WHEN Botswana President Ian Khama took over from Festus Mogae on April fools day in 2008, and became one of the two regional leaders who publicly denounced president Robert Mugabe’s style of leadership, many viewed the retired army general as the epitome of democracy.
Khama and the late Zambian president Levy Mwanawasa questioned Mugabe’s legitimacy after the bloody June 2008 presidential election run-off that Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai claims killed at least 200 of his supporters.
Botswana even went further to become the only Sadc country to declare that it did not recognise Mugabe’s election, representing a departure from the region’s usual quiet diplomacy.
Two years on, critics, former allies and analysts say Khama could be taking a leaf from Zimbabwe’s wily 86-year-old Mugabe. They accuse Khama, the former military commander, of turning into a dictator.
Opposition political parties, the media and analysts in Botswana fear that if unchecked, Khama could become a despot and a mirror image of Mugabe –– the man he so much despises.
There are uncanny similarities between the two. Their only difference is the time it took for them to show these dictatorial tendencies, analysts say.
It took most Zimbabweans and the world 20 years to take note of Mugabe’s hard-line, authoritarianism. It has taken Khama just two years to build a similar reputation.
Khama, like Mugabe, enjoys excessive powers under the constitution.
But unlike his predecessors Sir Ketumile Masire and Mogae, who preferred to consult cabinet and other stakeholders before making decisions, Batswana analysts and opposition parties say the current president has chosen to use his constitutional powers to make unilateral appointments.
Khama has allegedly surrounded himself with friends in cabinet, government and the party’s top leadership – cronies who owe their livelihood to him, they say.
Professor Kenneth Dipholo, a political analyst who teaches at the University of Botswana, said: “We inherited some of the laws which were dictatorial, but because we were a democracy these laws were not used.
“Past leaders have not taken advantage of these laws. The current president uses the powers and we believe that he is becoming more like a dictator.”
Many Batswana are now worried about what has become of the once popular leader and son of their founding father, Sir Seretse Khama. They are wondering what the situation would be like in another three years when Khama’s five-year term ends.
Just talking to ordinary people, journalists, and politicians in Gaborone, one gets a sense of an entrenched fear to criticise or talk freely about Khama.
A human rights defender who asked not to be named for security reasons said: “I have sensed a worsening of the fear. The people are afraid to criticise their government and this is going as far as the NGO sector, which is cowering and apologetic.”
“Because of the alleged state-sanctioned killings here, a phenomenon which seems to be emerging, Batswana fear that if it continues, Khama could turn out to be one of the worst leaders Sadc has seen.”
Spokesperson of the Botswana Movement for Democracy (BMD), which was formed in May after a split in Khama’s ruling Botswana Democratic Party (BDP), Advocate Sidney Pilane, said there was a general feeling that the Department of Intelligence and Security Services (DIS) had bugged people’s phones and was listening in to private conversations with a view of dealing with dissenting voices.
Khama set up the DIS, which operates on the same lines as the feared Central Intelligence Organisation in Zimbabwe, when he became president in 2008.
The agency is run by Isaac Kgosi, a powerful and feared personal friend of Khama from their military days. Kgosi, who sometimes doubles as Khama’s bodyguard, has also worked as his private secretary.
“There is that fear in people that they are not sure who they are talking to and they are no longer free to talk on their phones because they feel that the DIS is listening in and tapping their conversations,” said Pilane.
Professor Dipholo said Khama’s emphasis on discipline made people afraid to comment or criticise his administration.
“Fear has engulfed our lives and since the president took over, circumstances have changed and the freedoms we knew and enjoyed have changed.”
Besides instilling fear in the people and trying to turn the country into a “disciplined” nation, why do Batswana strongly feel that their leader is turning into a dictator?
It was not possible to get a comment from Khama or his party. Officials at his party refused several interview requests.
But in May, Khama defended his strong-arm tactics. He said it was his responsibility to restore order and repair his party and country, adding that he would continue to instill discipline in his party to ensure that members did not end up behaving like South Africa’s African National Congress youth leader, Julius Malema.
He then dismissed those labelling him a dictator, describing them as lazy people who did not want to be told to work hard.
Khama said he did not expect people to agree with everything he does, hence he had to take a stand as a leader. This, he said, did not make him a dictator.
Khama’s appointment of loyal friends to military and top government posts has trickled down to top party posts, which are being held by non-elected members handpicked by him, say critics.
Pilane, who was the legal advisor to Mogae before the split, said opposition parties, the press and a number of people from the ruling BMD party were always wary of Khama’s dictatorial tendencies from the time he was vice president.
He said they watched Khama’s worsening dictatorship hence the split in the party by people who felt that if unchallenged he could end up like Mugabe.
“He (Khama) had always displayed tendencies, but they were not serious,” Pilane said. “I was always suspicious right from the time he was vice-president and I watched him closely for six and a half years, but some of us thought he would shed his military leadership,” he said.
Pilane pointed out that: “Khama operates like a military commander –– he makes the decisions and everyone exists to carry out his decisions and consultation is a waste of time. He issues directives and his ministers are there to carry them out. He says ‘I am the leader and you must support and do as I say’.”
He said fortunately for Botswana, it had Zimbabwe as an example of what could happen if a leader is allowed to manifest into a dictator.
“We haven’t reached the stage of Zimbabwe and we never will,” he said. “We will not permit it. Last year we could see the beginning of a Zimbabwe in the making. We decided to stop it by breaking away.”
“We are lucky that we had the Zimbabwean experience and we were able to open our eyes because we were able to see Mugabe turn from a hero into a despot. If it weren’t for Zimbabwe we would never have known that we needed to stop Khama.”
Faith Zaba, recently in Gaborone