Sunday, May 28, 2023

Ian Khama – Newsmaker of the year

For young boys and girls frolicking and traipsing across the streets of Old Naledi, their idle moment has just got substantially more interesting. You can tell that from their collective demeanor, which has shifted from disinterest to something approaching mild hysteria: suddenly, there seems to be an awful lot of nudging and pointing and frantic, whispered conversation in which the phrase “it’s him” figures heavily.

Riding a sports bicycle, clad in Botswana Democratic Party (BDP) colours, the object of their fascination slows down, offers a wave and nods in the direction of scores of men and women standing outside their yards. Some are cheering him on, a few are booing.

The reaction Lt Gen Ian Khama attracted while pedaling along the dusty streets of Old Naledi, hitherto an opposition strong hold, on the eve of the 2009 elections, is a metaphor for the impact he has had on the course of Botswana’s history during the year.

Some times the biggest noise was applause – some times it was booing, but Ian Khama was always at the centre of it all.

When the A-Team faction of the BDP was defeated during the party’s Central Committee elections last year, Khama was unanimously voted President of the party.

Political watchers, however, branded him the biggest loser. Hardly surprising. Not since Ian Khama rose to the helm of the ruling party had the venerated organization experienced the drama leading to last year’s BDP congress. In the run up to the most contentious BDP national congress in years, the main talking point was the standoff between President Ian Khama and long time stalwart Daniel Kwelagobe.

In tracking the genesis of the issue, it appears that in the months leading up to his ascendancy to the leadership of the country, Khama mapped out a strategy to address the Kwelagobe and Mompati Merafhe bitter feud for control of the party. Having been chairman since the bloody contest against then incumbent Ponatshego Kedikilwe in Gantsi in 2003, the incoming president was alive to the factional dynamics at play in the ruling party. Though he had vanquished Kedikilwe, Khama knew that followers of the cause represented by Kedikilwe were still many in the ranks of the party.

In his bid for the chairmanship, Khama had enjoyed the active backing of the faction spawned by Merafhe, who had failed in numerous attempts to wrest control of the party from the grip of the Kedikilwe-Kwelagobe alliance. When he announced his bid for the chair, Khama was the only man strong enough to defeat the alliance. The entry of Khama into the race also split the once formidable alliance as some followers, attracted by his heritage, bolted from the camp and took up the cudgels on his behalf.

It did not escape close observers of the contest that, unlike in the past when Kedikilwe and Kwelagobe had fought together as comrades in arms, this time around, Kwelagobe was absent from Kedikilwe’s corner. As Kedikilwe waged a valiant but ultimately futile battle against a rival flush with resources, family name and the backing of then state President Festus Mogae, the only thing he could count on was a gaggle of committed activists and his courage of conviction that his was a worthy cause.

The Gantsi congress not only moved Khama a step towards complete control of the party, but also resulted in his backers sailing into Central Committee positions on his coattails. After years in the wilderness, Merafhe and his group were finally in the pound seats. Of the erstwhile Kedikilwe-Kwelagobe alliance, the only survivor of the routing was the latter in his position as secretary general. The fact that he returned unopposed was instructive. To Kedikilwe’s hardcore base, the only explanation was that Kwelagobe had an understanding with Khama. This theory is made all the more plausible by an examination of Kwelagobe’s political origins.

It is widely known that Kwelagobe was given his break by Botswana’s founding president. From then onwards, Kwelagobe’s star rose as Seretse Khama’s prot├®g├®. Under the mentorship of the president, he quickly rose to the position of deputy secretary general of the party. When Seretse Khama died in 1980, and Quett Masire ÔÇô who was then secretary general ÔÇô assumed the presidency, Kwelagobe stepped into the breach. At the time of Seretse Khama’s death, Kwelagobe was minister in the president’s office.

With the demise of his mentor, Kwelagobe became the most powerful politician in the country after Masire due to his twin portfolios of secretary general and minister in the presidency. It is believed that all along he remained close to the Khama family.

