources close to Khama allege that there is very strong belief with his circle that the head of his DISS security is conniving with his superiors at the DISS headquarters to undermine Khama’s private security. This is said to be the reason why Khama prefers private security. It is useful to remember that this intrigue happens against the background of even more mind-boggling intrigue – continual assassination plots against Masisi and one of Khama’s bodyguards being arrested at a national BDP meeting last year for illegal possession of what turned out to be a toy gun.
At a more substantive level, this is not just a manifestation of what is now publicly seen as and referred to as the Khama-Masisi feud but a glimpse of what the future looks like. If there can be so much drama between people who grew up together in Extension 5, Gaborone, belonged to the same party for decades and whose fathers worked together, how much worse will the situation get when there is a change of government? That both Khama and Masisi have been able to invoke the law when making their respective cases provides evidence of where the problem lies.The issue is bigger than the personalities involved and portends an even more dramatically problematic future. During the 2019 general election, the Umbrella for Democratic Change president, Duma Boko, complained about the treatment that he got from Masisi with regard to his plans to use air transportation in his electoral campaign.
Supposing President Boko is vindictive, what would stop him from allocating former president Masisi only one bodyguard? A President Boko (or whoever else) could also exercise similar prerogative with regard to other accommodations spelled out in the Presidents Pension and Retirement Benefits Act. There can be no doubt that the presidential prerogative provided for in this Act is partly responsible for the problem between Khama and Masisi. For what it’s worth though, the silver lining in the very dark cloud currently hanging over Botswana and the presidency is that this law is imperfect and in desperate need of amendment.