Who is the greatest Botswana president of all time?

November 9, 2015, 12:13pm


As President Ian Khama’s term of office comes to an end in 2018, Mmegi analyses the terms of office of the country’s past three state presidents including the incumbent. Photos: Mmegi

By Ryder Gabathus and Siki Moshwari Johannes, Mmegi

As it is common knowledge, the sitting president is Botswana‘s fourth since the former British colony attained its sovereignty 49 years ago. Although President Khama’s term in office is yet to expire, the time he has spent in office is sufficient enough to allow some comparison between the four presidents. To measure and rank the presidents cannot be an easy task considering that having ruled at different times, each leader has had to contend with unique and peculiar circumstances of his time.

Notwithstanding the four presidents’ cases during their terms, who is the fairest of them all?

Late Sir Seretse Khama 1966-1980

President Khama, being the founding father of our republic was the architect of Botswana’s democracy. Botswana was best described as a collection of separate, autonomous tribal groupings. It fell upon the shoulders of Seretse to instil a sense of nationhood and oneness among these different tribes. It took the efforts of great statesmen like Seretse to persuade Chiefs and the minority white settlers to agree to forgo their special privileges and subject themselves to a new unitary democratic dispensation.

Seretse was a bold and daring leader, choosing the path of independence at a time when sceptics around the world including the British believed Botswana was not ready for self-determination.

In his book entitled, Seretse Khama, Professor Thomas Tlou, observed that the British government, “was therefore reluctant to concede full political autonomy to a state which could not cover even its own administrative costs from its own revenue.”

Seretse, however, insisted on attainment of full independence saying that Batswana have always felt that managing their own affairs was a birth right. This was a bold move from an exceptional leader. No one gave an impoverished and under populated country a chance to survive, but Seretse’s faith in our ability as a people to whatever hurdles the nation could face, kept the nation going. And the rest is history.

On the political front, he led a united party free from internal bickering

Seretse was more of a teacher as he went around teaching people how to express themselves. He is generally considered the author of our democracy. Journals reflect that as president of Botswana, Khama promoted his ideal of a multiracial democracy.

“He achieved free universal education in Botswana and sought to diversify and strengthen the country’s economy. He was reelected to successive terms and served as president of Botswana until his death,” journals further say about the late first president of Botswana who was also the father of the incumbent President.

Sir Ketumile Masire-1980-1998

Masire continued the legacy of Seretse and ensured that democracy continued to flourish during his time. He treaded carefully and rode on the Seretse popularity as he had worked with him (Seretse). Having been Seretse’s number two since independence, he knew the direction the country was taking and thrived on the shadow of Seretse. That is why Masire probably had to take the late Lenyeletse Seretse from Serowe as his number two to probably further the late Khama’s legacy in a way.

Generally, Masire never had trying times when in office except the South African Defence Force incursions, which incessantly disturbed peace within our shores at a time when our national army was still growing.

When the media became robust, Masire became resistant as at some stage he threatened to clap Outsa Mokone, a journalist, for writing a story he felt was unfair on him.

Unfortunately, the gap between the rich and poor widened and there was no deliberate effort to bridge the gap between the poor and the rich.

Corruption started to develop at a time when housing construction under the aegis of Botswana Housing Corporation (BHC) was booming especially what popularly became to be Joseph Letsholo scandal. Other big names in his (Masire) government were implicated in the BHC scandal following the Judge Christie Presidential Commission set to investigate the rot at BHC.

There was also the Englishman Kgabo-Land Commission in Mogoditshane/Nkoyaphiri that saw Daniel Kwelagobe and Peter Mmusi amongst others having to resign their positions to clear their names before they could bounce back after the court intervention.

Towards the end of his term the ruling Botswana Democratic Party (BDP) was now torn apart by factions especially after the emergence of the so-called “Big Five” which fought for recognition and possible take over of the party from conservatives.

Automatic succession was Masire’s creation albeit it seemed to limit competition for the highest office on the land. Although he is viewed as the best of our presidents, upon his retirement from active politics Masire left a faction riddled party and corruption infested country.

Festus Mogae-1998-2008

As a renowned and shrewd economist, when he took the baton of power from Masire, after rising through the civil service, Mogae chose to pursue policies of his predecessor than making major policy shifts.

His target was seemingly to make the economy perform to its very best. He pursued bigger involvement of the private sector as he believed that the private sector is the engine of growth. As privatisation gained momentum, a parastatal, (PEEPA) to deal with privatisation matters was set to overlook the process of privatisation albeit it met a lot of resistance from the trade unions as they felt it was set to result in job losses.

Mogae discouraged Botswana from spending their money buying their wares in South Africa as it was under him that we saw the rise of chain stores in Botswana.

Seemingly, Mogae cared less about the plight of poor people. As he came from humble beginnings himself, he believed that people could rise from their situations and become something through hard work.

Against the backdrop of economic recession, through his economic shrewdness, he kept the economy intact despite hardships. Mogae has left an indelible mark and attracted international attention through his hands on fight against HIV/AIDS which has helped Botswana parry new infections and the spread of the virus.

Ian Khama 2008-To date

As fate would have it, President Khama’s assumption of power in 2008 coincided with a debilitating global economic recession. The economic recession undermined the Botswana diamond industry and the future of the country looked bleak and uncertain. Government revenues fell drastically. Consequently, Khama’s government had to make hard choices. At the risk of being unpopular, Khama embarked on cost cutting measures to keep the economy afloat. Exercising wage restraint under these difficult circumstances somehow worked wonders to secure jobs as evidenced by absence of retrenchments which characterised other countries.

Recently President Khama announced an Economic Stimulus Package to give the ailing economy. Economic analysts have reacted with mixed felling to the ESP; some see it as what the doctor has prescribing for our economy while others think it is ill-advised. Time will tell if ESP will achieve what Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s ‘New Deal’ did for the USA during the Great Depression.

The President is credited for introducing pro-poor programmes such as the Presidential Housing Appeal designed to provide shelter above the heads of the less privileged. The president has declared a total war on poverty and has made a commitment to wipe off poverty by 2017.

Tourism appears to have witnessed some growth under Khama’s rule and in some instances the President is personally involved in promoting the tourism industry. The shoot to kill policy has sent a clear message to would be poachers that illegal hunting is a risky business in Botswana. The annual Khawa challenge, Rasesa and Makgadikgadi air shows are some of the initiatives aimed at promoting tourism.