Monday, September 28, 2020

Is Khama all that?

Many Batswana who are trying to figure out the real Ian Khama from his many smiling postures usually find themselves inundated with choice.

Those who have watched him break ranks with other SADC leaders to take a stand against the Robert Mugabe regime are tempted to see the president as a champion of democracy. Many others know him as a man of the people who has attained a cultish popularity.

That is the Ian Khama who has been 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 Ian Khama in full plumage, displaying his caring credentials for all to see.
A recent survey by Afrobarometer, however, suggests that while all eyes were glued to the image of the television screen, a new Ian Khama has been emerging. In the ten months since he took over the country’s presidency from Festus Mogae, he has attracted controversy for appointing retired army officers to Cabinet and senior positions in the civil service. He has also been accused of dictatorship and muzzling free speech.

Since he first pronounced that “I am a democrat” during his inaugural speech, Khama’s rehabilitation as a leading politician was easing effortlessly ahead. As a champion of democracy, he was a class act.

True, he was lucky to arrive at the Office of the President just as Robert Mugabe; the pariah president of Zimbabwe was having his way with SADC leaders. It was Khama who put the backbone into the opposition against the Mugabe regime.

Early stumbles by his administration over some appointment of retired army officers caused a firestorm in the civil service. Most Khama loyalists, however, dismissed the controversial appointments as just a normal part of staffing a new administration.

Khama’s halo, however, slipped when his cabinet tabled the Mass Media Bill and the BDP Central Committee started clamping down on free speech.
The 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.

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 instill discipline.

Although there are intimations that military style rule could be invoked, Batswana strongly detest military rule. When asked if the military could be brought in as a form of government, 89 percent rejected it, the highest level ever recorded in Botswana. The presence of former military leaders in high office clearly does not mean that Batswana would accept military rule as an alternative to democracy.

The Afrobarometer survey report suggests that the Khama honeymoon is over and he may have reached a tipping point in attitude that could signal a tidal wave of negativity down the road.
The current economic recession, however, may present Khama with his toughest challenge yet. His economic recovery action plan, which has been welcomed by big businesses, has drawn criticism from some quarters
First, because the inputs for the country’s industry are imported from South Africa, so the budget will stimulate South Africa’s economy more than the Botswana economy. Besides, it does not really address the three most pressing issues identified by Batswana.
Afrobarometer has a round up of some of the issues that are creating a negative feeling going into the New Year. These include unemployment, poverty and rising food prices.

A recent survey by Afrobarometer has revealed that although most Batswana rate government’s management of the economy highly, they are unhappy with the rising food prices, unemployment, poverty and the gap between the rich and the poor.

“In general, Batswana see economic problems as the most pressing, starting with unemployment at the top of the list,” stated the 2008 Afrobarometer Survey report which was released on Friday.

“The respondents perceive government as having failed to tackle job creation effectively, with 67 percent indicating that government has fared very badly or fairly badly.” When the 2008 survey results are compared with those of 2003 and 2005, we see that there is very little change; levels of disapproval have remained stagnant at the same level since 2003. When other indicators of the economy like keeping prices low in the shops are isolated, the results further reveal a worrisome scenario. In general, respondents are not happy with the issue of rising inflation, resulting in 87% of respondents in the 2008 survey expressing disappointment in the way government is managing the increase of commodity prices in shops. This is up sharply from 64 percent in both 2003 and 2005.

Forty percent of the respondents interviewed by Afrobarometer cited poverty as the second most pressing issue facing the country. “The importance of this issue to Batswana has risen sharply and quite substantially over the years, from just 17% in 1999, to more than twice that level by 2003, and the figure continues to grow,” states the Afrobarometer report.

In the 2008 survey, for the first time, problems in the farming/agricultural sector are among the top three of the most important problems facing the country. In contrast, for the first time since 1999, AIDS did not feature in the top five of the most pressing problems facing Botswana.
Despite the Afrobarometer report, the wheels may not exactly be falling off Ian Khama’s cart, but something is stirring and he is losing momentum, for the time being…


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Sunday Standard September 27 – 3 October

Digital copy of Sunday Standard issue of September 27 - 3 October, 2020.