Ian Khama's 'activism' requires honesty about his presidential legacy

Ian Khama is one of the most important political figures of his generation.

He was never a perfect President: a walking contradiction, full of paradoxes and now, stands as a polarising figure who has dedicated his post-presidency to political activism amongst other things he’s passionate about.

As a young person who grew up under Khama’s political tenure in office from the vice Presidency to the Presidency, I experienced first-hand the euphoria surrounding his leadership and ascension to office, the love-hate relationship he grew to develop with his citizens as well as the tactical blunders he committed.

His dalliance with the opposition and his new found voice to speak out against obvious injustices are futile if we do not sufficiently interrogate his presidential footprint.

Members of the opposition who were some of his fiercest critics are not willing to use their new ‘bromance’ to ask him difficult questions about the pains he inflicted while presiding over this young democracy of ours. Even then, public discourse is limited if the man himself does not have the appetite to answer pertinent questions about the quality of rule of law, economic mismanagement, patronage, corruption, human rights violations, extra-judicial killings, militarisation of the public service, indiscriminate arrests of activists and journalists and so on.

By design, and perhaps by default, Ian Khama has never placed himself in a position where accountability was expected of him. His former party through which he rose to the Presidency, has never held him accountable nor provided for an environment where the former President felt he needed to open himself up to democratic debate by and with his own fellow Members of Parliament, the media or civil society. And so the toxic cycle continues.

Under President Ian Khama, as with his predecessors, the quality of democracy and democratic institutions continued to deteriorate. It is therefore only right from a moral and ethical perspective, and for the ends of truth, that His Excellency be first held accountable for his own leadership. In order to be genuine with his activism, I don’t think he ought to have been a perfect President. But he must go on record and own up for his own shortfalls. He must also commit, like other African former heads of state in Nigeria’s Olesugun Obasanjo to doing the work in his post-Presidency to groom future leaders, write, help build and strengthen democratic institutions.

Perhaps more closely to his passion, Khama must establish serious long-term social welfare and environmental conservation programmes that will outlive him. As a philanthropist he has always been drawn to charity work. But his initiatives have a stark weakness in that they seem to be centred on him with no long-term strategic or institutional backing.

The legacy of Khama’s presidency must be talked about with brutal honesty, if his activism is to be beneficial to himself, the people and the causes he cares about.

In his retirement from public office, he has invited journalists to his home and his office but it is unclear whether he intentionally hand picks scribes who have no inclination to ask the difficult questions or if there’s a clear directive as to what can and cannot be asked. In addition to this, he has spoken at the Oxford Union, the ‘Mecca’ of intense debate and scrutiny and has received prestigious international awards for his esteemed passion for environmental conservation. He has also addressed international media multiple times.

Two years after his departure as President, Botswana still finds itself reeling from the systematic rot of past administrations. The region is also experiencing some turmoil, particularly in Zimbabwe, Mozambique and until late last year, Lesotho.

Khama’s foreign policy was driven by heavy-laden snubs of the regional bodies such as SADC and the African Union. Again, Khama cannot be completely absolved from the problems facing the region.

As head of state, he has a stake in whatever failures the SADC and African Union have had. It is counterintuitive to level blame against organisations you once presided over but have no record of doing substantive work to push for radical reforms.

Khama’s was an imperial Presidency. He no doubt ruled in monarchical fashion, dominating decision-making in all aspects. By modern democratic standards, his attitudes towards open government and accountability make his sudden epiphanies on democracy, human rights and rule of law impractical to the causes of the Zimbabwean people or any people he will attempt to lobby and advocate for.

In contrast, his failures as President and leader of the Botswana Democratic Party (BDP) must not be mistaken for lack of political prowess. He’s a skillful mobiliser who has single-handedly done considerable damage to the BDP’s stronghold in the Central District and amongst its pool of supporters.

His large following and support for the opposition has and will likely dent the BDP’s credibility, and build onto the narrative that the institutional fabric of the BDP is indeed eroding away.

To be fair, the majority of the BDP’s weaknesses are attributable to both the ruling party’s cohort of members and Ian Khama himself. In the same context, the tragedy of ‘messianic’ worship afforded BDP leaders isn’t entirely Khama’s fault either. But as a beneficiary of the same system, honesty on his part would acknowledge this fundamental problem.

The irony is that revolutions that the former President wants to be a part of occur under an environment of open debate, engagement and dissent, principles his past administration have done well to curtail in Botswana. Khama’s activism in Botswana and beyond, particularly on Zimbabwe strikes a compelling urge to look in the mirror and reflect on his own Presidential legacy which was also thronged by arrests and intimidation of journalists, and systematic frustration of political opponents.

Although he was a flawed President, he’s a great Motswana and a fine African leader who could’ve done exceptionally well.

One of his major downfalls, as with many presidents, was in failing to hire the best people to do the job. His influence cannot be underplayed and he’ll be useful for the causes he cares about.

He brings the much-needed attention to human rights and other issues.

This isn’t to say presidents aren’t allowed to achieve and speak on their post presidential clarity.

But for Khama’s activism to be genuine, he must account for his Presidency and speak to the fundamental flaws in our institutions that he unflinchingly took advantage of without any commitment to building better institutions that will survive another Ian Khama or another Mokgweetsi Masisi.

The plight of Zimbabweans or of anyone who suffer injustice must not be used as political currency. Nor should it be used to discover post-presidential clarity.

I have no doubt that the former President means well, but in the interests of accountability and building better Presidencies for the future, he must allow himself to be subjected to intense intellectual scrutiny, and he must engage to help us deconstruct one of the most consequential presidencies of our lifetime- the Ian Khama Presidency.

I strongly contend that it is not the former President’s job to line up the battalions to offer compelling critiques of his successor. Presidents must trust that they have done enough to strengthen key institutions and build citizens’ political consciousness. After that, they must politely excuse the next generation of activists and leaders and allow them the space to build their own democracies without an over-imposing figure that continues to be an objectionable reminder of what was wrong in the first place.

*Bakang Ntshingane is a Political Economist. He was a 2019 summer intern at the Green Climate Fund (the world’s largest multilateral climate dedicated fund)

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