“Budding democrat or dictator – the case of President Khama”

When he entered politics, more than a decade ago, little was known about President Ian Khama except that he was the eldest son of Botswana’s founding president, Sir Seretse Khama, and also the commander of the Botswana Defence Force (BDF).
He was recruited into politics by Former President Festus Mogae, who brought him in as his deputy in an attempt to stabilize the ruling Botswana Democratic Party (BDP), which was then rocked by infighting. Three years ago, Khama became the fourth President of Botswana since independence, replacing his mentor through the controversial policy of automatic succession.
While members of the ruling party celebrated Khama’s accession to the presidency, it was not long before the opposition were expressing serious concerns about his leadership style – concerns that were later aired by disgruntled members of his own party.
Nowadays in Botswana, it is common to hear him referred to as a “dictator, autocrat and oppressor”.
And even outside Botswana, some are beginning to wonder if the country that has for so long been a beacon of peace, economic growth and democracy in Southern Africa is heading in the wrong direction.
But on the other hand, Khama still has his legion of supporters, who have a very different story to tell.
They see him as a messianic figure, who has the interests of the country and the poor at heart.
So what is the reality – budding dictator or genuine democrat?

The Khama Doctrine

There is no doubt that President Khama’s leadership style is different from his predecessors – Mogae, Sir Ketumile Masire and his father Sir Seretse Khama.
And Khama makes no apologies for this. He is his own man.
During his inauguration ceremony in 2008, he outlined his roadmap, which is underpinned and characterized by the 4Ds – the principles of Democracy, Development, Dignity and Discipline.
According to the opposition and other observers – the mention of discipline was a clear sign that the former military commander was intent on ruling with an iron fist.
Khama’s answer to his critics was simple – democracy cannot exist without discipline.
He added that he had no intention of turning the country into an army camp.
However, the 4Ds only lasted until after the general election in 2009, when Khama added yet another D – Delivery.
And it’s these 5Ds that are now referred to as “The Khama Doctrine”.
But it’s discipline that is at the heart of many of the complaints about Khama’s rule.

Militarization and personalization

Khama’s critics began questioning him soon after he became president, particularly in relation to some of his senior appointments.
For example, after becoming President, he selected a former military commander and fellow tribesman Lieutenant-General Mompati Merafhe to be his deputy.
The thought of two military commanders marshalling the country troubled many in the opposition – and also some within his own party.
He also appointed his first cousin, Brigadier Dikgakgamatso Seretse, to the powerful position of Minister of Justice, Defence and Security and chose former army captain, Kitso Mokaila, to be Minister of Environment Wildlife and Tourism, Wildlife.
Furthermore, Khama’s obsession with army officers has also seen them end up in the civil service.
Even more worryingly, his government established the notorious spy agency, the Directorate of Intelligence and Security (DIS), and he appointed his associate and personal friend, Colonel Isaac Kgosi, as its head.

Intolerance to dissent

In the past three years, several BDP members have also questioned Khama’s leadership style.
They cite the party’s split as an indication that he does not tolerate dissent.
And in 2009 after the party’s central committee elections, Khama suspended the party’s secretary-general, Gomolemo Motswaledi, for 60 days for allegedly questioning his authority.
Motswaledi tried to challenge his suspension at the high court but lost the battle after it was ruled that the President was immune from legal suits.
Motswaledi was later suspended from the party for five years after a disciplinary hearing chaired by Khama’s henchmen.
Frustrated with Khama, a number of other senior BDP figures joined Motswaledi to form the Botswana Movement for Democracy (BMD) – currently the main opposition party in parliament.
A recent United States diplomatic cable released by WikiLeaks quotes several high-ranking government officials, including close associates, questioning his leadership qualities.
Former Minister of Education, Jacob Nkate, a close friend of President Khama is quoted as having told the US ambassador in 2005 that Khama was unfit to rule.
Another cabinet minister, Pelonomi Venson, is also quoted as saying Khama does not tolerate dissent and that during his time as Vice President only President Mogae could differ with him.

Public sector strike

In 2011, for the first time in the history of Botswana, over 70 000 public sector employees joined a nationwide strike that lasted for two months.
The workers were demanding a 16 percent salary hike.
The Khama administration’s response was that the government could not afford the hike since that the country had only just emerged from the aftershocks of the global recession.
But the strikers would not back down, paralyzing many government operations.
And yet, Khama flatly refused to meet union leaders.
He agreed only to meet the unions when they had gone back to work.
Efforts by his two presidential predecessors, Festus Mogae and Sir Ketumile Masire, to mediate failed allegedly because Khama was not prepared to negotiate with the workers.
Instead, close to 3 000 essential services workers were dismissed – and under severe pressure, the union finally settled for a paltry three percent hike.
It was a victory for Khama and his government – but at what cost?
And many observers feel that Khama could have handled the situation better – and resolved things more quickly – by engaging the unions.

No fan of the media

There is no doubt that Khama has never been the fan of the media, particularly the private media.
He has said several times that he does not read the newspapers and recently – during the party’s national congress – Khama called some journalists unpatriotic.
He also accused the private media of writing falsehoods about his party and government.
Amazingly, since he became President three years ago, Khama has not addressed a single Press conference.
Instead, he has made unannounced visits to some of the newsrooms in the country, such as the Botswana Guardian in 2009.
He has also granted one-on-one interviews with some journalists – but mainly from the state media.
And in 2009, Khama moved the Department of Information and Broadcasting to the Office of the President – ensuring that he had a firm grip on the state media.

Supporting the poor

But despite all this, there is no doubt that Khama remains popular in the country, especially in the poor rural areas where he is seen as some sort of a messiah.
As soon as he became the President, Khama moved quickly to consolidate his electoral base by introducing populist programmes for the poor and the underprivileged.
One such programme is Ipelegeng – a labour intensive public works project that allows the poor and unemployed to work for P400 (US$55) a month.
Thousands enrolled in the programme.
He also moved to establish constituency leagues – promoting sports with direct funding from the government’s coffers.
He has also issued a directive to support the arts – instructing government departments to buy works from local artists.
And he introduced the government internship programme for graduates, which has been hailed as a success by the Ministry of Home Affairs as it gives fresh graduates an opportunity to gain experience before securing formal employment.


Most people believe that Khama – just like his predecessors – has good intentions for the country but his approach to some issues has left his image badly damaged.
His leadership qualities are in doubt, while his stature as the country’s unifying force has gone.
The Office of the Presidency has lost respect even though it is not clear that he has lost his popularity and support across the country.
However, it is clear that Khama reputation has been undermined in the region – and that some believe that he does have dictatorial tendencies.
The recent utterances by the the African National Congress Youth League (ANCYL) president, Julius Malema, that his organization would establish a command base in Botswana to unseat Khama is an indication that beyond Botswana’s borders Ian Khama is not viewed in the same light as his predecessors.
And with many years left in State House, many both outside – and inside – are wondering if these tendencies will become more pronounced.
So – budding dictator or genuine democrat – it’s too early to tell. – OSISA

December 2011
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