Thursday, July 18, 2024

Year ends on ironic note for Khama

If you ask the most politically enlightened people who the most powerful politician in Botswana is, the answer will be, former president Ian Khama. But is he really and if he is, why doesn’t he feel safe in what is supposed to be his fiefdom? That is just one of the many internal contradictions writ large in the 2021 phase of the life and career of a man who is evidently still years from taking the last bow from the political stage. 

Khama’s surprise entry into party politics in April 1998 was meant to unite a divided Botswana Democratic Party (BDP). However, it was as a direct result of the great unifier’s style of leadership that some BDP cadres broke away to form the Botswana Movement for Democracy. That was just a lull before the storm because when Khama left office in 2018, the BDP was divided into two factions, Cava and Barataphathi, and he was the de facto leader of the latter.

Just before leaving office, Khama had told the nation that he was handing over the reins of executive power to a supremely accomplished leader in his vice president, Mokgweetsi Masisi. He insisted this was the right decision. Khama actually gave such description to a kgotla audience in Serowe as Masisi and his wife stood alongside him. If there was the option of saying “I was misquoted”, Khama would now certainly be uttering those words today. The next best option is “I was wrong about him” and that statement has become the one wrong Khama admits to.

In admitting his blunder, the former president, a self-described patriot, has been frightfully keen to make quite unusual and controversial recompense.  This year, as his rivalry with a man he only ever calls “Masisi” intensified, Khama asked President Cyril Ramaphosa to impose sanctions on a motherland he loves so much. South Africa is Botswana’s major trading partner and if such sanctions were to be imposed, Botswana’s economy would collapse within a week.

In addition to being a politician, Khama is also kgosikgolo (supreme traditional leader) of his tribe, Bangwato, whose capital is Serowe. As Bangwato kgosikgolo, Khama ceremonially vested his Bakgatla counterpart, Kgafela Linchwe, with a leopard skin coat when he ascended the kgosikgolo office in 2012 and became Kgosikgolo Kgafela II. No sooner had Khama done that than was Kgafela liberally and extra-judicially dispensing corporal punishment. Kgafela was directly challenging the government that Khama was head of. In turn, Khama’s response was to reverse his decision by divesting Kgafela of the position he had vested him with, albeit in a different context.

Allied to this was the issue of the use of “kgosikgolo.” Officially, this title doesn’t exist – but should for a very practical purpose. Within tribal administration, there are eight positions whose holders are all called kgosi: headman of arbitration, headman of records, tribal authority, senior tribal authority, chief’s representative, senior chief’s representative, regent and paramount chief. Naturally, this uniformity creates confusion when a paramount chief has to be differentiated from a headman of records. The other thing is that its English equivalent – Paramount Chief – is still used officially.

Kgosikgolo entered gained popular use with Kgafela – which apparently displeased President Khama somewhat because soon thereafter, his private office issued a public statement to the effect that such title didn’t exist in Botswana’s nomenclature for traditional leaders. Out of office himself and in the midst of his feud with Masisi, Khama himself transitioned from Kgosi to Kgosikgolo. While Khama hasn’t called himself Kgosikgolo, there is no way in the world that he would not have approved the “E seng mo go Kgosikgolo” (Not on my supreme traditional leader) T-shirts that the political machinery that he operated from Serowe printed.

Not only was Kgafela derecognized as Bakgatla kgosikgolo and denied use of the title, he was also charged for extrajudicial caning of people in Kgatleng and spent a few days in a Gaborone jail with the possibility of a prison sentence lurking down the road. The latter prompted him to flee to South Africa where a substantial section of his subjects lives.

The irony of Kgafela’s situation will be replicated nine years later. Right from the get-go, the feud between Khama and Masisi has been constantly evolving in an escalatory fashion. In 2018, Khama was complaining about Masisi denying him air transportation he was legally entitled to; in 2021, he alleged that Masisi planned to deny him freedom and the right to live – which allegation warrants an interlude on the Directorate of Intelligence and Security Services (DISS).

Operationally established by Khama in 2008 on the very day that he ascended the presidency, DISS, whose founding director-general was Khama chief aide-de-camp in the army and private secretary when he was Vice President, became a law unto itself. Many more people don’t think so but Khama says that Masisi’s DISS is (still) a law unto itself – naturally Khama has never used “still” in this context.

DISS turned up the heat on Khama in late October as it intensified its investigations on him for being a threat to national security. DISS’ current DG, whom Khama had fired from the army and whom Masisi rehired to this position, ordered Khama to hand over some pistols that he (the DG) felt shouldn’t be in his possession. At a point where the deadline to do so was about to expire, Khama, who was officially headed back to Gaborone from Serowe, drastically altered course. His two-car convoy made a sharp turn eastwards towards the South African border. Setting a “deadline” for Khama meant if he failed to meet it, it was more than likely that he would have been arrested and spent a few days in a Gaborone jail, with the possibility of a prison sentence lurking down the road. When that deadline came, Khama was already in South Africa where he has been since. What that means is that both Khama and Kgafela fled into South Africa for fear of being criminally prosecuted and imprisoned.

Khama added another layer of irony when he was interviewed on a South African Broadcasting Corporation television channel last month. Perhaps unaware of the irony, he described Masisi’s government and style of leadership using the exact same words that some people used to describe his own government and style of leadership. Perhaps the largest irony of all is that Botswana’s most powerful politician can’t set his foot in Botswana.


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