Is Botswana’s new leader hero or dictator?

Friday August 22 2008

Athletes from Botswana march at the opening

Athletes from Botswana march at the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympic Games in China. While the poor applaud the raft of reforms introduced by new President Ian Khama the middle class has accused him of by-passing other arms of government. Photos/FILE 

By WENE OWINO, SATURDAY Nation Correspondent, GABORONE

New Botswana president Ian Khama is easily one of the most popular, powerful, bold and active heads of state in Africa.

Yet, for Botswana and Khama, the combination of massive popularity, speed and boldness is a major weakness, a curse and a recipe for disaster, if what commentators and critics are saying is anything to go by.

When evaluating Khama’s first 100 days in power last month, journalist Rebaone Odirile of the Guardian/Midweek Sun group argued that the new president might turn into just another typical African leader with a passion to limit and control platforms from where the public can freely question him.

Thapelo Ndlovu, the head of Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA) Botswana chapter suggested that by clouding the line that separates the party and government, a situation is being created under Khama’s leadership where accountability and democratic governance would be relegated to the dark ages and authoritarian rule will creep into Botswana’s “enviable democracy”.

Democracy at risk

Recently, one of the vocal ruling party MPs, Botsalo Ntuane, said that Botswana’s democracy was at risk and soon, the people will be told when to eat and sleep and what to wear.

However, he was made to withdraw the statement and apologise.

Writing in the latest edition of the weekly Sunday Standard, commentator Ezekiel Malepa said he was worried that there has been a blurring of policy and operational matters under Khama.

Malepa added that Khama wants to tackle problems in a rush without reflection and in many cases, without a proper policy framework to guide implementation.

“In its eagerness to address many of the problems confronting the country, the Khama administration has been rattling initiatives at dizzying speed. Some of the recent initiatives could easily bankrupt the country, scare investors and most importantly ruin our democracy,” Malepa said.

University of Botswana lecturer and political commentator Log Raditlhokwa, says Khama has become too powerful, a mere four months after succeeding Festus Mogae as Botswana’s fourth president.

“The President, due to his popularity has become an institution within the state. He has become too powerful,” Raditlhokwa told the annual conference on African economic policy in Gaborone on Tuesday.

Opposition politician Diphetogo Maswabi of the Botswana Congress Party (BCP) recently captured Khama’s unique position in Botswana politics by arguing that he is so far the most powerful of the country’s four presidents.

“He is an imperial president, chief of a powerful ethnic group and son of the country’s first president. He is therefore more powerful than he can conjure,” Maswabi wrote in the weekly Botswana Guardian.

Recently, BCP awarded Khama zero in democracy saying he is a major threat to the country’s democratic credentials. BCP president Gilshon Saleshando says that Khama is ruling the country by decree.

“If Khama was a democrat, he would know that there are structures in the country which together with the president makes laws and policies governing the country,” Saleshando told a press briefing recently.

Put on silent mode

“Now that the (ruling) BDP (Botswana Democratic Party) backbench has been put on silent mode, the next target is the media,” Saleshando said.

Tshireletso Motlogelwa, news editor of Mmegi, Botswana’s only private daily, posits that the controversial alcohol levy announced by Khama last month to deal with excessive drinking summarise all that the new presidency has been about and what its limitations could be.

“Perhaps burdened by his father’s legacy, Khama loves to deliver as much if not more than the first president,” says Motlogelwa.

He feels that Khama has silenced or ignored the middle class in favour of the so-called peasants or the masses. He says in the history of Botswana, no other president has shown so much-disregard for intellectual engagement with the middle class.

It is likely that Khama is not bothered by his depiction as a dictator. He has been hearing the refrain for nearly a decade now. Second his position in Botswana politics and society is unassailable.

Third his management style is innovative and revolutionary, though with the attendant hiccups of a new administration. Fourth he has come out as an agent of radical change in his country and the region.

In foreign policy, he has put Botswana at the centre of regional diplomacy by a fierce onslaught on previously ‘untouchable’ Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe.

However, despite the negative comments and dim view about what his presidency portends, Khama occupies a unique position in Botswana and African politics.

Unlike many African leaders, he is helped in no small measure by the fact that the massive support he enjoys among his people cuts across the generational divide, political affiliations and tribe.

Cult hero

Among the youth, Ian Khama is some sort of cult hero after mythical stories were told about his super human prowess when he was in the military. His royal lineage as paramount chief of the influential Bangwato earns him loyalty and support beyond the ruling Botswana Democratic Party (BDP).

Batswana still respect and kow-tow to the traditional chieftainship irrespective of political affiliations, tribe or position in society.

That is part of the reason some people have advanced to explain the deference ex-president Festus Mogae seemed to have extended to Khama when he was his vice-president
So far, the new Botswana president has shown himself to be a grassroots man, sitting with the people around a fire at night, deep in the rural areas and interacting closely with common folk during country tours.

He puts emphasis on service delivery in the civil service and abhors deadwood. Common folk view him as a man of action who moves fast to effect corrective measures once he gets reports of wrong-doing or incompetence. In a nutshell, they see him as Mr-Fix-It.