Tuesday, September 26, 2023

This picture doesn’t portray Sir Seretse in good light

A year before the death of Sir Seretse Khama, the founding president, Queen Elizabeth II visited Botswana and was lavished with pomp and ceremony befitting someone in her position.

Two years before, the Botswana Defence Force had been established. Sir Seretse appointed Major General Mompati Merafhe its founding commander and first-born son, Brigadier Ian Khama, its deputy commander. Prior to the establishment of the army, both Gen. Merafhe and Brig. Khama had been senior officers in the Botswana Police Force (renamed the Botswana Police Service) which was headed by Adolf Hirschfeld as Commissioner of Police.

The airport welcome ceremony for the queen featured all four men: Sir Seretse, Gen. Merafhe, Commissioner Hirschfeld and Brig. Khama. The following year, Sir Seretse died and it would take 42 years for Queen Elizabeth to follow suit – she died last week.

Following the latter development, a picture from the 1979 visit popped up on social media. In the picture, Sir Seretse, Queen Elizabeth and Brig Khama are walking three abreast while Gen. Merafhe and Commissioner Hirschfeld follow from behind. Unless one is familiar with western protocol – which Botswana had adopted and was being followed at this ceremony – this is an innocent-looking picture.

A source at the Ministry of Defence and Security says that Merafhe should have been in Brig. Khama’s place because the army commander escorts the president at all times. In turn, General Merafhe should have assigned a senior officer (Brig. Khama in this case) to escort the visiting dignitary – Queen Elizabeth. That is indeed confirmed by a retired army officer who says that Gen. Merafhe – and not Brig. Khama – should have been walking alongside Sir Seretse.

The picture is revealing of the preferential treatment that Brig. Khama enjoyed at the instance of his father.

It is a matter of public record that while in BDF’s Paramilitary Unit and before the formation of the army, Ian Khama and the son of Botswana’s first minister of education, Matlhomola Thema, studied at the prestigious Sandhurst Academy in Britain. At this point, Thema already held a BA from Roma University in Lesotho – while Khama had only gone as far as Form 5 at Waterford Kamhlaba College in Swaziland.

One account is that Khama failed at Sandhurst and another is that he scrapped by with a mediocre score. The one consistent account about Thema is that he passed. However, when BDF was established, Sir Seretse made his son brigadier and deputy commander. On the other hand and despite having performed well at Sandhurst, Thema was given a lower rank that also placed him outside the high command. 

Then again, this may not have been a black and white issue as some understand it – it could have been either nepotism or hard-nosed pragmatism that was at play. As commander-in-chief, Sir Seretse had to appoint people he felt he could fully trust to sensitive positions in the army. In a period of time when coups d’état were fashionable in some newly independent countries, who better to trust as army commander and deputy commander than a man from your village and your own son respectively? However, such calculation would not have been a factor in  1979 when Queen Elizabeth visited.


Read this week's paper