Why Botswana's 'pilot president' fans fears of turbulence ahead

The southern African democracy is widely viewed as a post-colonial success story. But as Botswana’s citizens freely cast their votes in today’s presidential election, critics warn incumbent Khama has a darker side.

Jacoline Prinsloo/Government Communication and Information System/Reuters
President of the Republic of Botswana, Ian Khama, inspects a guard of honor in Pretoria, South Africa, October 5, 2010.
Voters queue to cast their votes at a polling station in Gaberone, Botswana, Friday, Oct. 24, 2014. Electoral officials say that voting has begun without incident where analysts believe the ruling party will win despite growing discontent in urban areas.

When the presidential helicopter touched down in a cloud of dust near this sun-baked village in central Botswana for a campaign rally Wednesday, the man who stepped out from the pilot’s seat was none other than the president himself, Ian Khama.

But that is nothing out of the ordinary in this southern African country of 1.8 million, where supporters and critics alike have long become accustomed to seeing a President Khama in the driver's seat.

In the 48 years since Botswana became independent from England, Khama’s Botswana Democratic Party (BDP) has never lost a single national election, using its political muscle to transform the country from one of the world’s poorest to perhaps modern Africa’s greatest success story — the rare mineral-rich nation not to squander its wealth.

Mr. Khama, whose father Seretse Khama was the country’s first president, is a former general known for personally doling out blankets and food to the poor and dropping into local taverns unannounced to share a drink and game of pool with ordinary patrons.  

“He’s our Chuck Norris — larger than life,” says Edgar Tsimane, a leading journalist here. “He’s playful, he drives quad bikes, he visits the rural villages. He’s just got a big personality that pulls people in.”

But as Botswana’s citizens cast their votes in today’s national election, critics like Mr. Tsimane warn that Khama also embodies the darker side of the country’s seemingly staid politics. The wildly popular president is a proud leader who set up a powerful spy agency, has appointed military cronies to top government posts, and has an increasingly acerbic relationship with the country’s rowdy press.

“Some journalists are publishing lies as news to spoil our party,” Khama told the approving crowd gathered in Serule Wednesday, many of them dressed in red BDP T-shirts emblazoned with his face. “They write just to sell papers with their negative news, but we know the truth.”

A world divided

Like many Africans of his generation, Khama grew up astride two worlds. On one side was the rural, windswept African countryside of his father’s childhood — not far from Serule — where Khama inherited a chieftaincy he still holds.

On the other side stood the glittering world of the rising post-colonial elite. Born in England, where his father had married a white British ambulance driver named Ruth Williams, Khama speaks English with a crisp British accent. He was educated at the Royal Military Academy in the UK before becoming the commander of the Botswana Defence Force.

And just as Khama rose through Botswana’s establishment, the country itself was changing at a breakneck pace. A far-flung and largely neglected patch of the British Empire at independence in 1966, the chance discovery of diamonds here the following year turned Botswana’s history on its head.

Thanks to a deal negotiated by the administration of Khama’s father, Botswana’s government took a 50 percent share in the country’s major mining operations. It used the money to heave the country out of poverty at a staggering rate. For nearly three decades after independence Botswana posted the highest per-capita GDP growth in the world, outpacing “Asian Tiger” economies like Singapore, Hong Kong, and South Korea.

“My children grew up in a better Botswana than me,” says Khuto Khuto, a farmer in Serule who voted for the first Khama in the 1960s and has been a loyal BDP voter ever since. “We have a road here now, there is a hospital and a school.”

But if Botswana has managed to largely avoid the political and economic maladies of most of its African peers, many analysts warn Khama’s trenchant approach to his opponents marks a new chapter in the country’s politics.

“He could well be the last BDP president,” says Zibani Maundeni, a professor of political science at the University of Botswana. “You can see that’s what he fears by his administration’s obsession with intelligence and his more authoritarian style.”

‘If I were a dictator’

In 2007, while vice president, Khama helped launch the Directorate of Intelligence and Security (DIS), a spy agency charged with keeping tabs on perceived threats to the state. A prominent opposition figure recently claimed he was kidnapped and tortured by the DIS, and critics allege the agency was involved in the car crash that killed another opposition leader, Gomolemo Motswaledi, earlier this year (police say the investigation is ongoing). 

“Deniability, of course, is the great virtue of intelligence,” Mr. Maundeni says. “These rumors are difficult to substantiate … but there is a definite chill in civil society.”

Khama himself seems largely unflustered by the charges against him, pointing to Botswana’s continued star performance in international rankings of good governance and business climate.

“If I were a dictator, we wouldn’t enjoy those rankings,” he told the Guardian bluntly earlier this month.

Nevertheless, cracks are showing in the BDP’s armor, with today’s election widely expected to be the closest in the country’s history. The number of Botswana citizens expressing trust in the president has fallen from 77 percent when he was elected in 2008 to 67 percent today, according to survey data by AfroBarometer.

Confidence in the military, government, and state anti-corruption efforts has also declined precipitously across the course of the Khama administration, according to a 2013 Gallup World Poll.  Still, only 44 percent of the population believe the opposition represents a viable alternative, according to the AfroBarometer data.

“He’s a populist, he knows how to reach people, but slowly their minds are changing,” says Thapelo Ndlovu, campaign manager for the Botswana Congress Party (BCP), one of the major opposition groups.

That change can’t come fast enough for Tsimane, the journalist. In early September, he published a story accusing the president of covering up a late-night car crash he was allegedly involved in. Within hours of publication, his editor was arrested and charged with sedition. Tsimane says he feared for his own safety if he stayed in Botswana. That night, he scaled the border fence into South Africa and hitched a ride to Pretoria, where he immediately applied for political asylum.

“I can’t go back, not while Khama is still in power,” he says. “The things I’ve said about him mean I’ll never be safe there.”

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