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Was President Ian Khama a 'Student of Democracy'?

I was six when Ian Khama entered politics as Vice President, and 16 years old when he ascended to the Botswana Presidency. The euphoria around Ian Khama's rise to the Presidency was contagious.

Khama had served his country well as a young army commander; the first son of Botswana’s founding President Sir Seretse Khama, the heir apparent and the paramount chief of the Bangwato tribe. He was a decorated philanthropist, his mother’s true son!

For most observers, regardless of party affiliation, expectations for Khama’s presidency were very high. A political novice with no prior governing experience, Khama was doomed to the steepest of learning curves. After all, every president faces a learning curve, even the most experienced and prepared and who have the best and brightest of their party joining them at the helm of the ship of state. History and evidence suggest that presidents do learn, though there are individual differences in how they go about doing so. Much of every president’s learning depends on the administrative structure (and the individuals who occupy it) that surround the president. Over time, not only do presidents and their advisers learn how to be more effective at their jobs, but presidents learn to more effectively manage the mechanisms of governance. However, presidents don’t just learn from government apparatus. Presidents learn from public reactions and opinions, the media, civil society, academia etc. For any president or leader to learn (or be willing to learn), he or she first must be aware of (and dissatisfied with) his or her own ignorance and inadequacies. No man is perfect, presidents even more imperfect given the level of public scrutiny they endure. As John F. Kennedy reportedly said, “there is no school for commanders in chief.”

Khama left the presidency in a crisis of competence. Since Khama’s retirement, as a matter of reflection I have pondered numerous times on his legacy. It is under his presidency that I became a first time voter, graduated from both high school and university. I have enjoyed relative peace and stability that Botswana’s democracy has had to offer. I have become both a student and a dissenting voice of democracy. I have studied, enquired, written, protested, succeeded, failed, critiqued, supported and most importantly, participated as a young voter to help build this democracy. Naturally, I felt a strong sense of ownership for Khama’s presidency. But a recurring thought now occupies my mind: was former president Khama a student of the same institution he represented, defended and led the country by? What do we expect from our leaders? Firstly, that they must at least embrace and believe in the institutions they represent and secondly, that they must learn from democracy and its dictates in their daily interactions with the people.

Khama was a political novice. He was a risk for his party but an opportunity at the same time. A president with so little knowledge about policy and so few ideological commitments can be pragmatic but also volatile and easily swayed. There was a matter of perception, i.e. how Khama was perceived in Botswana society and how that led to the kind of president he became.

I was a 16-year-old idealist who admired the institution of President when Khama came in. At the heart of this admiration was a matter of societal perception, a heroic fixation, if you will. When we were kids, folktale would recall of Khama’s adventures as a dedicated warrior and hero who could magically turn himself into a molehill or a tree stump to hide from enemies and tactically pounce on them, leading his soldiers to victory. Of course these were all myths, but they inadvertently created a saviour complex and worse, an unfair burden of expectation on the young Khama.


Perhaps that was the problem.

An uncommon but common man of the people! The soundbite made sense. We yearn for the ‘common person’ who has an uncommon genius, charisma and star quality. We want our presidents to be like us, yet better than us. We yearn for both king and commoner. Our thirst for the heroic is so enduring it is as if history is meaningless without heroes.

At the same time, the hero is the individual the democratic nation must guard itself against. “Pity the nation that needs heroes,” goes a proverb. In frank contrast, Ian Khama was part of an elitist society of royals. Coupled with that was his elitist education, and that was part of the paradox; the contradiction that built the man and the president.

Khama’s entry into politics was an extension of this saviour complex. Former president, Mogae needed an outsider and a neutralising force to rid the Botswana Democratic Party of its toxic factions. Also, apparently the country needed a disciplinarian and Lt. Gen. Ian Khama was the medicine the doctor prescribed.

Two decades later during his farewell speeches one thing always stood out: he would jokingly chide former President Mogae for

bringing him into politics prematurely. On the surface it was easy to dismiss this as a joke, but deeply, perhaps it was not. Maybe it was a cry out for help from a man who got swallowed by expectations to save, unite and march us to the Promised Land. He enjoyed the spontaneity of flying and wrestling with lions, sleeping in the bush. I can imagine that he loved how it belonged to him, his own private moments of living and interacting with nature, a fact that slowly dissipated the moment he stepped into politics. I think of all the misguided policies he put in place, like the alcohol levy to “save us” from ourselves.

Presidential leadership comes and goes, and with every new president we are forced to juxtapose the two leaders in contrast of each other. Khama’s presidential legacy comes down to whether or not in his inadequacies; he made an effort to learn the dictates of ‘substantive’ democratic governance and diplomacy.

This isn’t to demand that presidents must go out of their way to change their whole entire being to satisfy the demands of the office, but an active indictment of a saviour complex and how it narrowed down Khama’s thinking of the world, public policy and Batswana’s needs in their entirety. Khama was a man of the people, commendable as that is, but balance was not his forte.

The presidency requires those who occupy it to respect the institutions that form the core pillars of democracy. How Khama treated civil society, the local private media, opposition parties and dissent in general was a cause for concern. Unfortunately, the former president never learnt to reconcile with any of these institutions that might have made a difference in the success and prosperity of his presidential term. You could tell from the language he used to describe the private media, opposition parties, protesting university students and civil servants that he had a disdain for dissent.

When he became president, he inherited a global financial crisis, rising unemployment, widening income inequality and declining social mobility. The world changed geopolitically, and so did the demands of presidential leadership. The founders and architects of the presidency surely did not intend for the institution to stay rigid and unsophisticated. The expectation has always been for whoever occupies the office, to govern according to the will of the people and be driven by the demands of the current generation. Khama did not learn to mould and transition the presidency to engage in all of societal and intellectual discourse.

That Botswana still commits to procedural critical aspects of representative democracy is commendable, but as Botswana continues to grow, its unique selling points are increasingly at risk.

In fact, globally, democracy has been in decline for the past decade. Voter participation, corruption and all the pillars of democracy are weakening.

Ian Khama was not the most transparent of presidents. He barely engaged with the local media, civil society nor the youth. His most preferred way to express his foreign policy headspace was through press statements. The expectation was for him to get out of his shell and be more accountable, more receptive to open debate and dissent.

That never happened. More and more into his presidency, Khama became more flawed as president, and more at odds with the lessons we draw from history on democratic governance. A president who appreciates history recognises it not as a burden, but as an anchor in a chaotic world.

What was there for His Excellency to learn anyway? A lot! That leadership within a democracy is full of contradictions and paradoxes, and we must embrace and learn to maneuver around them; that an effective leader understands the presence of opposites, and doesn’t reduce legitimate protest to mere ‘disrespect’; that perhaps presidential power and the ambiguity that comes with that power were deliberate on the part of our founding fathers to be a litmus test of true presidential character; that while the power was overly concentrated on the office, the compromises the president make to share that power would be ideal.


Lead us, yet also listen to us!

The president might have understood the basics of democracy, but what he didn’t appreciate fully, were the deeper strands of democracy, the power of democracy in people’s lives, the ability to grow inclusive communities through deeper interrogation of ideas. It takes a certain type of president to recognise that he has too much power and what that power means, but perhaps “the fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves, that we are underlings.”

*Bakang Ntshingane is a Motswana post-graduate student at Chonbuk National University in South Korea with a focus on international trade policy and economic diplomacy

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