The little signs that Botswana's democracy is under stress as president Khama's autocratic streak grows

There’s a word in Setswana that people are now using to refer to Ian Khama. It’s “mong-wame”, which loosely translates to “my owner”, or “my lord”.

President Ian Khama of Botswana at the London Conference on The Illegal Wildlife Trade, 13 February 2014. (Photo/ Flickr/ UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office).

President Ian Khama of Botswana at the London Conference on The Illegal Wildlife Trade, 13 February 2014. (Photo/ Flickr/ UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office).

BOTSWANA has a reputation for being Africa’s democracy star performer. It has the longest continuous multiparty democracy in Africa; elections have been held every five years since independence - and the ruling Botswana Democratic Party (BDP) has won them all. 

Botswana is regarded as a quiet, peaceful, clean, non-controversial country – an arid sea of calm in a turbulent continent.

But you can learn a lot about a country by watching the television news. On the day I arrived, I switched on the TV and there was a live news event on – President Ian Khama was officially opening a stadium in Francistown, one of the country’s main urban centres in the north.

There was something utterly familiar about the fawning platitudes that speaker after speaker ascribed to Lieutenant General President Seretse Khama Ian Khama – said in full like that by those at the microphone – and his visionary leadership.

I hate to say it, but that obvious sycophancy from the political class is something most Africans can spot very easily, and I wasn’t expecting it in a country that is looked up to as a model of democratic expression.

More than that, the president’s portrait hangs in every public establishment – even at the little Debonairs outlet at the mall, where the president’s face gets steamed up from time to time as hot pizzas pass back and forth beneath him.

Nothing sinister about that, you would say, but my Batswana friends tell me this is only a recent development in the country’s history, and hints to a creeping authoritarianism in the political system.

“My owner”

There’s a word in Setswana that people are now using to refer to Ian Khama. It’s “mong-wame”, which loosely translates to “my owner”, or “my lord”. Granted, Khama is a traditional chief of the BamaNgwato people, one of the eight principal chieftaincies of the Tswana people. But that word hasn’t been used to describe a democratically elected president before.

These otherwise benign expressions of “respect” take on a different form when seen in the light of the ruling party’s dwindling support, and the country’s increasingly fractious political climate.

Though Khama secured re-election for a second term in the 2014 elections, the BDP lost much core support, particularly in the urban areas. It garnered 32 of the 57 parliamentary seats, its smallest majority in its history. Opposition parties have made inroads since the formation in 2010 of a breakaway party, the Botswana Movement for Democracy, part of an opposition coalition called the Umbrella for Democratic Change (UDC).

Botswana’s status as an idyllic hub of prosperity was threatened by the global financial crisis of a few years ago, which led to a drop in diamond revenues, the government’s main export revenue earner. It led Khama’s government  to halt planned investment and led to growing unemployment; the country’s first public strike was held in 2011.

But most of the change in the political mood can be ascribed to Khama’s own temperament.

Son of the country’s founding president Seretse Khama, under whose leadership the country was able to harness diamond revenues for the greater welfare of the people, Khama is famously arrogant and haughty, to the point of hubris.

A graduate of Britain’s Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, he’s been described as eager to impose “puritanical discipline” in party ranks, with an unveiled disdain for journalists and media criticism. 

So outrageous

Last year, Outsa Mokone, editor of the Sunday Standard newspaper, was arrested and charged with sedition, while a reporter fled the country saying he feared for his life. According to the president, the paper published a story about him that was inaccurate, defamatory and so outrageous that police decided “a crime had been committed”.

A recent working paper from Afrobarometer showed that Botswana’s political regime is beginning to show signs of stress. According Afrobarometer’s data, risk of democratic instability doubled (rising from 12% to 24% of respondents’ attitudes between 2008 and 2014) in a context where official crackdowns on opposition parties and the mass media have left citizens beginning to feel that they are losing the “freedom to say what you think”.

On the international stage, Khama has taken an inward-looking foreign policy that has tended to isolate Botswana regionally. Khama has never attended an African Union meeting (nor a UN one), since he took office in 2008, saying they are a waste of his time.

However, he also called for a rerun of Zimbabwe’s contested 2008 elections, a call that Harare termed “extreme provocation and unstatesman-like”. Khama denounced the SADC’s endorsement of Mugabe’s 2013 re-election, calling instead for an independent audit of the poll. 

And at a time when Africa has closed ranks behind Sudan’s Omar al-Bashir, Khama has continued to call for his arrest on the strength of a warrant issued by the International Criminal Court, most recently in June when the strongman showed up on South Africa’s doorstep for an AU meeting.

But my Motswana friend said the perceptible shift in the political climate comes from two places – Khama’s own personality as a military man obsessed with control, and a constitution that gives sweeping executive powers to the president. Until now, most presidents had used those powers for good, so there has really never been a compelling reason to restrict the presidency’s executive authority.

Since independence the government has pursued policies generally regarded as sound and fiscally conservative. The state provides successfully for the health and education needs of almost all its people, despite an arid climate and vast distances between settlements.

Democratic tradition

Botswana is the third richest African country in per capita terms, consistently ranks top of most governance indices, and has a long unbroken democratic tradition. In all likelihood, the government will continue to deliver on the “bread and butter” everyday issues, and this authoritarian streak will just be a blip in the country’s history.

But history – most recently in North Africa – has shown us that psychological needs are extremely important too, and people often put their physical welfare on the line to fulfil these needs.

One of the psychological needs that drives humans is autonomy – the need to feel that you have executive authority over your own thoughts and actions. Quasi-authoritarian regimes suppress, or at least chill, people’s autonomy, and the distress that this causes must find resolution.

Sometimes, it needn’t even be in the form of street protests and civil unrest, as happened in the Arab Spring nearly five years ago. In Africa, as political space constricted – particularly in the 1970s and 80s – people found ‘refuge’ in the church or mosque, neighbourhood watch committees, charity organisations, and even school parent-teacher associations (PTAs) to feel like they have some power over their own environment and destiny.

So as Khama serves his second term – and conceivably becomes more cantankerous as he grows older – it will not be a surprise if active membership on neighbourhood watches in Gaborone, spikes upward, for reasons that have nothing to do with crime.

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