Wednesday, May 22, 2024

Of Masire, JF Kennedy and Automatic Succession

Since late last year, I have been following the debate by former President Sir Ketumile Masire and Mmegi newspaper columnist Dan Moabi on the controversial issue of automatic presidential succession in Botswana. Whereas I find Sir Ketumile Masire’s justification for imposing automatic succession totally unconvincing, I also find Moabi’s counter-argument lacking in depth and contextualization. Therefore, Moabi does not quite nail it. Most importantly his argument lacks a robust historical dimension which can not be ignored in dealing with the issue.

Therefore, my piece tries to address the deficiency in Moabi’s contribution to the debate. I would like to concentrate on Sir Ketumile Masire’s cardinal point that the assassination of President John F. Kennedy of the United States in 1963 was the main reason why automatic succession was adopted in Botswana.

My fundamental argument is that automatic succession was introduced in Botswana as a way of short-circuiting political ambitions of an individual in the ruling party who was perceived as the overwhelming front runner for the presidency. It was meant to break his spirit and crush his will. This development has been a common phenomenon in sub-Saharan Africa since the turn of the millennium when a serving president’s tenure ends and he has to hand over the baton to somebody else. Automatic succession in the context of my argument refers to a situation where a president thrusts his personally preferred successor onto his party and ultimately the country, riding roughshod over the will of the people.

Honourable Botsalo Ntuane (Sunday Standard, 4-10 November 2007) insightfully informs us how Sir Ketumile Masire outmaneuvered some key BDP leaders who were strongly opposed to automatic succession and for very good reasons: ‘[Parks] Tafa [Masire’s automatic succession legal advisor] admits that some senior party members did in the course of the debate convey strong objection to automatic succession. They felt that the clause affectively mortgaged the party to a single individual who could choose and pick a successor on personal whim. It is known that in the internal discussions, Kwelagobe and Merafhe (leaders of rival BDP factions were among those opposed to the move. But with Quett [Masire] in his element in front of an adoring BDP crowd, there was little prospect of blocking the amendment’.

Sir Ketumile Masire states that he introduced automatic succession as a result of President Kennedy’s assassination in 1963. I do not find this reasoning convincing. In his memoirs Masire writes that ‘During the constitutional talks [in April 1963], the leadership from Domkrag always started with Botswana and its context. We looked carefully at the constitutional provisions of other countries…. Of course, the constitution had to provide for legislative, executive and judicial powers, as well as for provisions governing citizenship, financial responsibility, amending the constitution itself, presidential succession [my emphasis], and rules by which the National Assembly would conduct its business’ (Masire, 2006:68-9).

Kennedy was gunned down in Texas in November 1963. This was seven months after the April 1963 constitutional talks in colonial Botswana. In one of the December 2007 editions of the Btv programme Matlhoaphage, Masire said that the American constitution and its provision for automatic presidential succession was one of those looked into by the people responsible for crafting our constitution in April 1963. Now the question is how come the assassination of Kennedy and the ‘beauty’ of automatic succession to the presidency by Vice President Lyndon Johnson in November 1963 did not influence Masire and others to adopt automatic succession for Botswana then? Automatic succession in Botswana was adopted in the BDP in 1995 and for the country in 1997, about 34 years after Kennedy’s assassination. Why did it take more than three decades for automatic succession to feature in our Constitution? Kennedy was gunned down just seven months after the 1963 constitutional talks mentioned above yet it took 34 years for this to influence presidential succession in Botswana.

In Matlhoaphage, Masire emphatically stated that Batswana strongly believe in upholding the rule of law. When he succeeded the late President Sir Seretse Khama in 1980, the succession was a very smooth one. Even the hard to please opposition cooperated in accordance with law of the land. Therefore, one can conclude that the reason for such a smooth transition was the fact that Batswana strongly believe in the rule of law.

