Doesn’t always bear closer inspection: Botswana President Ian Khama at the 48th anniversary of Botswana’s independence in 2014. Picture: GETTY IMAGES/AFP/ANADOLU AGENCY/KEBOFHE MATHE
Doesn’t always bear closer inspection: Botswana President Ian Khama at the 48th anniversary of Botswana’s independence in 2014. Picture: GETTY IMAGES/AFP/ANADOLU AGENCY/KEBOFHE MATHE

In a continent in short supply of exemplary leaders, Botswana gets accolades as a bastion of democracy and good governance. Yet this perception is misleading. The country, with a population of 2.1m, would appear to be descending into autocratic rule under President Ian Khama.

For decades, the diamond-rich country has been praised for avoiding the resource curse — the corrosive effect of strategic mineral resources in promoting social divisions and kleptocratic elites. Botswana has achieved an 85% literacy rate, while 90% of children of primary school age are enrolled in school. Most HIV-positive citizens receive life-saving drugs.

To the outside world, Khama, a UK-born son of the country’s first president, Seretse Khama, has won a reputation as one of Africa’s most outspoken figures.

In 2016 he told Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe that it was time for the long-serving nonagenarian to retire. Last year he refused to recognise Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni’s electoral victory. And he broke ranks with the Southern African Development Community (SADC), as well as other African leaders, when he announced he would hand over Sudanese president Omar Al-Bashir to the International Criminal Court — where he faces war crimes charges — if he visits Botswana.

Yet at home, Khama’s regime has undermined good governance and democracy.

He inherited a stable economy powered by mining, which has been the driving force of Botswana’s economy. GDP grew at an average of 7%/year for most of the 1990s.

But the haemorrhage of mining revenues to corrupt officials and businessmen has weakened the economy.

Pervasive corruption and deep inequalities of property ownership and income continue to pose problems.

The country has slipped more than 12 places on Transparency International’s corruption perception index since April 2008. A 2015 survey by independent research organisation Afrobarometer says at least eight in 10 people in Botswana believe corruption has increased under Khama’s leadership. It has downgraded the country’s press freedom ranking.

"In my country we are regressing," former president Festus Mogae told the African Leadership Forum in Tanzania in 2014 when asked about Botswana’s culture of deportation and stringent visa requirements.

An Oxford-educated economist, Mogae reinvested the national surplus in infrastructure and education during his eight years in office.

Observers attribute Khama’s impatience and intolerance to his upbringing. Like most founding presidents, Seretse Khama ensured that his children received every advantage. He parachuted his son into military leadership after his graduation from Sandhurst, a UK military training college, making him one of the youngest brigadiers to serve in Botswana’s army, at just 24.

Certainly, Khama has shown no patience for dissenting views, even within the ruling Botswana Democratic Party. In 2009 he expelled its secretary-general, the late Gomolemo Motswaledi, after he questioned some of his decisions.

Commentators say Khama’s populist policies have increased unemployment and disenfranchised the youth. Youth unemployment exceeds 40% — one of the highest figures among middle-income economies. One-fifth of the country’s people lives on less than US$2/day.

And Khama’s administration appears to be losing patience with dissenters. Last year, for example, a group of unemployed youths marched on parliament, demanding that government take a more active role in job creation. Riot police violently suppressed the protest and arrested journalists.

Four high court judges differed publicly with the chief justice, Khama moved swiftly to suspend them, throwing the entire judiciary into disarray. He later pardoned them.

Since Khama took office in 2009, there has been a marked increase in the number of extrajudicial killings, torture and the harassment of members of the public by plainclothes security agents, a security expert says.

Just a year into office, he established a spy agency, the Directorate of Intelligence & Security Services, giving it wide-ranging powers to arrest, seize and detain without a warrant.

Khama also enjoys a lavish lifestyle. He is reported to have purchased a luxury caravan for himself, worth $200,000, at taxpayers’ expense.

He also has an appetite for grand, wasteful projects. He recently ordered eight secondhand Gripen model C and D fighter jets worth $1.7bn, spending almost half the country’s annual budget in a deal that one aviation expert says the military does not need.

In December 2015, when the global commodity slump began to bite, Khama withdrew $350m from the Pula Fund, a reserve set up with diamond revenues, to create an economic stimulus package.

But critics allege that the money was splashed on tenders that went to loyal members of the ruling party.

Khama appears to be unconcerned by the recent loss of 6,000 jobs when a copper-nickel mine closed and was subsequently sold to a United Arab Emirates firm for a fraction of its cost.

