Botswana dodges a bullet: Its democracy is safe, but Khama's 'authoritarian' streak is a wake up call

History is full of great kingdoms and empires that were built by wise men, but ruined in short order by a reckless and inept heir.

BOTSWANA’S government says it will accept a court ruling that effectively foils President’s Ian Khama’s bid to appoint his brother Tshekedi Khama as vice-president.

Khama, 61, re-elected for a second term in October 24 polls, wanted lawmakers to vote by a show of hands for his deputy instead of through a secret ballot.

According to critics, Khama was cynically calculating that MPs of his ruling Botswana Democratic Party (BDP) would be afraid to openly oppose him by rejecting his brother, while a secret vote and the anonymity if offers would have emboldened them to revolt.

The Court of Appeal on Tuesday followed the High Court in judging a secret parliamentary ballot constitutional.

“Government accepts that the matter has been resolved and wishes to assure the public that it will respect and fully implement the decision of the court,” the executive said in a statement late Tuesday.

Khama had faced a backlash from within his own party over the prospect of Tshekedi being vice president, with parliamentarians accusing the president of trying to create a dynasty in one of Africa’s most democratic nations.

This setback, however, does not mean that the younger Khama will end like almost-similarly named DR Congo veteran opposition leader Etienne Tshisekedi, whose many attempts to lead his country have failed.

He could still become president in future, but at a high price to Botswana’s democracy.

The BDP, after all, has been in power since independence in 1966 and is Africa’s, and one of the world’s, longest ruling democratic parties. (READ “Khama wins second term as Botswana’s BDP becomes Africa’s, and one of the world’s, longest-ruling democratic parties”).

Ahead of the October elections, the newly formed Umbrella for Democratic Change (UDC), led by Duma Boko, which was contesting elections for the first time and became the official opposition with 17 seats in parliament, was already sounding alarms bells.

It accused accused Khama of becoming “increasingly authoritarian”.

Stable democracy

However, Tshekedi can take heart from the fact that Botswana is not allergic to a little dynastic politics (in that sense it is similar to other regions of undemocratic Africa).

President Khama, after all, is the son of the country’s first president, Seretse Khama.

Botswana has long been considered one of Africa’s major success stories. Formerly one of the poorest nations in the world, it managed to build a prosperous economy based on diamond mining and a stable political system as many other African nations fell into ruinous dictatorships and poverty.

But a lot of it also had to do with the character of the men who have led Botswana, allowing them to blunt the opposition that elsewhere would have blown up over the domination of power by one party.

The president’s father, Seretse, was a mild-mannered, thoughtful man. His successor Quett Masire was also even-tempered and unassuming, as was Festus Mogae who followed him, although once or twice a year, he would let himself go.

Arrogant and testy

By contrast, Ian can be testy, arrogant, and given to speaking out of turn. A bachelor, the president has had to contend with the country’s unending yearning for a First Lady. In addition, as chief of the Bamangwato people, custom requires him to be married.

In 2010, he broached the subject in a manner that would have cost leaders in touchy countries and more competitive politics their job.

At a political party meeting, Khama said his top requirement for a future wife is that she needs to be tall, slim and beautiful; this, as media reports noted, in a country known for short, heavy set women.

He wasn’t done. To drive the point home he pointed to the Assistant Minister of Local Government Botlhogile Tshreletso and said, “I don’t want one like this one. She may fail to pass through the door, breaking furniture with her heavy weight and even break the vehicle’s shock absorbers.”

It is a sign of how entrenched democracy is in Botswana that the ruling party and courts pushed back against the president, and that the government accepted their rulings.

In countries like Gabon and Togo, presidents positioned their children well enough that they were able to succeed them, and in southern Africa all eyes now are on Zimbabwe where President Robert Mugabe’s wife Grace has been staging a very public and scrappy fight against vice-president Joice Mujuru, in what analysts say is a power grab aimed at ousting the VP and possibly opening the way for her to succeed her increasingly frail 90-year-old husband.

Still, president Khama’s actions are a warning that one cannot take democracy for granted anywhere in Africa yet. History is full of great kingdoms and empires that were built by wise men, but ruined in short order by a reckless and inept heir.

Related Content


blog comments powered by Disqus