Thursday, September 24, 2020

‘New’ Botswana: The Khama Presidency

The 2009 general election placed the Botswana Democratic Party (DPP) into power for the tenth time.

This ensured that its new leader, Seretse Khama Ian Khama, became the fourth state president. This is a big achievement for the party and its new leader.

The question is whether the Khama presidency is taking Botswana into authoritarian politics as Kenneth Good (2009) and others allege, or is adding a new orientation to enrich the country’s politics.

Good published a briefing entitled: The Presidency of General Ian Khama: The Militarization of the Botswana ‘Miracle’.

In this 2009 briefing, Good observes (i) the growing power of the security institutions and their brutal operations characterized by numerous extra judicial killings by the security forces, widespread intelligence surveillance and the appointment of security personnel to head non-security state institutions; (ii) the growing of personal rule characterized by the issuance of edicts or directives, decisions by caprice, reliance on close loyalists, and the display of military and dynastic personality; (iii) moral fundamentalism or what others label mini taliban-ism) characterized by the regulation of alcohol consumption, of social behavior, restricted drinking hours, a high alcohol levy (30%) and a strict dress code for civil servants.

My first question is whether Good’s observations are accurate. My second question is whether the above characterization of Khama marks renewal of the Botswana society or a death to her democracy. To begin with the question of accuracy, Good stayed in Botswana for about fifteen years and distinguished himself as an eminent professor of political science, gaining intimate knowledge about the country’s political system and publishing numerous articles and books on it. That makes him a participant observer and gives credit to his observations.

However, Good’s over glorification of participatory democracy and his over use of negative theories (particularly elite theory) makes him a partial observer, always taking the side of the down trodden and hard-line positions against the state (any state).

This makes him an anti-establishment and a populist-activist professor. These latter aspects compromise Good’s observations.

His deportation from Botswana a few years ago, add onto the perception of his bias. In short, he cannot be regarded as a neutral observer and his cannot be balanced views.

However, this does not mean that his views are not accurate. It merely means that he ignores sources that portray Khama and the BDP in the positive light and has no positive thoughts about the president. The above creates a dilemma for the reader: of Khama as an authoritarian whose positive potential is un-explored, and of Good as an unbalanced writer who cannot be relied upon to unearth Khama’s positivity.

Afrobarometer surveys and the general elections are proof that the majority of Batswana voters like Khama. This points to the fact that there must be something positive about him that is not coming out clearly in Good’s writings.

The missing link is an observer who can show the negatives and positives of Khama, and who can conclusively show that either the positives outweigh the negatives or the opposite. I challenge researchers (political scientists, economists, sociologists, legal scholars, journalists and many others) to take up this challenge and provide light. On the question of whether the characterizations of the Khama presidency could be regarded as marking renewal of society or the death of democracy, divergent opinions emerge.

On the one hand, BDP activists, and senior government officials (represented by the minister of justice, defense and security, the minister of presidential affairs and the current minister of education), share the opinion that President Khama represents the renewal of society.
BDP activists see Khama as a messiah who is rooting out corruption in the government system (including within the army), who is ending factionalism in the ruling party by suspending dissident MPs and senior party officials, and who is addressing economic inequalities by coming up with welfare programmes such as constituency leagues.

Minister of defense has, on many occasions, tried to allay fears and assured the public that the intelligence is not a threat to the country’s democracy. In contrast, BDP rebel MPs, civil society organizations (particularly trade unions and NGOs), academics and the private media, hold the opinion that the Khama presidency spells doom for Botswana’s democracy. (It is in this camp that Professor Good falls).

They see the militarization of the state in which (Directorate of Intelligence Services) DIS operatives have penetrated school administration and the army and parliamentary gardens and the trade unions and the rival faction of the ruling party.

They see personal rule, wasteful spending of government resources (particularly onto the DIS); they see growing fear by members of the educated public who censure themselves on the suspicion that they are being spied on; they see the quick dismissal (or unplanned retirement) of several senior government officials (including senior members of the army) and the long-term suspension of senior ruling party officials as evidence of the creeping authoritarianism. They view all these as evidence of the increasing authoritarianism. What is un-doubtful is that the Khama presidency is splitting the society into irrevocable camps, engaged in a zero-sum politics, in which the vanquished would suffer enormous damage and in which the winners would take everything.

There is even growing talk that the BDP rebel MPs and their activists are planning a break-away party in the immediate future and that Khama has personalized the BDP, which was founded by his father. The BDP possibly faces its first split, whether it would be a major split or just a small group breaking away, remains to be seen.
The DIS operatives are in full swing, infiltrating different sections of society to make sure that the presidency survives this encounter.

There is a sense of reckoning in the air: part of society stands with the presidency and calling for more discipline; and the other part champions democracy and calls for the winding down of the DIS. The verdict is not only on Khama to show his democratic credentials, but on the DIS to show that it stands for democracy.
There is no doubt that Botswana is standing on the verge of a transformation. What is doubtful is whether the transformation is leading to more authoritarianism or to more democracy.

*Dr Maundeni is Senior Lecturer at the University of Botswana

RELATED STORIES

Read this week's paper

Masisi creates his own “deep state”?

The government enclave is discussing a new law that will expand the president’s overreach and make it easier for the Directorate of...