For the umpteenth time since 1998, former president Ian Khama has reiterated an old if dubious claim about his relationship with politics.
“I have always made it clear that politics was never my choice or interest,” he writes in his latest hate letter to President Mokgweetsi Masisi. “I have on several occasions made the nation aware that I was brought into this by the leadership of the country at the material time much against my intentions, but in the end I yielded.”
The material time was April 1, 1998 when Vice President Festus Mogae was ascended the presidency as President Sir Ketumile Masire stepped down. The incoming president needed to fill the post he had vacated. In March of that year, it was announced that Lieutenant General Ian Khama was retiring as commander of the Botswana Defence Force. On April 1, he was announced as the new Vice President.
At every opportunity that he gets, Khama has been keen to stress that he would rather be elsewhere than in politics. He clearly wants to distance himself from politics because it is antithetical to the enterprise of public service – which he wants to be associated with. Such thinking makes perfect sense because one can’t use politics as a platform to discharge public service. In one respect, the latter explains why one too many MPs and councillors routinely don’t answer phone calls from people who want public service from them.
However, there is astounding amount of evidence that shows that far from being a reluctant politician, Khama is actually right at home in politics.
Khama has had and passed up ample opportunity to hop off politics. In 1999, he fell out with President Festus Mogae after the general election. New to politics, Khama thought that as Vice President, he also had a say in the appointment of cabinet and was deeply upset when Mogae denied him such opportunity. Khama had been veep for only 18 months and feeling slighted, went on a year’s sabbatical leave – the first in political history anywhere in the world. He could very easily have quit politics then but chose to stay on.
More recently, that opportunity came in the post-April 1, 2018 period after he had stepped down as president. Back in 1998, Khama had been “brought into this by the leadership of the country”, meaning Mogae. Some 20 years later, however, there was no such pressure on Khama to stay in politics. Mogae was among those who had been underwhelmed by his performance as a national leader and during an event that was broadcast on CNBC, an American TV channel, referred to Khama’s administration as “a regime” that didn’t have respect for the rule of law.
Rather than live quietly in retirement as Masire and Mogae before him, Khama made a choice to not only stay active in politics but to also became the de facto leader of Barataphathi, a Botswana Democratic Party (BDP) that was hellbent on interrupting Masisi’s expected ascent to the presidency. However, Masisi triumphed over Khama and became president. When the former and sitting president began butting heads, the former ramped up his political activism and in one long-running episode, used the prestige of his role as Bangwato traditional leader to further his political agenda. When the man who still claimed to be disinterested in politics left the BDP, it was to form his own political party – the Botswana Patriotic Front (BPF).
While he chose to not run for any elective position within BPF, Khama pulled strings to be made patron, a non-elective position that gives him a seat in the National Executive Committee (NEC). Someone who had spent 20 years in politics and had been sickened by it would certainly not have embarked on a project that would ensure that he doubled his involvement in politics. However, that was what happened with Khama because 2019 was a general election year and as the most important BPF member, he had to work round the clock to ensure that his candidates had a realistic chance of winning. In addition to that, he willingly increased his workload by aligning himself with the main opposition, the Umbrella for Democratic Change (UDC), campaigning for some of its candidates.
Traditionally, Botswana’s party politics has an off-season that comes immediately after the general election. Parties and politicians typically use this season to take a break from the rough and tumble of freedom-square politicking. Not Khama, who has used this season to ramp up his political activism, in some instances addressing political rallies even when that didn’t help effort to fight Covid-19.
The Khama-Masisi feud reached a point where the former had to flee to South Africa as the Directorate of Intelligence Services and Security (DISS) closed in on him over possession of handguns. From South Africa, Khama continues to keep tabs on BPF, often participating in its NEC meetings virtually. The party has a full-span NEC – which means that Khama, as a patron, shouldn’t have to worry about doing a lot of party work. However, insiders say that he wants to micromanage important party affairs, thereby increasing his political workload. That is still not enough.
It was recently announced that the man who insists he has never taken any interest in politics has mulled the idea of running for BPF president – which ambition communicates intention to become state president again. Khama has essentially equivocated on this issue, first saying that some people have “approached” him about running for party president, then denying that he has any such intention. What Sunday Standard has learnt from party sources is that he plans to secure the position for his younger brother, Tshekedi (who is proving to be a weak candidate against Guma Moyo) then step down.
Khama’s insistence that he has no interest in politics while he willingly immerses himself in politics is ironic in two other respects. Received wisdom is that his heart is in the army and that he would prefer to be soldering than politicking. The reality though is that in 1998, he chose politics over the army and has actually spent more time in the former (24 years and counting) than in the latter (21 years). As a matter of fact, declassified Central Intelligence Agency documents reveal that after falling out with President Masire in the 1980s, Khama wanted to quit the army and go into opposition politics.
In asserting that the country’s leadership leaned on him until he yielded, Khama unwittingly casts himself in bad light. Since 1979 to date, a good many of his subjects have been waiting for and lobbying him to assume his royal duties at the Serowe kgotla. He was willing to succumb to pressure exerted on him for a couple of months to join politics but for 43 years, has managed to resist pressure to discharge his duty to his tribe on a substantive basis.
The truth is something that Khama will never say in public: that politics gives him much more power than bogosi and that politics has become the only tool that he can use to oust Masisi from power. On account of the level of his interest in politics, he made a choice to be in it and it has clearly consumed his passion.