Nothing is happening now in Botswana’s supreme traditional leadership and party politics that the Democracy Research Project at the University of Botswana didn’t predict 16 years ago.
At that time, Professor Mpho Molomo produced an academic paper entitled “Democracy under Siege: the Presidency and Executive Powers in Botswana”. In the previous year, then President Festus Mogae had given Vice President Ian Khama permission to go on a year’s sabbatical leave. In analysing this issue, Molomo also considered Khama’s status as both a politician and supreme traditional leader (kgosi – plural dikgosi) of the Bangwato.
“Khama appointment and practice in political office has flaunted a precedent that was set by the late Chief Bathoen II of Bangwaketse. Bathoen resigned his position as Chief in 1969 to join politics on the ticket of the opposition Botswana National Front (BNF). For his part, Khama retired from the army on March 30, 1998 and the next day took up a cabinet position in the [Botswana Democratic Party] government. Khama remains the only politician who is also a paramount chief. The danger lurking in this practice is that it will politicise the institution of chieftainship,” Molomo wrote.
More than a decade later, Khama is president and still Bangwato kgosi. Parliament has just passed a motion through which the Francistown West MP, Ignatius Moswaane, called on the government to improve conditions of service for dikgosi. In his contribution, the Tati West MP, Reverend Biggie Butale, made a profound point about the relationship between dikgosiand their subjects.
“Even in the future of this republic in times of crisis, the voice of dikgosi will be heard above all other voices. It is because of this hallowed respect that the great majority of Batswana have for dikgosi, that we as a government must not only be seen to be respecting the institution, but we must in word and deed, be seen to be respecting and facilitating their work,” said the MP adding that if they failed to do so, there would be “this unhealthy exodus of dikgosi moving away from their God-given calling into the mad world of politics.”
Khama has been followed into politics by Dikgosi Tawana Moremi of Batawana and Lotlaamoreng II of Barolong. Like Khama, the pair didn’t abdicate their positions as traditional leaders, proving the point that Molomo made in 2000 about the politicization of traditional leadership. Tawana and Lotlaamoreng are members of the opposition Umbrella for Democratic Change and currently there is a rumour that the party is actively wooing a sitting kgosi in the south to run on its ticket in the 2019 general election. While the constitution gives dikgosi no political power, they nonetheless have lots of it, its source being the reverence that their subjects hold them in. Beginning in 1969 to date, no kgosi who ventured into politics has lost an election.
The assessment of Mochudi East MP, Isaac Davids, is that Moswaane’s motion was motivated by fear within the BDP that the opposition is worming its way into the hearts of voters by associating itself with traditional leadership.
“Let me tell you something: you have been edgy ever since Kgosi Lotlaamoreng II came. There is so much pressure at the Botswana Democratic Party… You are only beginning to takedikgosi seriously because you can see that they are totally turning against you,” he said addressing himself to ruling party MPs.