The Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Dr. Gladys Mokhawa, says that remarks by former president, Ian Khama that Botswana is a “banana republic” are causing reputational damage to the country.
What has proved to be anything but peaceful transfer of power has resulted in a situation where Khama and his successor, President Mokgweetsi Masisi, are locked in a never-ending battle. When Khama’s younger brothers, Tshekedi and Anthony, who are twins, were arrested, Khama described Botswana as “a banana republic.” He has used the same label many more times before, called Masisi a “dictator” and his government a “regime.” Following the 2019 general election, in which his party, the Botswana Patriotic Front, won three parliamentary seats in his tribal fiefdom (Serowe), Khama alleged that the elections were rigged. He would go on to sponsor an ill-fated project (the so-called “People’s Court”) to prove the rigging. This accusation, which Khama continues harping on despite failure to convene the People’s Court, raises questions about the legitimacy of the Botswana Democratic Party’s win and of Masisi’s presidency.
As this rivalry intensifies, prompting a South African minister to raise alarm that some civil strife may be nigh, Khama has stated that if Botswana has to go through “a bit of turmoil and discomfort while we sort this thing out, so be it.”
One of the questions that Mokhawa had to answer when she appeared before the parliamentary Public Accounts Committee on Thursday afternoon was whether the Khama-Masisi “skirmish” was not tarnishing Botswana’s international image. The question was posed by the Bobonong MP, Taolo Lucas. Making clear the fact that she couldn’t make any pronouncements on the skirmish, Mokhawa said that as the custodian of Botswana’s international image, the Ministry was gravely concerned about the “utterances” that Khama has made. She revealed that as part of the damage control exercise, officials at the Ministry have had to “continuously reassure other countries” that Masisi was properly elected and that Botswana remains a vibrant democracy.
As the “turmoil and discomfort” statement shows, Khama is determined to win his battle with Masisi at all costs, including the nation’s well-being. In 2012, then President Khama signed into law a piece of legislation to establish the Botswana Investment and Trade Centre (BITC). However, no investor would want to risk his or her money in a country that has been described by its immediate past president as “a banana republic.” In a wide-ranging interview with a South African Broadcasting Corporation TV channel last year, Khama was asked what the economic impact of his stand-off with President Mokgweetsi Masisi has been.
“Economically, we are in a bad place. Funds have been squandered,” he claimed.
Comments such as these, relayed through media channels with international reach, undo the work that BITC and other investment promotion agencies undertake on behalf of the country. BITC, which has international offices in South Africa, India and the United Kingdom, is telling foreign investors something else, something entirely different on its website: “We have zero tolerance for corruption, and we boast a sound legal system and adhere to the rule of law”, “We have the highest sovereign credit rating in Africa by Standards and Poor global ratings”, “We are named the 3rd freest economy in Africa by Heritage Foundation”, Africa’s fourth Investment destination out of 54.”
Khama essentially told his SABC interviewer that Botswana’s long-standing culture of democracy ended with him. He lamented the “wonderful example of democracy on this continent reduced to a situation where the rule of law is being undermined, there is abuse of power. We see human rights abuses as well.” On the other hand, BITC is telling investors the exact opposite of that: “It [Botswana] is hailed as a shining beacon of democracy, stability and peace in a continent renowned for turmoil and instability.”
BITC also manages Botswana’s brand and in executing such role, has to tell investors and the world about what a wonderful place Botswana is. Khama told SABC something else. He revealed that once when asked what foreign country he would relocate to, a foreigner acquaintance of his named Botswana because it was such a wonderful place to live and do business in. That person has reportedly changed his mind after Masisi took over.
A former president, son of a world-famous couple, darling of the west and social media influencer, Khama commands far greater power, reach and influence than BITC. What he says gets far greater media attention than BITC can ever hope for. Khama currently has 516 000 followers on Facebook and BITC has only 56 674. On any day, CNN, BBC and Sky news would choose a Khama story over a BITC story and as happens, nowadays, that Khama story would undermine what BITC tells the world about Botswana.
Ironically, the real scandal is not Khama saying bad things about Botswana but the general response with which such statements are greeted by people who would suffer the most when Botswana’s reputation is in tatters. A more politically engaged citizenry would have responded with outrage when a former president, especially one alleged to be in possession of weapons of war, says that the country needs to go through turmoil and discomfort. Not Batswana. Tellingly, Blade Nzimande, a minister in President Cyril Ramaphosa’s cabinet, is as alarmed as to have publicly expressed concern that Botswana might catch fire. Nzimande is minister in a country which, on account of its economic muscle, has one of the best intelligence services in the world and the best in Africa. As minister, he has access to such intelligence and if there was no reason for him to worry, he would certainly not have publicly expressed alarm.
While the bigger culprit, Khama is not the only one. Some people feel that Masisi is himself mishandling this feud, thus giving conceding easy points to Khama. One example that has been given is of him refusing to meet Khama’s royal uncles and using that opportunity to gain sympathy in the Bangwato royal family. In refusing to meet them, Masisi came across as recalcitrant and hellbent on escalating a feud that might just set Botswana on fire.