When, in 1998, the heir to Seretse’s legacy finally departed the army, it is believed Kwelagobe was instrumental in his decision to join politics. The keeper of the flame of the Khama political dynasty had done his duty. That is why, when forced into a choice between his old comrade Kedikilwe and the progeny of his mentor, Kwelagobe had gone with the latter. Throughout the time Khama paid his dues as vice president to Mogae, Kwelagobe was considered a key family retainer and the two men enjoyed a special relationship cultivated through years of mutual loyalty and a common purpose to sustain the Khama political heritage.

In the last party congress before Khama became head of state, Kwelagobe chose his home village of Molepolole to pass on the mantle to Jacob Nkate. However, it would appear that behind the scenes, the two men had been plotting to secure Kwelagobe’s position as party chairman to replace Khama. In that way, Kwelagobe would retire from the demanding post of secretary general but not leave frontline party politics. In acknowledgment of his years of sacrifice to the party and loyalty to the Khamas, he would stay on in the less involving role of chairman.
Seeking to achieve consensus for his plan, Khama lobbied Merafhe and Nkate to support the proposal. Everything went seamlessly, and 27 years after first occupying the position of secretary general for which the party gave a gift of 27 goats as a token of appreciation, Kwelagobe was secure in his new role.

But things were not as straightforward as they appeared. It is argued that knowing that his imminent rise to the presidency had already triggered jostling for the post of deputy; Khama had devised a plan to keep the lid on any acrimony that could arise. The two serious contenders were Kwelagobe and Merafhe. Knowing their history of rivalry, a delicate balancing act was required. Unbeknownst to Kwelagobe, by lobbying for the chairmanship, he was smoothing up things for Khama to appoint Merafhe as his vice. Whilst some of Kwelagobe’s supporters were celebrating his stage-managed occupancy of the chairmanship scenting the vice presidency, Khama had other ideas. By the time he unveiled Merafhe as the chosen one, the die was cast. Both men enjoyed a position of status though Kwelagobe’s was without the material benefits and pomp that went with the vice presidency. Imperfect as it were, the balancing act by Khama had gone some way to appease the long term rivals and their backers.

It is precisely this nerve-wracking attempt at a balancing act that is attributed to the dramatic events leading to last year’s congress. Those who profess to have the ear and counsel of the president say he has been looking for a way to extricate himself and the party from the Merafhe and Kwelagobe rivalry. In his view, the two men had always taken centre-stage during the mid-term of the Masire era and for the entire duration of Mogae’s presidency. Khama was not prepared for the same.

Ever the tactician, Khama’s opportunity came earlier last year when both men expressed interest to contest the position of party chair at the forthcoming congress in July. Though Merafhe already had the vice presidency, his bid was a tactical move to shore up his position. On the other hand, for Kwelagobe it was a move meant to keep him in the leadership of the organization which he considered his umbilical cord. With the bids declared, Khama revealed his masterstroke. He asked the two men not to contest. His argument was that any contestation would let the genie of factionalism out of the bottle in an election year when he would be seeking his first mandate from the electorate. Fully aware of the lobby lists that would rally behind the two men, Khama also moved on them. The forthcoming congress would be the stage for a return bout between Nkate and the mesmeric challenger he had narrowly defeated two years earlier.

Demonstrating how well thought-out his strategy was, the president ventured that another grudge encounter between the two would affect their fortunes in the general elections. His argument was that Nkate’s first priority should be his Ngami constituency where he was under siege from a coalition of BAM and BCP.

On the other hand, Gomolemo Motswaledi should channel his energies to the opposition-held Gaborone Central. The same logic was applied to other significant actors vying for deputy secretary general. In Kanye North, Kentse Rammidi had to focus on taking the constituency from the opposition, and in Francistown South, Wynter Mmolotsi had to defend the area from the opposition. The president had been selling his formula to key actors. Merafhe, Nkate and Rammidi conceded to the president’s overtures.

Kwelagobe refused. He invoked his constitutional right to contest and the principle to allow party members to choose their leaders. Not being members of the party high command, emissaries were sent to sell the idea to Motswaledi and Mmolotsi. Both men balked at the idea and, invoking the party constitution, declared that they would not retreat from the coming contest. The president would not give up. On the eve of the BDP National Council, he convened a meeting of the Central Committee and the Parliamentary Caucus at which the plan was presented. It is at that meeting where Khama reportedly revealed another ace. Anyone who contested the executive positions of chairman, secretary general, treasurer and their deputies would not be considered for a cabinet post. According to the president, holding dual positions was too much work for a single individual.

