On Saturday March 31, Ian Khama stepped down as the president of Botswana as his term ended ahead of next year’s election. Khama served two consecutive terms clocking just over nine years in office. His decision to step down eighteen months early to allow for a smooth transition is unprecedented in our part of the world. In fact, he pressed on with his plans to retire from the presidency despite many people in Botswana calling for him to stand again. In other parts of our continent, such calls would have been the cue for very personalised constitutional changes allowing for third and even open-ended terms. Ayimenso basi!
In recent memory, we have witnessed tenure elongation moves from the likes of Yoweri Museveni in Uganda, Paul Kagame in Rwanda, Pierre Nkurunziza in Burundi, and Abdoulaye Wade in Senegal. Our own Bakili Muluzi, believing too much of the hype, also tried to usher in an unlimited term amendment that would have allowed him to run for more terms. Several others have had to be literally chased away from their respective State houses after the people grew tired of their apparent ambition to die in the presidential mansion. Muammar Gaddafi of Libya and Tunisia’s Zine Ben Ali, are but recent examples. Closer home, Robert Mugabe genuinely believed there was no one better than him to lead Zimbabwe whilst Joseph Kabila in DRC keeps playing chicken with the electoral calendar.
But tenure elongation is only one example of clinging on. Our political parties have neither the desire nor the processes for making genuine performance assessments of their leaders and taking the necessary steps for change. Political party conventions are but a farce where the results are predetermined regardless of the performance or lack thereof of office holders. Thus leaders who are ineffective, incompetent or corrupt enjoy the privilege of continuing in their role based on factors other than the quality of their leadership. Thus, on this continent, hanging on as leader is quite the norm especially when these leaders are surrounded by praise singers who have nothing better to offer other than extreme bootlicking.
Yet, it is not President Khama’s uncharacteristic zeal not to overstay his welcome that marks him out as an exceptional leader in a class of rather worrisome leaders. Rather, it is the focus on which he set about his presidential duties. So dedicated and decisive was his delivery of key policies that even opposition MPs were lining up to praise the achievements made during his two terms both on the domestic and international front.
During his two terms Khama faced not one, but two, economic recessions both related to Botswana’s dependence on diamond mining. However, in both cases, he pushed ambitious State investment plans that kept the economy going, allowing the private sector time to pick up the slack. It is notable that unemployment fell from 26 percent when he assumed the presidency to 17 percent when he quit. His plans to support growth through infrastructure spending were vehemently opposed but his singlemindedness has left Botswana with world class water and energy infrastructure and added close to 29 000 private sector jobs. Whilst some governments elsewhere were busy arranging dubious loans for maize, Khama’s government was investing for the future. Similarly, Khama was not satisfied with the mere laying of foundation stones. His commitment to pro-poor programming did not waiver despite opposition and was evidenced through an ambitious house-building programme targeted at low income earners as well as successive poverty eradication programmes aimed at small scale farmers.
On the international front, Khama saw his role as projecting a moral leadership in a region where presidential brotherhood was more important than the rights of citizens. He was quick to condemn Mugabe’s repression of Zimbabweans and his desire to never resign from the top job. Khama’s stance should be contrasted with that of many others who wined and dined Mugabe and refused to show solidarity with ordinary Zimbabweans despite his atrocious human rights record. Do you remember how we got a Robert Mugabe Highway when he was busy torturing opposition activists? This would have never happened in Khama’s Botswana. Similarly, when the African Union plotted to undermine the International Criminal Court under efforts led by pseudo-democrats such as Mugabe, Museveni and Zuma, Khama spoke out against such moves observing that leaders who served their people with integrity had nothing to fear from the ICC.
Of course Khama’s presidency was not perfect. He has been faulted, and rightly so, for restricting media freedoms and railroading development plans for Botswana’s indigenous peoples. However, one cannot but admire his determination to leave the country better than he found it. He saw purpose in his role and assembled teams that would help him deliver the necessary programmes drawing expertise widely from the political spectrum. He was not impressed by praise singers and had little time for political bootlickers with no critical insight. Given our own myriad problems, this is the type of leadership we demand: leaders who understand that theirs is a duty to serve with a purpose. n
*The author is from Bangwe and sometimes teaches law.