There is a persistent rumour about Ian Khama that goes something like this: sometimes, during his decade as president of Botswana, when the burden and the shackles of high office became too much, he would ditch his security, get in his car and drive alone at night and at speed on the empty roads outside Gaborone.
The story spoke to many of the traits that made Khama such an unusual, enigmatic leader: his single-minded dedication to the job; the enduring love of speed and adventure, as befits a qualified pilot; his reputation for doing things his way, and on his own, even if that often made him a lonely and occasionally disliked — although always respected — figure on the continental stage.
Last week, the Mail & Guardian had a chance to put this rumour to Khama himself. As president, he was not always accessible to journalists. Now that he is out of office, and cannot call on state media to push his agenda, he is courting attention. On this particular Friday, he could be found in a boardroom in the private plane terminal at Lanseria Airport, telling a carefully co-ordinated stream of South African journalists why he is unhappy and exactly who is to blame.
But before we get to his talking points, which were neatly listed in bullet points on an A4 sheet in front of him, we had to check: Is the rumour true? He smiles, as though he too enjoys the mental image of a renegade president throwing off the restraints, but his response plays into another common perception: that Khama, an unmarried teetotaller, lives a remarkably austere, disciplined lifestyle.
“No, no, no, that’s not true. I would never have done that at night-time because I go to bed early, because I get up very early to do gym. I’ve always known that if you sleep late, it affects your being able to put in a good session the next morning. But yes, I didn’t want to have a lot of security around me. And when I used to go in the afternoons, like to go to sports, I would go without an escort. Minimal security every morning when I went to the office. Again, no escort, no blue lights or anything like that.”
Although Khama insists that he never wanted to be president, he was literally born into power, as the son of Sir Seretse Khama, Botswana’s first president and founding father. So when he left the army to join Festus Mogae’s government in 1998 — slotting straight into the vice-presidency — everyone knew it was only a matter of time before he would ascend to the top job. Sure enough, 10 years later, Khama was sworn in for the first of two terms in office, in one of those orderly transitions of power for which Botswana is justifiably famous.
Changing of the guard: Then Botswana president Ian Khama campaigns in Gaborone in 2014. (Marco Longari/AFP)
“I had not intended pursuing a political career until my predecessor came and asked me to leave the army and join him in politics. I didn’t enjoy politics, the rough and tumble of political life,” Khama said.
And so, when the day came for him to step down, he was quite content to leave State House, he says — in fact, he had moved out of the presidential
residence months earlier. “When the day came it was just so, so easy. I had no withdrawal symptoms; there was no culture shock for me after that.”
On his last day of office — on April Fool’s Day last year — his overwhelming emotion was relief. “No matter who I met, where I was at, even if it was with family and you thought you were just having a family gathering, people would raise some issue or problem that was going on. I would have this notebook, which I still carry today, and entered [the matter in] my notebook. So when I got back to the office, I must make sure I tend to it.
“You are constantly aware that people had expectations of you to deliver, to resolve whatever problems or issues. So that kind of burden, you know, is lifted, because now people are not saying, ‘Oh, there’s this issue, there’s that issue’ anymore…it’s a big weight off one’s shoulders.”
It helped that Khama had hand-picked his successor, carefully grooming him for the top job to ensure that this transition, too, would be orderly. Mokgweetsi Masisi was something of a left-field pick, but Khama knew him well and was convinced he was the right man to continue Botswana’s development — and maintain his own legacy.
Not everyone was so sure. A little more than a year before Khama was due to step down, there was almost a Cabinet revolt. “Half the Cabinet felt that he [Masisi] was the wrong person to succeed because he was engaging in divisive tendencies. But I still stood by him under those circumstances, stood by him to assume the chairmanship of the party at the time.”
In the months before he left office, Masisi job-shadowed Khama, who would take him to important meetings and explain his thinking on key decisions. Khama would consult Masisi on ambassadorial decisions, “to make sure he was happy with any new appointment I made…to ensure the transition was smooth”.
But when Masisi came into power, in April 2018, things began to go wrong immediately — at least as far as Khama is concerned. Masisi turned into a different person. “When he took office, it then just became about him. And driven by this self-interest. And it’s what we’ve seen happen in a few other countries on this continent: that when people come into power, they just lose it.”
This is what Khama really wants to talk about, why he has solicited this morning of rolling interviews: how he was betrayed by his successor, who he says is steering Botswana in the wrong direction and is destroying the key tenets of Khama’s legacy.
Specific criticisms include Masisi’s extensive travel outside Botswana (Khama avoided international forums, and did not attend a single African Union summit); Masisi’s controversial rollback of the ban on elephant hunting, a signature Khama policy; and that Masisi was using threats and intimidation to secure his position in the party.
In April, Masisi’s leadership of the Botswana Democratic Party (BDP) — the party founded by Sir Seretse Khama, and the only party that has ever ruled Botswana — was challenged by Pelonomi Venson-Moitoi, a former foreign minister and a key Khama ally. Venson-Moitoi withdrew her candidacy before it could be voted on at the party conference, saying that the process was a sham. Khama agreed, and was so incensed that he has now resigned as a member of the party.
