Populist move: President Ian Khama rides a bicycle while campaigning in Gaborone in 2014. But the gap between the people and the president has never been wider.
Outsa Mokone, the editor of the Gaborone weekly Sunday Standard, could be charged with sedition in Botswana under an archaic law based on the acceptance of an all-powerful monarchical ruler and a powerless subject people.
This is not unlike the relationship that exists between an all-powerful president and a weak citizenry in today’s Botswana.
I first became acquainted with Mokone’s work in 2000 when he published his “shrinking president” story in the Botswana Guardian. It was a lively and pertinent discussion about the odd relationship between then-president Festus Mogae and his vice-president, Lieutenant General Ian Khama, the eldest son of Botswana’s founding father Seretse, and Kgosi IV of the Bamangwato.
Mogae was offended by the article and stopped all government advertising in the Botswana Guardian and its sister paper, the Midweek Sun, which threatened them with financial ruin.
But instead of grovelling, Mokone went further by arguing that Botswana was suffering from “a battered wife syndrome” — instead of criticising the power of the government, the media and others would rush to find excuses for the wrongs of their rulers. He said the country was ill-served by observers and participants who ignored the overweening presidential powers and celebrated the holding of regular elections, which changed little.
The battered-wife syndrome continues, as Mokone’s lonely plight indicates.
The realities of the country touted as the African “miracle” are not hard to uncover. The presidency dominates all the other political institutions, Parliament, the judiciary, and controls the citizenry and individual rights. Although the popular vote for the ruling Botswana Democratic Party (BDP) has been falling over the decades, to a low point of 48% in 2014, the opposition parties have remained sidelined by their disunity and lack of co-operation, and because of extrajudicial action. Corruption by the ruling elite also plays a key role, although it largely goes unseen by observers such as Transparency International.
Corruption has become increasingly apparent since the early- and mid-1990s. At the time, the country was enjoying a big inflow of diamond revenues, the rulers were flush with cash, interest rates were lower than inflation and, according to the then minister of mines, David Magang, then-president Ketumile Masire was “a Santa Claus” to a coterie of crony capitalists.
Masire was also an unsuccessful capitalist farmer and deeply in debt to the banks, so he approached De Beers, the progenitor of Botswana’s diamond wealth, for financial help. De Beers, with the co-operation of its local mining partner, Debswana, helped the president out.
But, as a result of an invigorated independent press, the widespread corruption among the elite became public. In national elections in 1994, the vote for the opposition Botswana National Front (BNF) trebled to about 37% and the BDP’s vote fell by 11% from 1989. In Gaborone and its environs, for the first time in the country’s history, citizens became directly involved in public life.
Mogae and a few “relative” modernists tried to reconstruct the party. De Beers was aware of Masire’s political vulnerability and, in spite of stiff opposition from BDP hardliners, a reform package was worked out, which included Masire’s retirement (with financial help from De Beers and the state) and limited anti-corruption concessions were made. It constituted a new patrimonial “democratic feudal state”, creaking with its own contradictions. Mogae became president and Khama, who was commander in chief of the military, became vice-president.
When Khama succeeded Mogae in 2008, he entrenched the autocratic nature of the presidency and extended the security apparatus. He brought with him key intelligence personnel, notably his long-time henchman, Colonel Isaac Kgosi, and they formed the directorate of intelligence and security. Its members are able to use firearms “when necessary” and have wide powers of arrest. They are appointed on terms and conditions outlined by the president. But the need for the directorate in itself gives the lie to the Botswana praise singers.
The increased autocracy has been accompanied by a decline in the rule of law. According to the World Justice Project’s rule-of-law index 2016, published in the Sunday Standard, between 2013 and 2016, the government has become more dictatorial, and less accountable and effective. The level of recorded corruption has also increased.
To his credit, in 2014, Mokone also ran a series of articles about corruption in the directorate, which implicated Khama, his family and friends.
“A lot of money was siphoned off through the intelligence services”; there was no accounting, and tenders were given to Khama’s retinue, he reported to the online Daily Maverick.
The circumstances were tense. Mokone was arrested in September 2014 and held for 24 hours and his computer was seized. On the eve of the October 2014 elections, the popular opposition party leader, Gomolemo Motswaledi, was killed in a car crash.
Extrajudicial killings are a trademark activity of the directorate. It first gained prominence when John Kalafatis was shot dead in a shopping centre in Gaborone on May 13 2009. The independent press claimed it was done by state agents.
According to credible figures, there were 12 shootings in which eight people were killed between April 1 2008 and March 2009.
Motswaledi was a young high-flyer in the BDP and was elected from the floor as secretary general at a party congress in July 2009, in the face of active opposition from Khama. The hostile Khama then used his autocratic powers to suspend and exclude Motswaledi from national politics.
Botsalo Ntuane, a friend and comrade (who recently rejoined the BDP), attested to Motswaledi’s abilities, integrity and his rapport with the people.
The peculiar nature of the death of Louis Nchindo, a former managing director of Debswana, in early 2010, attests further to the prevailing insecurity in the country.
He was a friend of Mogae, but they had reportedly fallen out after a Debswana restructuring exercise the then president disapproved of. Nchindo was one of Botswana’s most powerful individuals and, at the age of 69, was in good physical health. His body was found on February 11 in the northern Pandamatenga area, partly eaten by animals. Apparently there was no suicide note and just five days later his remains were cremated.
At a memorial service in Gaborone on February 17, his son, Garvas, did not explain what had happened, but he praised the work of the police, military and the directorate. He confirmed that, during the preceding weeks, his father had been fearful and felt insecure.
The service was attended by the country’s most important people, with the exception of Mogae. Khama was accompanied by Kgosi and three other security agents. There was no official inquiry into the death (or disappearance) of this man of “substantial wealth and political power”, as he was described.
But even fewer details are known about the deaths of the other people, because secrecy and nonaccountability are rife.
But what is known is that the autocracy of the president and the surveillance powers in his hands are destroying the remnants of Botswana’s frail democracy. Khama readily lectures other regional leaders about their ethical failings, while crushing civil rights and liberties at home.
Kenneth Good is the adjunct professor in global studies at RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia