Is karma catching up with Botswana’s Ian Khama?

President Ian Khama of Botswana at the London Conference on The Illegal Wildlife Trade, 13 February 2014.

Botswana’s President Ian Khama has just won a second and final term, evidence that he retains considerable popularity as a leader. But some of his countrymen argue that his late father, founding president Sir Seretse Khama, would be disillusioned by his son’s less-than-stellar political performance and the increasing authoritarianism which marked campaigning prior to last Friday’s elections.

Khama’s Botswana Democratic Party (BDP), which presided over a de facto one party state for almost fifty years, will be unpleasantly shocked by its reversals, especially in urban areas. In the capital, it secured less than half of Gaborone’s thirteen wards. The opposition has won twenty of the fifty-seven contested parliamentary seats, compared with twelve in 2009.

Previously, weak opposition parties have been easily co-opted into agreeing with the ruling party instead of acting as a check and balance in parliament, but this time several parties formed the Umbrella for Democratic Change (UDC) coalition.

Botswana has long been the poster child for good governance and capitalist-led growth in the region; state investment in education and other social goods has paid dividends in the form of a very literate population, and high economic growth rates are underpinned by diamond wealth. Recently, political analyst Ebrahim Fakir said that “Botswana has greater economic equality than most other African countries. There are no shack settlements.”

But Batswana themselves are quick to dispel the utopian notion of an enduringly stable nation where everyone is prosperous. The Minister of Housing has warned that Botswana is not immune to slums, adding that “some of these housing conditions pose a great risk to their inhabitants as they cannot withstand natural disasters.” At a campaign rally, the UDC’s presidential challenger, Duma Boko, highlighted deteriorating education standards, noting that “no single primary school in Botswana, Gaborone included, has a library”.

Charles Malefhe, an acquaintance from Mahalapye in central Botswana, concurs. “Everyone thinks [we’re] the miracle nation, no squatter camps and diamonds everywhere!” he scoffs, noting that he’d lived in a squatter camp outside Francistown for several months. Conceding that the government’s Self-Help Housing Scheme has assisted some squatters to build shelters, which then helps them to access services, Malefhe also points out that peri-urban land falls under traditional authorities who are allied with the ruling party, and thus vulnerable to patronage.

Malefhe is also highly critical of the president. “He divided the party after 2009 and he can’t decide about a VP,” he says.
“Now he’s desperate to win so he’s bribing bogosi (chiefs) and threatening doomsday. His father would be ashamed (that) he distracts us with thugs, singers like Alec Seametso. But we Batswana know better. The economy has drowned under him … We need change.”

The economy, high youth unemployment rates and deteriorating service delivery are key issues for Batswana. Widespread and recurring electricity outages have angered citizens, particularly businesspeople whose enterprises have suffered. Compared with average annual growth rates of 8% or more in the mid-2000s, Botswana’s GDP growth slowed significantly under Khama’s management. An unforgiving electorate has demonstrated its ire through the ballot.

Malefhe, for one, is dismissive of global recessions and fluctuations in the diamond market. He claims there’s sufficient money in the fiscus but “it’s being misused” and characterises Khama’s inner circle as sycophantic “tenderpreneurs who are getting rich on our money, while we sit in the dark.”

Khama and the BDP will have to act fast to reverse such opinions and prevent them spreading further; this would mean diversifying the diamond-dependent economy and upping the ante on service delivery.

Organised labour has also punished the ruling party for its obdurate refusal to negotiate with unions during the country’s two-month-long public sector strike in 2011, the first seen in post-independence Botswana. Union leaders who joined opposition parties, such as Goretetse Kekgonegile, a former spokesperson for the public sector unions, probably took much of their support base with them, and they may prove difficult to woo back.

The death of an opposition leader in a ‘highly suspicious’ car accident earlier this year caused widespread conjecture and both Khama’s and his party’s image have been tarnished by other incidents of assault against opposition politicians and allegations that they had used state resources for campaigning.

Karma may have caught up with Ian Khama. His second term is sure to be more challenging than his first; though his party retains a parliamentary majority, government is likely to come under far greater scrutiny from the expanded opposition benches than ever before, and citizens’ concerns will have to be addressed if the BDP is to have any chance of retaining what remains of its electoral base into the future.

Ayesha Kajee bio picAyesha Kajee is a rights activist and political analyst with a special focus on governance and development.