Former President Lt Gen Ian Khama’s path from the army barracks to the political freedom square was smoothed by bending and breaking rules to accommodate his love for flying.
When Khama was recruited from the army as commander of the Botswana Defence Force (BDF) to join politics, he extracted a promise from the then President Festus Mogae that he would be allowed to continue flying BDF aircrafts.
Khama later attracted the attention of the then Ombudsman, Lithebe Maine, by continuing to fly military aircrafts after he had retired from the army to join politics. Of his own volition, Maine instituted an investigation and in the report that he later produced said that it was not “advisable” for Khama to fly Botswana Defence Force aircraft when he was no longer a member of the army. The inadvisability came down to the difficulty of what action would be taken against Khama if he damaged such aircraft. In terms of the BDF Act, disciplinary action can only be taken against active members of the army in the event they damage BDF property. Maine’s argument was that as the law stood, the BDF commander would be unable to take action against Khama in case he damaged any one of the BDF aircraft because he was not a member of the army.
In the course of his investigation, Maine interviewed Khama who told him that part of the deal between him and President Festus Mogae to join politics was that he would continue to fly military aircraft. In Maine’s analysis of the BDF Act, such indulgence was incompatible with the law.
The then Permanent Secretary to the president, Molosiwa Selepeng issued a press statement that there was nothing wrong in Khama flying himself in a BDF aircraft because he was authorised to do so by the commander in chief, President Festus Mogae.
For most Botswana watchers, this was the tipping point where Botswana lost her innocence. President Mogae pursued what leadership ethicist, Terry Price, calls “exception making” – believing that the rules that govern what is right and what is wrong did not apply to him and Khama. FormerPresident Festus Mogae and his deputy lost their ability to distinguish between what is morally right and what is politically expedient. Indications are that this moral weakness festered over time and its full extent only became apparent following unconfirmed reports that before stepping down as president, Khama extracted a promise from Masisi that he would continue flying government aircrafts. Government legal drafters immediately rolled back their sleeves and fiddled withPresident’s (Pensions and Retirement) Act to allow Khama to continue flying official aircrafts even after retiring from the presidency.
Shortly before he stepped down as president, Parliament amended the President’s (Pensions and Retirement) Act seeking to allow retired president to continue using official aircrafts. At the time, Khama was receiving flying lessons from the late DIS pilot, Tino Phuthego who drilled him on how to fly the P100 million luxury PC-24 Jet which had been procured by former DIS Director General Isaac Kgosi. Khama used the DIS PC-12 aircraft for his flying lessons and it was whispered in the corridors of power that the DIS had procured the PC 24 to be used by Khama upon his retirement.
Khama’s apparent plan to continue indulging his love for flying even after retiring from the presidency was scuttled by his successor President Mokgweetsi Masisi who clipped his wings. A local newspaper that interviewed Khama reported that his relationship with Masisi “soured when Botswana Defence Force (BDF) Air Wing was instructed to stop letting Khama cockpit access to the military aircraft. Khama had had the full access to army aircraft for over 40 years since his father and first president of Botswana, Sir Seretse Khama appointed him the youngest one-star Brigadier at the age of 24.”
The American intelligence tracks Khama’s love for flying even further, back to his days as a young training officer of the then Police Mobile Unit. A Wikileaks secret cable throws light on how Khama’s personal love for aircrafts and flying may have influenced official decisions even back then.
Wikileaks reveals that in 1976 the US Department of State received Intelligence from Patrick Brown, then managing director of Beech Agency in South Africa, that “he had been informed of sales opportunity in Botswana and was prepared to move ahead with it.” It emerged at the time that interest in the Beech
Super King air aircraft was ‘a personal one by president’s son, Ian Khama, who is a qualified pilot. Brown said Ian Khama had previously contacted his agency in March 1975 and was given information on Super King Air. He was pleased at Ian Khama’s continuing interest.”
The Wikileaks cable quotes Brown as saying, “I wish to reiterate that Ian Khama’s interest at the moment is personal and there is no official decision to purchase aircraft we will continue to follow this potential sales opportunity and keep the department informed.”
A few days later, the then Permanent Secretary to the President, Phillip Steenkamp contacted Beech Johannesburg sales representatives. According to Wikileaks cables, Steenkamp took over from Khama as the official point of contact with Beech on the sale.
Khama’s love for aircrafts is captured in another Wikileaks report on an itinerary compiled by the American government ahead of Ian Khama’s visit in 1976.
“Khama is training officer for Botswana Police Mobile Unit (PMU), a 400-500 man para-military unit which is nearest entity here to an army. Khama, a Sandhurst graduate, is particularly interested in visiting West Point and Air Force Academy to observe officer training. He also wishes to see training of normal army infantry unit. Khama is the only trained multi-engine qualified Botswana pilot. He wants to visit FAA headquarters to discuss aviation in general and to visit an airport control tower to observe air traffic control procedures. He would also like to visit Wichita, Kansas to see small aircraft manufacture and Seattle to observe larger commercial aircraft assembly.”