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Botswana President Leaves Office on Time, But With Mixed Reviews

FILE - Botswana President Ian Khama looks on during the Botswana-South Africa Bi-National Commission (BNC) in Pretoria, South Africa, Nov. 11, 2016.

Botswana’s president has drawn attention recently for urging long-time African leaders to loosen their grip on power: first, Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe, then Joseph Kabila of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Now, it’s his turn. President Ian Khama steps down Saturday to make way for his vice president, exactly a decade - to the day - after he became president of the diamond-rich Southern African nation. Current Vice President Mokgweetsi Masisi will take his place.

FILE - Vice President Mokgweetsi Eric Masisi of Botswana addresses the United Nations General Assembly, at U.N. headquarters, Thursday, Sept. 21, 2017.
FILE - Vice President Mokgweetsi Eric Masisi of Botswana addresses the United Nations General Assembly, at U.N. headquarters, Thursday, Sept. 21, 2017.

Botswana is a rarity on the continent for its record of free and fair elections since independence, as well as its reputation for low levels of corruption.

Presidential spokesman Jeff Ramsay says Khama leaves behind a strong and peaceful country.

“We’ve had uninterrupted democracy and development in our country since 1965, I should say, although independence was ‘66, with the first election and self-government,” he told VOA. “In the case of Khama, some of the highlights, first, would be his promotion of poverty eradication. We have a poverty eradication program, we’ve made progress in reducing poverty levels.”

Khama’s voluntary departure is a bright spot in a region where other leaders have gone to great lengths to stay in power, some beyond their legal mandate.

But Khama’s critics say that while they applaud his respect of the law in this regard, he has shown an authoritarian streak.

The retired army general, says analyst Ndulamo Anthony Morima, has pushed through bills and signed some orders without going through parliamentary processes, has stifled dissent, and oversaw the government’s decision to stop advertising in private media outlets that it saw as critical of Khama’s administration.

“There were some authoritarian tendencies, but obviously, not to the extent of our fellow African countries, [where] we know there is almost a lack of regard at all for democracy,” Morima told VOA.

Like father, like son, like brother …?

Khama is the oldest son of Botswana’s first post-independence leader, Seretse Khama. The younger Khama’s critics have accused him of trying to establish a family dynasty. In 2014, the president drew fire from his own party when he attempted to have his younger brother, Tshekedi, installed as vice president.

Tshekedi is one of several candidates rumored to be in the running as the new president’s deputy.

The Khama family also occupies a number of key positions inside and adjacent to the government. Tshekedi is minister of tourism. His twin, Anthony, is a businessman who was embroiled in a 2015 scandal in which his company was allegedly given favor in a major defense contract.

Their cousin is the defense minister and oversees the nation’s intelligence agency. Another cousin is a top ruling party adviser and once served as ambassador to Sweden. And his ex-wife, who kept the Khama name, heads the nation’s De Beers diamond franchise.

Analyst Nicole Beardsworth says the end of Khama’s presidency doesn’t mean the Khama name is out of play in Botswana’s politics.

Theoretically, Masisi now has 18 months to solidify his position and levy the advantages of incumbency to win the nomination of the ruling Botswana Democratic Party and the election.

But Beardsworth says, “If Ian Khama spends the next two years trying to position his brother and gather support and momentum for his candidacy, then, it’s entirely possible that it might be Ian Khama’s brother instead.”

That theory, Morima notes, is popular in Gaborone’s political circles. But, he adds, the nation’s opposition has failed to mount a strong challenge to the BDP.

“So I think what needs to be done is the opposition taking itself seriously, coalescing around a particular platform so that it poses a real challenge to the BDP, which currently is not the case,” he said. “And my prediction is that, come 2019, we may still see the BDP winning the elections.”

1 car, 143 cows

Khama has enjoyed a warm send-off during his last year in office. He recently completed a tour of the nation, where citizens lavished him with praise and showered with gifts that included a car, 143 cows and hundreds of chickens.

In one of his many farewell speeches, the former pilot, who has never married, said he never really wanted to be president.

But, he quipped, “now Botswana is convincing me that I should become a farmer with all the animals that have been gifted to me."