However, Honourable Ntuane (Sunday Standard 4-10 November 2007) tells us that in imposing automatic succession, Masire argued that ‘as a country we should count ourselves lucky that the transition [in 1980] was smooth’. In other words it was by sheer luck that the succession in 1980 was not characterized by lawlessness, chaos and even violence. This flies in the face of the argument by Masire that Batswana strongly believe in upholding the law.
Most importantly, in 1988 Masire himself escaped an assassination attempt when his presidential jet was shot while flying over Angola. Interestingly, he never talked about the need for automatic succession even though he almost experienced a fate similar to the one that fell on Kennedy in 1963.

When automatic succession was adopted in the BDP in 1995 the party was experiencing serious factional conflict. Most political observers, and even some BDP activists, acknowledge that automatic succession was introduced in a bid to tackle the problem of factional fighting in the ruling party. The same reasons are advanced on why automatic succession was later inserted in the national constitution.

However, my argument is that automatic succession was also imposed in order to ensure that Masire’s personally preferred successor ascended to the presidency unchallenged. As many have said before, his preferred successor (Festus Mogae) wouldn’t have made it in an open contest against Ponatshego Kedikilwe. Unlike Mogae, Kedikilwe enjoyed overwhelming grassroots support cultivated by Daniel Kwelagobe in the BDP.

Although Kedikilwe is undoubtedly one of the best politicians in Botswana his major undoing was his perceived ambition to be president. Throughout history politicians who displayed ambition to be king got marginalized one way or the other. When Brutus participated in the assassination of Julius Caesar in ancient Rome, he justified the murder by saying that while he honoured Julius Caesar for having been a great army general he killed him because he was ambitious to be king. This approach has been followed throughout the generations.

Masire’s strategy of imposing his successor on the party can be understood in the context of the determination by African presidents to thrust their preferred successors upon the population in a bid to maintain their legacy. Sir Ketumile Masire states that he would be more than willing to recommend automatic succession to other African countries.

Really there is no need to recommend it to other African leaders because they are already practicing it. It is just that they don’t call it automatic succession and they may not have enshrined it in the constitutions of their countries. In fact, it was in Botswana’s next door neighbours, Namibia and Zambia, that President Chiluba and Nujoma, respectively, were among the first in the newly democratized African countries to thrust their personally preferred successors onto the population. In the process, these presidents marginalized those party leaders who were seen as front runners for the presidency.

It should be understood that even though there are presidential elections in most African democracies, the president’s appointee is almost always assured of victory because in Africa 99% of the time elections are won by the ruling party. Or the ruling party returns itself to power by virtue of its incumbency and patronage resulting from access to state resources. Therefore, automatic succession should to be seen in the context of the phenomenon of personal rule, presidentialism and predominant party system in Africa.

In Malawi, after President Bakili Muludzi’s bid for a third term failed, he pressed his preferred successor into the presidency of the ruling party. In Kenya Daniel arap Moi propelled his preferred successor on the then ruling KANU party but this backfired badly on the party as it got split and also lost the general election. In Nigeria President Olusegun Obasanjo fell out with his deputy president after he led a crusade against Obasanjo’s bid for a third term. Obasanjo revenged by victimizing his deputy and imposed his preferred successor onto his fellow Nigerians.

Interestingly, very recently in South Africa, the long suffering ANC masses through their delegates stopped President Thabo Mbeki in his tracks as he tried to run for a third term. He had figured out that by remaining the ANC president he would be able to have his personally preferred candidate becoming the next president of South Africa and keeping his legacy intact.

When Festus Mogae was sworn into office in April 1998 he promised never to change anything Masire did, hence returning the favour by keeping Masire’s legacy. Therefore, automatic succession in Botswana seems to have been motivated by the desire to deny Kedikilwe the presidency and hand it over to the president’s fancied candidate. The argument of Kennedy’s assassination does not hold water.
If put under close scrutiny the introduction of automatic succession in Botswana could be viewed as an instance where the country’s Constitution was amended in order to cater for the interests of a serving president.

A million dollar question is that can the beneficiaries of automatic succession agree to do away with a system that threw power into their lap? This is highly unlikely despite the unconvincing argument for automatic succession which does not go beyond the system’s alleged stability.

*Dr. Makgala is lecturer at the University of Botswana

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