Interview: Ian Khama, President of Botswana
Having now ruled
Botswana for over a year, following the retirement of former President
Festus Mogae, President Seretse Khama Ian Khama faces his first general
election in October. He talks to The Africa Report about democracy,
Zimbabwe and the impact of the global recession
Son of the country’s first president, Sir Seretse Khama, Botswana’s current leader is a pilot and a lieutenant general, credited with professionalising the military. Following the normal pattern of succession in Botswana, Lieutenant General Seretse Khama Ian Khama was vice-president for ten years under President Festus Mogae, only taking over the helm when Mogae stood down in April 2008. He will now lead the ruling Botswana Democratic Party into general elections in October 2009. Idiosyncratic and keen on personal fitness, Khama has recently pushed up tariffs on alcohol. His interest in conversing with ordinary citizens has won him plaudits and raised eyebrows in equal measure.
??The Africa Report: You’ve been touring Botswana and canvassing the opinion of people around the country face to face. What do they ask you for??
PRESIDENT IAN KHAMA: A lot of them are personal issues that they bring up. Other times it’s to do with maybe the quality of the services that are being provided by their local councils, issues of water or rationing, electricity and so on. There is also the issue of job opportunities that they are looking for, access to land for ploughing or to build themselves houses. It’s a whole range of things.?I find that interaction is very useful because I do it in two ways. One is to have meetings – what we call Lekgotla – where people come together, they individually present their problems or ask questions. The other is that I will just pop in unexpectedly and visit people in their houses in different parts of the country, wherever I am. Like on weekends if I’m in one part of the country, I will pay a visit to people. I just want to hear from them one-on-one – how they are doing, what we can do to assist them with any problems that they may have. I think, in a democracy, it’s important that when people elect you, they expect you to come back and consult them on a regular basis.??
We’ve had cliffhanger elections in Ghana, Zambia and Zimbabwe. Botswana’s politics tend to be less adversarial. Is this a weakness or a strength?
I would consider it a strength. I remember former President Mogae telling me he was once told by a BBC journalist that Botswana’s election process was very boring because there was nothing to report. Because they always go off smoothly there’s no controversy around them, and I think that’s a good thing. You sometimes get into the news for the wrong reasons.??
You’ve played a frontline role in the Zimbabwe crisis, sheltering opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai on occasion. Do you think the regional splits that this diplomacy seemed to cause have healed today??
I don’t think it was a split that necessitated a healing process. Certainly in my interaction with other countries who didn’t share our approach, it never came up – anyway, no one said anything to me. They may have done so in the corridors or away from us. They may have had some unkind words to say about our approach. But certainly some countries always preferred quiet diplomacy. I have a good relationship with their leaders. What was interesting was that those I spoke to would not come out strongly against [President Robert] Mugabe and his ZANU-PF party in public, but when I discussed and engaged them about the problems there, they clearly recognised that there was a problem and that something needed to be done about it.?When Mugabe realised that he didn’t come out on top and would have to go for a re-run, he resorted to his tactics of brutality to bring about his victory, and that’s when we thought that no, he had once again crossed the line. At that stage I thought that we were going to break ranks with the rest of the region, with quiet diplomacy.
Borrowing big to steady the ship
Botswana gets $1.5bn from
the AfDB. Read more.
And how are relations with Mugabe today? Have you spoken to him??
Oh, yes we do. The last time I met him was at President Jacob Zuma’s inauguration. And there we greeted each other and we had a chat. The last time we had that summit in South Africa that brought about the implementation of the agreement which had been stalled for some time, he was a different person. I have seen him on many occasions where he can be a different person, but there’s just this issue that sometimes drives him. I think it’s probably this desire for them to stay in power.
??Given the global downturn and the effect that it’s had on the diamond industry, what counter-cyclical measures does the government intend to put into place to help counteract some of these effects??
Because our private sector is still very dependent on government spending, the one thing we wanted to do was negate as much as possible any effects of the downturn on our local economy. And so we were prepared to incur quite a significant deficit this particular financial year. We have seen the benefits of that, as we have not had the job losses that other countries have had. It’s only in the mineral sector where there have been some challenges because it is export-orientated, whereas our private sector is largely domestic-orientated.?We are using our creditworthiness to borrow from organisations like the AfDB and the World Bank to carry us through this period, rather than dip too much into our foreign-exchange reserves because, as you will appreciate, maintaining those foreign-exchange reserves is quite important for our creditworthiness. We have had quite sympathetic hearings from those financial institutions, so that’s essentially what we did on the budget side.We are now working on our next six-year plan, because the next plan period begins the next financial year, so we have to take into account these sorts of revenue projections over the next two to three years. Around that time I think we will be back up and running at the same pace we were before this downturn came upon us.
How successful has Botswana been in adding value in the diamond sector?
We are doing very well with downstream activities because we have decided to position Botswana to go beyond just being a producer of diamonds. We are moving Botswana to being what we call a ‘diamond hub’. We should then be able to offer various activities from not just only mining and the sorting work we are currently doing, but we’ve also gone into polishing and cutting, as well as even having the jewellers being able to establish themselves in the country. We have also set up the Diamond Trading Centre, which as you know has always been in London. Part of it will come to Botswana, so the sightholders will travel to Botswana to do their purchasing of diamonds.
Rough diamonds and
Debswana has opted to
cut production. Read more.
It seems that every report published by the Bank of Botswana in the last 20 years has talked about the urgency of diversifying the economy. What are the obstacles and what has been achieved over that period? ?
The one thing that makes it so hard is having the biggest economy in Africa as a neighbour. Any investor would obviously see it as it makes more sense to go [to South Africa] with its ports, airports and other transport infrastructure and its links to the rest of the world. But what we are doing in Botswana is upgrading our own infrastructure because we are right in the heart of the Southern African region.Even if you may not look at Botswana as a market – because it is a small market – you look at the bigger picture of the Southern African region, and not even South Africa will be able to access those markets.??
Do you agree with the Law Society of Botswana, which condemned elements of the security apparatus for extra-judicial killings, as in the case of John Kalafatis?
I think anybody should condemn that, if that’s what happened. By law, there has to be an investigation by the police, and I think there would be. This isn’t the ‘Wild West’ and shooting people on sight under any circumstances would not be acceptable. It depends on the circumstances, if you come across an armed robbery in progress, obviously there’s going to be shooting and there would be loss of life – that we have to accept. And so one isn’t saying that the security forces shouldn’t open fire at all – as I say, it depends on the circumstances. Even if they feel they are fully justified, even if there was an armed robber shooting directly, if they return fire and they kill that person, there will be an investigation.I don’t understand why it’s necessary for the Law Society to come up with that because I would like to believe that. With the principles we’ve put in place and our upholding of the rule of law, for them to suggest that there could be people in the security forces that go round shooting people unnecessarily, I find quite surprising. We wouldn’t tolerate a situation like that.??
HIV/AIDS has taken its toll in Botswana. What are the latest developments?
We are very pleased that the interventions we have taken have been successful. There was a time when the loss of life due to HIV/AIDS was very high, very noticeable, especially amongst young people. The vast majority of the people who need ARVs [anti-retroviral drugs] are getting them today. We have seen a significant reduction in the death rate as a result of HIV/AIDS.Another intervention – the prevention of mother-to-child transmission – has also worked. The uptake initially was very low by the mothers needing them [medicines], but now the numbers have certainly swelled, and again the transmission rates are extremely low.?The big challenge still remains behavioural change, and I think that will be the biggest, because at the end of the day, with or without these other interventions, that’s the only way we are going to be able to conquer this – [with] behavioural change.