“Well, it was a very, very difficult decision, as you could imagine. And it could only have come about if we have a situation whereby the current leadership have totally abandoned the values and the principles that this party stood for. We have a situation whereby the current leadership adopted a character for themselves of self-interest, of arrogance and intolerance of any kind of opposition. And we’ve seen members of Parliament expelled from the party. One of them is here in South Africa, I mean, he ran away for fear of his life. And that is something unheard of in Botswana,” Khama said.
This is not strictly true: in the run-up to Khama’s last election in 2014, members of opposition parties and independent journalists accused the security forces of intimidation and torture. At least one journalist, Edgar Tsimane, fled to South Africa. He feared for his life. There is an argument to be made that Khama is now reaping the seeds of authoritarianism that he sewed.He does not see it that way, focusing instead on the sins of his successor.
The new president, Mokgweetsi Masisi, was Khama’s chosen successor, but the pair have now fallen out. (Monirul Bhuiyan/AFP)
“We’ve had leaders before me who understood the principle of democracy, who understood our culture. Because, I think why one of the reasons we’ve been successful is that the people in Botswana have that character. We’ve had that democratic culture that even comes from our traditions and our traditional systems of chiefs and how they relate to the people. It has never been about a one-partystate kind of mentality, or the kind of Donald Trump attitude that you see out there, or the way that the Chinese do things there, or the North Korean leader, Assad in Syria, Maduro in Venezuela. That’s the kind of thing where it’s sort of like you think you are God’s gift to the nation.”
Khama does not go so far as to admit he made a mistakeor to say sorry for pushing so hard for Masisi, a man he no longer respects. But he is well aware that Masisi’s failures reflect poorly on him too, which is why he is re-entering the political fray — to clean up a mess of his own making.
For now, he is playing coy as to whether he intends to join an opposition party, or perhaps even to start his own new party. But he does say he will actively oppose Masisi and his allies ahead of the general elections in October. “Between now and the elections is just going to be very busy campaigning for those who I believe should step up and be in the next government. Whether they’re members of the BDP or other parties in the opposition or in the new party, there should be a collective that comes together of the best candidates we do have from across the spectrum.”
This willingness to leap back into the political fray suggests that Khama’s transition back into civilian life has been more difficult than he will admit, and that he misses the cut and thrust of everyday politics. Indeed, as one of his aides confided: “I haven’t seen him look this relaxed before. I think he’s enjoying himself. He likes a good fight.”
That much is clear from his record in office. One thing that stands out from Khama’s tenure is his iconoclasm, his willingness to make and defend positions that put him at odds with his peers. His refusal to attend AU summits was one such position.
“One of the first things I did when I came to office was to sit down with the team from the ministry of foreign affairs, as it was called then, and [ask] how many summits and meetings am I expected to attend as a head of state. And when they gave me the lists, I said, ‘But I’m going to be out of the country all the time.’ ” This made no sense to Khama: a president should be at home, governing his people, rather than hobnobbing with other leaders. “I have a vice-president, I have ministers, so let me delegate some of that responsibility to them.”
Another major point of departure for Khama was his whole-hearted support of the International Criminal Court (ICC), at a time when other African leaders were resolving to withdraw their participation. According to Khama, the front against the ICC was not nearly as united as it appeared — and the same was true for other major continental issues.
“Some of [the other African leaders], privately they would come and tell me that, ‘No, they support my position.’ Don’t ask me who they were, but there were some who definitely said that even when you talk about the Chinese question. I also was one of those who prefer to keep the Chinese at arm’s length because China is not a democracy. China has a poor human rights record. China is trying to grab land in the South China Sea and China has no tolerance [of] other religions. You know, they’ve locked up the Chinese Muslims in those camps, that’s going on now.
“I was invited twice by China to pay a state visit to their country. And I said, ‘But how can I be rubbing shoulders with the regime, with a leader who is diametrically opposed to what we stand for as a country in Botswana?’”
Khama is also sceptical of the benefits China says it brings in its relationships with other African countries. “There is the corruption that came with it, the poor workmanship that came with it and, increasingly, leaders that I’ve spoken to in Africa about it, they say to me that they are having problems with the Chinese presence in their countries.”
This is another element of Khama’s legacy that Masisi has been quick to unpick. As Zhao Yanbo, the Chinese ambassador to Botswana, commented recently: “I am very pleased to note that since President Masisi assumed office, the Botswana government has adopted a number of policies with the aim of improving the business environment … Now Botswana has become more open and welcoming to the whole world. More and more Chinese business people are coming to Botswana ever since the current regime took over.”
As the interview draws to a close, it is hard not to feel some sympathy for Khama, who, for all his protestations to the contrary, is clearly struggling to adjust to life outside State House and his sudden loss of power.
But he is still proud that he did give up that power. “A lot of leaders, they are just enjoying the trappings of office, surrounding themselves with security and going out on all these trips, and what I refer to as being drunk on power.”
To his credit, Khama was not so drunk on power that he couldn’t see when it was time to step down — but that doesn’t mean he can avoid the hangover. — Additional reporting by Dhashen Moodley