Botswana’s President Speaks His Mind About Fellow African Leaders, and Trump

By Rene Vollgraaff and Mbongeni Mguni

  Joseph Kabila  Photographer: Bryan R. Smith/AFP via Getty Images

Joseph Kabila
Photographer: Bryan R. Smith/AFP via Getty Images


As most African leaders maintained a stony silence in response to Congolese leader Joseph Kabila’s determination to postpone elections and extend his stay in office, Botswana President Ian Khama’s government shot straight from the hip.

“Some political leaders refuse to relinquish power when their term of office expires,” it said on Twitter. “It is clear that such leaders are driven by self-interest, instead of those of the people they govern. The Democratic Republic of Congo is a case in point.”


Botswana President Ian Khama greets supporters in Gaborone. Photographer: Marco Longari/AFP via Getty Images
Botswana President Ian Khama greets supporters in Gaborone.
Photographer: Marco Longari/AFP via Getty Images

A 65-year-old former army general who plans to step down next month after a decade in power, Khama has established a long-standing reputation for eschewing the niceties that are the trademark of international diplomacy. He’s sniped at leaders from the U.S.’s Donald Trump to Sudan’s Umar al-Bashir. When Robert Mugabe was toppled as president of neighboring Zimbabwe last year after almost four decades in office, he responded bluntly on Facebook: “Better late than never.”

Khama has some justification for taking the moral high ground. The United Nations ranks Botswana among Africa’s most-developed nations, while a foundation started by Sudanese billionaire Mo Ibrahim has consistently rated it as one of the continent’s best-run. Its A2 credit rating by Moody’s Investors Service is the highest in the region.

Breaking Ranks

Khama’s upbringing and military background may explain his no-nonsense approach. He’s the son of Seretse Khama, who served as Botswana’s first president after it gained independence from the U.K. in 1966. The older Khama’s marriage to Briton Ruth Williams stoked outrage in neighboring South Africa, where the apartheid government outlawed inter-race marriages.

After leaving the military, Khama served for a decade as vice president to Festus Mogae, replacing him as president when he stepped down in April 2008. Months later he rejected the declaration of Mugabe as the winner of Zimbabwean elections that were marred by violence and intimidation, the only leader of the 15-nation Southern African Development Community to do so.

Khama broke ranks with the continent again the following year, when he said al-Bashir should be sent to International Criminal Court to face trial for his role in atrocities committed in Sudan’s western Darfur region.

‘Western Puppet’

Khama’s public utterances haven’t gone down well among his African peers, some of whom have labeled him a lackey of Western governments. Lambert Mende, Congo’s communications minister, accused Botswana’s government of “trying to please some powerful friends” by speaking out against Kabila. And in 2011, Julius Malema, then the youth leader of South Africa’s ruling African National Congress, labeled Khama a “puppet of the West” because of its close ties to the U.S. and called for him to be toppled — remarks that prompted the ANC to expel Malema from its ranks.

Khama’s administration hasn’t only spoken out against perceived transgressions on his home continent. When Trump was reported to have called African nations “shitholes” and questioned why their nationals should be allowed to immigrate to the U.S. last year, it issued a statement on Twitter asking the U.S. ambassador to officially clarify if he included Botswana in that category.

Botswana has also been highly critical of the UN Security Council’s response to the conflict in Syria, saying it had abdicated its responsibility of restoring peace and security.

Khama’s strong views are unlikely to have a meaningful impact on global affairs, according to Kebapetse Lotshwao, a political science lecturer at the University of Botswana.

“It’s important for the country to have a foreign policy position on issues, but we should not forget that that we are a small actor and that will not change,” Lotshwao said by phone.


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