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Former Botswana President Ian Khama is well known for disregarding the established etiquette amongst Africa’s political elite that turns a blind eye to the pursuit of self-interest by fellow leaders in the name of diplomacy. He repeatedly called for Zimbabwe’s former President Mugabe to step down and openly criticised him. On the surface it seems that Khama’s moral grandstanding can be justified given Botswana’s reputation for good governance and economic stability. Yet looking back at the decade of his rule, this narrative has been hollowed out by a man that showed himself to be less of a leader and more of a ruler.

Khama, a former army general, is in a class of his own amongst Africa’s political elite. His father, Seretse Khama, became king of the Bangwato people at the age of four. Seretse Khama was educated at South Africa’s Fort Hare University and in London, where he married a white woman - Ruth Williams. Their marriage came to be accepted by his subjects but he was denied taking his throne by the British government. Seretse Khama won the election as leader of the Bechuanaland Democratic Party and became the country’s president at independence in 1966.

Whilst his marriage caused discomfort for Britain and the white governments in the countries that surrounded Botswana, Seretse Khama gained the respect of colonial governments and western nations by turning around one of the poorest and most heavily indebted African countries. Helped by the discovery of Botswana’s enormous diamond wealth a year after independence - which attracted powerful mining interests - political and economic stability became a source of national pride.

It was in this environment that Ian Khama grew up, choosing a career in the Botswana army, and retiring as a general before taking up leadership of the Botswana Democratic Party (BDP). Khama’s world has been one of kings, generals and presidents; he is not a man of the people but has drawn power from patrimony for the Khama dynasty.

While the country appears to be a multiparty democracy, one political party, the BDP has dominated since independence and the constitution provides for an executive presidency, a reflection of a patriarchal political culture. Critics over the years have drawn attention to the elitist, centralised political power and weak executive accountability. Good governance in Botswana slipped under Ian Khama to reveal his autocratic and repressive rule. During the 2014 elections, an opposition politician died suspiciously in a car crash and another was kidnapped, tortured and left for dead, calling into question the state of democracy in Botswana at the end of Khama’s first term.

Media freedom has been under attack during Ian Khama’s presidency. The Media Practioners Act was put in place in 2008, the year he first took office. It restricts the freedom of the press, only allowing journalists that are approved by the government to be published and imposing other restrictions on publications.  In 2014, Edgar Tsimane, a journalist, sought asylum in South Africa when his editor was arrested and charged with sedition.  He claims that the media has been silenced, sometimes by the court and journalists are too afraid to report.

In 2011, during Khama’s first term of office, there was a public sector strike of more than 90,000 civil servants, the first of its kind in Botswana. The strike went on for eight weeks and ended in defeat, as the government would not entertain workers’ demands. Reflecting on the strike five years later, Botswana Federation of Public Sector Unions Secretary General Tobokani Rari said in 2016; “Our government did not learn any lesson from the industrial action. It is doing all it can to close the democratic space of trade unions based on events that took place after the strike. After the strike the government tried to stop trade unions from enjoying the rights to secondment as well as using a stop order facility.”

Not only have political and civil freedoms been debunked, but also beyond the castle walls of Botswana’s economic success are high levels of poverty, particularly rural poverty affecting women and children; and Botswana is ranked fourth amongst the most unequal populations in the world. The country’s reliance on commodities has not shifted and the economy is taking strain with the volatility in global diamond prices. The country has not built up domestic demand and the domestic demand that does exist is mostly met by South African goods and services. With considerable state interest in diamond mining, the government is hardly cash strapped. However, it has maintained neo-liberal fiscal policies meant to attract foreign investment to diversify its economic base, which has not materialised.

Despite relatively high levels of social spending, crippling poverty persists. There are inadequate economic opportunities and jobs; official unemployment stands at 17.6 percent but is in fact estimated to be at least double that. In 2016, the government faced heavy criticism for Botswana’s Golden Jubilee independence celebration plans from youth group, #UnemploymentMovement. More than half of Batswana youth are unemployed. Protests were put down by brutal police assaults and detention. The movement became one of Khama’s most vocal critics and drew attention to governance issues such as corruption and wasteful use of resources, in particular Khama’s penchant for military hardware, spending a huge chunk of the state’s budget on a jet.

Given patrimony in Botswana, it is not surprising that gender inequality is deeply entrenched. There are few opportunities for women in formal employment; instead women make up 75 percent of the workforce in the country’s large informal sector. Two out of three women in Botswana have experienced gender-based violence. HIV prevalence is 22 percent across the general population, but is higher amongst women than men.  Gender activism is not well established in Botswana, but it is beginning to take on the patriarchal culture that permeates political and social spheres. Early in 2017, a video of a woman being publically assaulted for wearing a miniskirt at a bus rank triggered public outrage and the “Right to Wear What I Want” movement was launched, holding marches against gender-based violence. 

The civil society has been weak and underdeveloped. This is in part a result of the long-term nature of the political status quo and dependency on government funding. However, under Khama, the civil society has effectively demobilised, as there has been little policy space to advocate on governance and developmental concerns in his liberal authoritarian state.

Khama’s rule put his sovereignty over that of the people but he kept his promise to respect the constitution, which restricted his time in office to two elected five-year terms. He ended his rule with a tour amongst his subjects where he was treated like royalty and showered with gifts. Khama handed over power to his Vice President, Mokgweetsi Masisi. Elections are more than a year away and the BDP faces its greatest challenge if the opposition joins ranks under Duma Boko, a human rights lawyer. It would be prudent of Masisi to use his time wisely and be the leader that Khama was not – a man of the people that addresses the hardships faced by the majority and ensures greater freedoms.

* Aisha Bahadur is a consultant providing strategic support to civil society organisations including trade unions focussed on African issues.