Saturday, December 2, 2023

Khama’s intensely personal battle with ‘masisi’ diminishes his stature

Former president Ian Khama was never one to leave any stone unthrown in a battle. However, some stones should never be thrown, no matter how fierce the battle is and no matter what devastating damage their jagged edges may do. That is especially so if you are a former president, incumbent supreme traditional leader of a major tribe, patriarch of a family with international renown and potential kingmaker in a post-Botswana Democratic Party Botswana.

There is a lot of bad blood between Khama and his successor, President Mokgweetsi Masisi. The first public indication of that was when both men attended an event at the University of Botswana in 2018. The protocol standards that were observed even during Khama’s administration dictate that when a president arrives at a venue, everybody in attendance should rise not so much out of respect for the individual who happens to be president but respect for the presidency itself. When Masisi arrived, Khama was the only person who remained seated.

There was a repeat of that incident when, in that same year, the two men literally crossed path under a tent at the Khawa Dune Challenge and Cultural Festival. When Masisi arrived in the company of First Lady Neo Masisi for the official opening ceremony, Khama was, once more, the only person who remained seated as everybody else rose to their feet.

Another standard of protocol that Khama has himself proved himself to be particular about is use of honorifics that are used for presidents. A Botswana president is typically referred to as “His Excellency” – or “His Excellency the President of the Republic of Botswana” if the speaker feels that his promotion is taking too long to happen. Complaining about an article that The Botswana Guardian had written about him, Khama said that “in the entire article, there is not a single sentence addressing His Excellency the Former President Lieutenant General Dr. Seretse Khama Ian Khama with his full title,” read a letter that was signed “His Excellency the Former President Lieutenant General Dr. Seretse Khama Ian Khama.”

However, Khama himself has never referred to Masisi with honorifics that long. When he delivered the 2019 state-of-the-nation address, Masisi publicly acknowledged for the very first time that the bad blood between him and Khama has reached boiling point. Shortly thereafter, Khama felt that the president had misrepresented facts in his description of ongoing mediation that was being undertaken by the ruling party’s Council of Elders. In a 363-word rebuttal headlined “Press Statement from Former President Dr. Ian Khama”, Khama referred to his successor only as “Masisi.” In media interviews that he has given since, Khama has never referred to his former Vice President as “His Excellency President Masisi” – it is “Masisi” all the time.

The nature and extent of the rivalry between the two men was such that Khama couldn’t stay in the ruling Botswana Democratic Party. The result was that in 2019, Khama formed his own party – the Botswana Patriotic Front. Upon formation of the BPF, one speaker at a Serowe rally used Setswana that ironically denotes disrespectful conduct towards someone (“go tlwaela”) while the speaker is themselves being disrespectful.  The speaker said this in the context of Masisi’s attitude towards BPF members: “Masisi o a re tlwaela.” Widely used in 2019 as a hybrid of a party slogan and war cry, “Masisi o a re tlwaela” soon fell into disuse. That was until May 2021 when Khama resuscitated that phrase during another escalatory phase of his feud with the president.

We use the uppercase M for Masisi but Khama doesn’t. One supposes that if there was a way that an upper and lower case letter could be verbally differentiated in speech, he would certainly render the president’s family name in the latter fashion. He can’t but when he writes WhatsApp messages that first circulate with BPF circles before going viral, Khama makes a point of using the lower case “m.” The most recent message is of a letter that Khama has written to Tshekedi, his younger brother and BPF Secretary General. In the letter, Khama says that Guma Moyo accuses him of “being the same as masisi and states that I have destroyed a lot of people he does not mention. To be said to be the same as masisi – whilst I as Patron of the BPF together with fellow patriots are engaged to remove him from office over his misrule and abuse of office is a serious insult to me and to the party.” Notice he uppercases the first letter of his BPF title but lowercases the first letter of the president’s family name.

As a former president, Khama has an obligation to protect the prestige of presidential office. He is actually still part of the presidency because he has an office (Office of the Former President II) within the Office of the President. Khama is keen to get Tshekedi into presidential office and will certainly expect people to respect him as president.

As a leader, Khama is a custodian of national principles, one of which is respect – especially for the departed. Masisi is a family name carried by many more people than the man Khama hates with a passion. In terms of a standard that Batswana have long adopted, uppercasing the first letter of a name is how one shows respect. By subverting that standard, Khama clearly wants to show disrespect. However, the person he wants to disrespect is Mokgweetsi, not Masisi, the family patriarch who died a long time ago and certainly not the Masisi family. Writing the first letter of the family name in lower case is disrespectful to the entire Masisi family when Khama has a problem with only one member of that family.

As an elderly person, Khama is obliged to exhibit exemplary behaviour. If he chooses to use his influence to coarsen society, he will be directly responsible for the resulting degradation of civil discourse – and the violence. It is as important for Khama to realise that what he does as Bangwato Kgosikgolo reflects back on the tribe. Indeed people mention Khama and Bangwato in the same breath. Some of his actions are diminishing both his and Bangwato’s stature.


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