The head of the country’s spy agency, Isaac Kgosi — Khama’s former batman in the army — is accused of using his position to undermine efforts to investigate him after he was linked to the receipt of shares from supermarket chain Choppies in 2013. Kgosi is yet to be prosecuted after accusations of corruption were made.

Many institutions set up to fight corruption are themselves compromised. Opposition politicians say the Directorate on Corruption & Economic Crime (DCEC) is weak and lacks independence.

"People believe leadership is corrupt, hence they become corrupt themselves," says Moeti Mohwasa, spokesman of the opposition Umbrella for Democratic Change.

But nothing better illustrates Botswana’s reining in of democracy than Khama’s disdain for private media, which he has declared to be "shallow, boring ... never contributing anything", unpatriotic and partisan. Members of government, including some employed by corruption watchdog the DCEC, believe private media should be controlled. Khama himself told the Botswana Guardian newspaper in a 2013 interview that the media is "generally indisciplined".

As an army general, he is known to have vetted writers who were critical of the Botswana defence force, and to have barred journalist Joseph Balise and the Botswana Guardian from entering the Sir Seretse Khama army barracks.

Today, critical media organisations are starved of advertising under a surreptitious ban imposed by government.

Khama is thought to favour regulating the media and is a keen proponent of the Media Practitioners Act, which compels journalists to register with and to obtain accreditation from a media council. A minister in Khama’s office appoints members of the council, which decides who can become a journalist. However, the act is in abeyance because of opposition from the Law Society of Botswana, whose participation is required.

Khama has also threatened to sponsor defamation lawsuits against the private media brought by cabinet ministers, in what appears to be an elaborate plan to weaken the media.

Eric Molale, minister in the office of the president, is notorious for not taking media questions.

In the run-up to the 2014 election, Botswana arrested, detained and threatened as many as 16 journalists.

Sunday Standard reporter Edgar Tsimane had to flee to SA after his brother, who worked in the intelligence services, tipped him off that his life was in danger. In 2014, editor Outsa Mokone became the first Botswana citizen ever to be charged with sedition. Mokone and Tsimane reported that Khama had been involved in a car accident that had not been reported to the police.

"The sedition charge against Outsa Mokone and his arrest make it increasingly clear that freedom of expression is under attack in Botswana, as the government tries to silence journalists," US research and advocacy organisation Freedom House said in a 2014 report.

Last year, freelance journalist Sonny Serite was arrested on suspicion that he was about to obtain classified documents that revealed corruption in the presidency. In March this year, three journalists from Ink Centre for Investigative Journalism said they had received death threats from seven plainclothes security agents when they tried to investigate allegations that Khama was using the Botswana defence force to run personal errands and renovate his private residence. When asked, government said the journalists had tried to trespass in a restricted area, but it did not clarify this further.

While Khama’s popularity, as measured by Afrobarometer ahead of the 2014 general election, has been declining, the frustration is not apparent in rural areas. As soon as he became president, Khama moved to consolidate his electoral base by introducing populist programmes for the poor.

One such programme is Ipelegeng — a labour-intensive public works project in which thousands enrolled.

He also moved to establish constituency leagues, promoting sports with direct funding from government coffers.

He is known to have donated blankets and food hampers to the rural poor, prompting opposition politician Dumelang Saleshando to refer to him as "Father Christmas".

Khama’s emerging authoritarianism is mostly a concern for urban dwellers, who complain that the president is throwing money at problems without providing sustainable solutions for employment.

They are also concerned by his foreign policy. Under Khama, Botswana has enjoyed improving relations with the dictatorial Swazi monarchy, while strongly condemning similarly chaotically governed Zimbabwe and Lesotho.

To some extent, Khama has won favour among ordinary SADC citizens, who view him as a no-nonsense African statesman, according to media reports. He will
be remembered for his disdain for international gatherings of leaders, having preferred to send his vice-president to AU and UN "talk shops".

The constitution bars Khama from running again in 2019 and he will likely be succeeded by an altogether duller figure, current party chair Mokgweetsi Masisi. He is new in politics, and has yet to consolidate his political base in the party. Observers say Masisi lacks the charisma most of his competitors in the opposition enjoy.

Unlike his predecessors, Khama (64) will leave office while fit enough to pursue a full-time job. Parliament recently amended the Presidents Pensions & Retirement Act to allow him to take up a full-time job after leaving office. Observers believe he intends to work in the tourism industry.

• This article was first published in Africa in Fact, the journal of Good Governance Africa.

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