Botswana president’s bittersweet farewell

Tsaone Segaetsho in Gaborone

Botswana’s President Ian Khama has been travelling the country — receiving generous farewell gifts from well-wishers en route — as his decade-long tenure at State House nears an end.

On April 1, Khama will step down, handing power to Vice-President Mokgweetsi Masisi, who will become the country’s fifth president since independence. 

Thanks to a quirk of Botswanan politics, presidential terms have become disconnected from electoral cycles, meaning that Khama’s term limit — a maximum of 10 years in office — expires more than a year before the next election, which is scheduled for 2019.

On his farewell tour, Khama received three cars worth more than $300 000, a bicycle worth $6 000, more than 1 000 cattle, 500-plus chickens and 200 or so sheep. His Cabinet gave him a pistol, a ranch, a tractor and cash, and some especially generous members of the opposition handed him shares in Botswana’s main telecoms company.

“Personally I am going to miss him a lot. He was an extraordinary president, my leader of choice who was result-driven,” said Prince Maele, the minister of lands, who gave Khama $25 000.

Opposition figures were also lavish in their praise, with Phenyo Butale, the secretary general of the Alliance for Progressives, saying Khama had helped the nation to aim higher. “We promise you that indeed higher we will go, even if we may have from time to time felt violated or irritated by your decisions or even leadership.”

Khama basked in the plaudits, and even handed out a few in his farewell address to Parliament this week. “We have the strongest democracy in Africa and should guard it jealously,” he boasted.

But the praise singing doesn’t tell the whole story. Khama, the son of Botswana’s founding father Sir Seretse Khama, leaves a mixed legacy.

He was an unorthodox leader. He would play pool in townships and serve soup and bread to village elders, and would regularly drop in unannounced at hospitals or bars — even though he is teetotal. This made him popular, as did his commitment to pro-poor development policies such as the Presidential Housing Appeal, a fund for building houses for underprivileged citizens, and a poverty-eradication programme that supported small-scale farmers to encourage self-reliance and food sufficiency.

Khama was less popular internationally, especially with African leaders, although this is probably to his credit. Under his direction, Botswana took strong stands in favour of the International Criminal Court, and he was unstinting in his criticism of his authoritarian neighbour, Robert Mugabe, at a time when his continental peers remained silent.

But Khama had his own authoritarian streak, and worked hard to expand the powers of the presidency, making state media, state security agencies and the anti-corruption authorities report directly to him. Some opposition figures complained that the ruling party resorted to violence and intimidation, and human rights activists have alleged that extrajudicial killings by state security agencies increased under his leadership.

“I am happy he is going,” said Dithapelo Keorapetse, an opposition MP and an ardent critic of the president. “When he took office, he introduced tough measures like a hefty alcohol levy, mass deportations of foreigners, and suspected criminals were executed extrajudicially by the state. He ran an authoritarian system. He ran a very corrupt and wasteful government.”

In the last months of his presidency, Khama was dragged into a corruption scandal. In an ongoing court case linked to the alleged looting of the National Petroleum Fund, defence lawyers said Khama had turned a blind eye to corrupt transactions and may even have benefited personally.

Masisi will be sworn in on Sunday in Gaborone. A teacher by training, he was Khama’s second choice as vice-president, after the ruling party rebelled against the prospect of Tshekedi Khama, the president’s brother, becoming the automatic successor to the presidency.

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