Read differently, it was a carrot and onion tactic. Because there is no remuneration attached to party office, the logic was those who rejected his proposal and opted for party office would starve. Those who heeded him and opted for cabinet would eat. It is reliably learnt that between the times Kwelagobe was first approached on the subject, immense pressure was brought to bear on him using his traditional allies, including business wheeler dealer and party treasurer Satar Dada.

As he remained steadfast, representations were also made to Kwelagobe’s family. The refrain was consistent; if Kwelagobe gives up his bid for chairman he would eat and if not, he would starve. All types of inducement were dangled before him, but he refused to bite. It is said that despite being presented with the ultimatum of party or cabinet on National Council eve, Kwelagobe astonished those in attendance by revealing that he had already conveyed word to the president not to be considered for cabinet after the October polls in order to devote his time to the party. When Khama responded that making a choice between party and cabinet could not wait for October and had to be made soon, Kwelagobe followed his political instinct and settled to remain with the party.

When the BDP went to the 2009 party congress, the battle lines where drawn between Khama and his strategy on the one hand and Kwelagobe and his Barata-phathi faction who called themselves defenders of the Constitution on the other hand. Kwelagobe led Barata-Phathi faction to a resounding victory. Kwelagobe‘s win was the culmination of a tense and divisive national campaign which pitted him against Khama in a bruising battle that saw the BDP tittering on the brink of collapse.

And when banished BDP Secretary General, Gomolemo Motswaledi challenged his suspension in court towards the end of 2009, Khama was the target.
Motswaledi stated in his court papers that Khama abused his position as BDP leader and acted in bad faith when he suspended him from the party. Motswaledi said that his suspension from the party was a slight of hand by Khama to neutralize the rival Barata-phathi faction that hitherto was controlling the BDP Central Committee.

He explained that at the 2009 BDP congress in Kanye, “all but one of those elected were in the grouping commonly referred to as Barata-phathi”. And that Khama, “in terms of Article 30.5, appointed additional members, all of whom were aligned to the grouping associated with him”.

“The result was that of the 18 members, the Barata-phathi had a solid 9 supporters and the grouping aligned with Khama had a solid 8 supporters, and one member was not aligned. (The effect of my suspension is to disturb the balance of alignment within the Central Committee and was, in my contention, a deliberate objective of the second respondent” (Khama).
Motswaledi argued in his affidavit that Khama “misused his power… to try to tip the balance of power in the Central Committee”.

Reeling from the bruising central committee election campaign, and the subsequent court battle, the BDP seemed easy pickings for the opposition in the national election that was only a few weeks away.

BDP turned to Khama, to weave his magic and save the party which was on slippery ground. For weeks on end, Khama was beamed to thousands of living rooms around the country during Btv prime time news; sitting around bonfires with tribesmen trading oral traditions. This was compassionate Khama in full plumage, displaying his caring credentials for all to see. He rode on his chopper to address rallies in BDP marginal constituencies, jumped on his sports bicycle for a last minute campaign in Old Naledi, a Botswana National Front (BNF) stronghold, and gate crashed a Botswana Congress Party (BCP) political rally, stealing the show from the party Vice President, Dr Gobotswang. Suddenly, a lot of voters in opposition strongholds were wearing “vote BDP” T-shirts and shouting the party slogans. When the election ballot papers were finally counted, there was no doubt that Khama had single handedly won the elections for the BDP.

Both a cult personality and a hate figure by equal measure, no leader has ever polarized Botswana politics as much as Khama. While under former presidents, Quett Masire and Ketumile Masire, most Batswana were ambivalent to politics; under Khama no one is neutral. Discussion on all Botswana’s development initiatives, legislation or changes in the BDP often begins or ends with the name of Khama.

This has poisoned national debates on Constitutional amendments, the appointments of specially elected Members of Parliament or even issues as trivial as new initiatives at improving Botswana’s football.

He is one of few leaders who have managed to be both a beacon of hope and a lightning rod of controversy. Either you like him or you don’t. But you can not ignore him.

Cabinet ministers, who should be candidates for The Sunday Standard Newsmaker of the Year, have been so overshadowed by Khama’s omnipresent style that they have been reduced to a bunch of “mini-mes”, happy to echo his master’s voice before stepping back into the shadows. It is widely believed that most have been bashing the media, defending extra-judicial executions, and threatening to withdraw advertising from newspapers just to please Khama whose caprice they have to navigate.

This is all part of an emerging trend that Botswana is rolling back its democracy. Year on year scrutiny of Botswana’s political and economic governance indicators has revealed an uneven pattern of performance with an increasing show of decline in the scores evidenced from both local and international standards bearers.

The trend has been found disturbing and worrying since it implies that the country’s image as the “shy shape” of good governance in Africa could soon be relegated to the realm of some enviable past. And Khama is the face of this new Botswana.

Since he first pronounced that “I am a democrat” during his inaugural presidential speech, Khama’s rehabilitation as a leading politician was easing effortlessly ahead. As a champion of democracy, he was a class act.
A recent Afrobarometer report states that “the BDP has institutionalized its parliamentary caucus such that its decisions are binding on its members of parliament, irrespective of how their constituencies feel on the matter.

Although he was latter pardoned, the recall of Pono Moatlhodi, following what was dubbed “undisciplined behaviour” and utterances that “brought the party into disrepute” showed the determination of the BDP to silence critical thought. Botsalo Ntuane, a vibrant backbencher, was also forced to retract statements he made regarding stringent liquor regulations. Kabo Morwaeng’s public condemnation of suggestions that Central Committee elections should not be held in an election year drew the wrath of the party.”

The Afrobarometer paper further states that, “there have also been instances where Radio Botswana and Botswana television (Btv) programmes such as Masa-a-sele and Matlhoaphage were not aired by government-owned media because they were alleged to be critical of government. The Media Practitioners Bill, which will give government greater control over the media, sailed through parliament on 10th December 2008 without debate.

It was against the background of this bubbling broth of assault against free speech and the adventure of army officers into politics that Afrobarometer carried out its survey.
“Given these concerns, how do ordinary Batswana feel about freedom of speech and of the press? Batswana overwhelmingly showed their support for media and individual freedoms. This suggests that freedom of expression- both personal and collective- is regarded by Batswana as an essential attribute of a functioning democracy. Despite recent government attempts to suppress the media and individual freedoms, Batswana have remained firm in their commitment to these freedoms,” stated the Afrobarometer survey report.

With the establishment of the Department of National Security, which was granted a budget higher than the police service, there is also a sense that Khama has a power which he exercises in secret, with no accountability, in what some would regard as an arrogant and autocratic way. He may still be loved, but he is also feared. Really, really feared.
Khama’s presidency has spawned a new phobia among journalists, politicians, lawyers and NGO activists in Botswana.

Anxious their phones may have been tapped by the Directorate of Intelligence Services (DIS), most are living in a nervous country and will not discuss important business on the phones or in public places. Fear and suspicion have become part of everyday life and a drink in a bar with friends or a conversation on the phone has become security issues.

The Afrobarometer survey states that, “there are perceptions that since assuming office in 2008, President Khama has issued more directives compared to his predecessors. Although it is still early to be conclusive about his style of rule, these directives suggest that he has a propensity to act alone and rule by decree. Be that as it may, Afrobarometer survey indicates that Batswana totally reject one-man rule, whereby a president abolishes parliament and elections and rules on his own. In fact, Batswana are more inclined to reject one-man rule than any of the other forms of non democratic regime. Distaste for one man rule has risen somewhat over the years, climbing from 86 percent in 1999 to 92 percent in 2008.”

The survey further stated that “perceptions on rule by the military have come into public view since retired army officers joined politics.

This has fuelled perceptions that they are making inroads into the civil service. In his road map to govern this country, President Lt Gen Ian Khama indicated that there can be no democracy without discipline. The Vice President Lt Gen Merafhe is on record as saying that he agrees with the president that if people fail to listen to them in addressing the “moral decay in society” they would “borrow some disciplinary measures from the military” to instil discipline.

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