By John Ekongo
Botswana once again lived up to its reputation as one of the most stable democracies on the African continent when she displayed yet another smooth transfer of power.
The Botswana Democratic Party (BDP) has been in power in this developing country with a vibrant economy since 1966, and in its existence it has seen more than four occasions where power was handed over smoothly.
At the beginning of this month Seretse Khama Ian Khama became Botswana’s fourth president, taking over from Festus Mogae in a smooth power handover.
They were preceded by Sir Ketumile Masile, who took over from Sir Seretse Khama, the late father of the new president.
Unlike all his predecessors, Khama has a military background, and so his Vice-President Retired Lieutenant General Mompati Merafhe.
It is this attribute that creates another first for this small southern African democracy.
The only other country in the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC) in post-independence to have been under a president with military credentials was Mozambique under Samora Machel.
Senior Researcher of the Africa Situation Analysis Program at the acclaimed Pretoria-based think tank, the Institute for Security Studies (ISS), Chris Maroleng, thinks otherwise. He believes that there are some positives from the fact that he has a military background.
“This is a positive element – for administration, goal orientation, discipline aimed at the socio economic development of Botswana and its democracy,” said Maroleng.
Maroleng is of the opinion that with Khama’s credentials and personality, Botswana is likely to perform well and continue moving in the direction she has for the last 30 years.
“When you look at Ian Khama, there are some positive skills in his personality and traits as a politician with a military background. He has done well to engage elements in the issue of his success and he has shown himself to be an astute politician, to build Botswana’s democracy. He has big boots to fill, and he is more likely to enhance the socio-economic and democratic movement in Botswana.”
The big boots Maroleng refers to is the legacy left by his father, former President Sir Seretse Khama.
Similarly, this is a notion shared by Namibia’s South African-based academic and political commentator, Joseph Diescho.
“Seretse Ian Khama will stick to the Botswana of old. His father established a proud culture of Setswana in the democracy of Botswana, so that will be his yardstick,” reveals Diescho.
“What we can learn from this is that a voluntary stepping down process of any head of state or leadership is necessarily not wrong, nor will it render you invaluable – hardly the case,” Diescho said.
The commentator maintains that in Africa, and especially in countries with a history of liberation movements, transition of power is a difficult thing to do “simply because of the politics of liberation”.
In the meantime, Diescho says this trend contributes largely due to underdevelopment and stagnant economies.
“Change of mind and tactics usually means progress, and many of our leaders appear as if they are against progress unless it is their own at the expense of the masses. Namibia and any other countries that suffer from liberation hangover can learn a valuable lesson from this,” said Diescho
Maroleng continues: “What Botswana has indicated to the rest of the continent is that the issue around transition and renewal are vital, for any model of democracy especially on the African continent.”
More so that an individual is not larger than the country.
Ian Khama’s rise to the seat of the presidency has been coming for some time. He was born in 1953 in the UK, where his father had married an English woman, Ruth Williams.
Khama schooled in the village of Serowe, in the central district, before proceeding to study in other countries including Zimbabwe, then Rhodesia, Swaziland, Switzerland and the UK where he graduated from the Sandhurst Military Academy.
Upon completion of his studies, he began a long and distinguished military career, which saw him rise through the ranks of the army to take up command.
He later became the vice-president of the country.
He is credited with playing a pivotal role in developing the army into a professional force, which participates in peacekeeping missions, disaster relief and anti-poaching activities.
However, although he was made a chief in 1979, he has never assumed the responsibilities of traditional leadership in his village.
He has duped tradition too, by not marrying, something culturally expected of paramount chiefs.
He is said to generally keep to himself with some in the party having worries about his quietness, claiming that they are unable to know what he is thinking.
However, he says he will continue the policies of his predecessor – a man he described as a democrat who upheld the rule of law.
Norman Moleboge, High Commissioner of Botswana to Namibia, says there are lessons to be drawn from the transition. He maintains that even though President Khama has a military background, his political credentials have withstood the test of time of Botswana’s political travels.
The High Commissioner notes that President Khama has been vice-president for the last 10 years and over the years has contested primary and national elections as a political leader. “Some of this include contesting intra-party contests,” said `Moleboge.
To this end, Moleboge comments: “This demonstrates that they have embraced the democratic culture that exists in Botswana.”
Moleboge has high hopes that this transition in his country will augur well for the African continent.
He says that nations are more important than individuals and as such an enabling environment of engagement with opposition parties, civil society organizations and other powers such as the military must be cultivated. This he believes will deepen the democratic movement within the region and the continent at large.
While Mogae may have set a standard for democracy, democracy activists and opposition members have complained about “automatic succession”.
The Botswana Democratic Party, in power since the former British protectorate gained independence in 1966, virtually anoints the next head of state. The BDP is expected to continue its dominance in the face of a weak and divided opposition.
“The danger is that it provides for a dynastic succession which has been the trend since Seretse Khama,” said Maroleng.
– Additional repor-ting courtesy of Mmegi newspaper