Khama: Grassroots or populist president?

SHARE   |   Sunday, 07 September 2014   |   By Keitebe Kgosikebatho
Khama: Grassroots or populist president?

KEITEBE KGOSIKEBATHO looks at Khama’s walkabouts and his direct people-oriented approach to unpack the real character of the man who sits at the helm of the country’s powerful seat.

In his inaugural speech to the national assembly in April 2008, President Ian Khama quotes his predecessor Festus Mogae’s words: "I have not allowed political expediency and the pursuit of populism to cloud my judgement and service to the nation. For the road to political expediency and populism may be lined with cheering crowds, but in the end, we cannot escape the cold hard facts of our limitations as a developing country. Harsh punishment awaits a nation that spends unwisely in pursuit of immediate gratification rather than sustainable development".

The newly elected president then publicly declared that he admires Mogae’s character, saying: “These are indeed wise words, and words I wish to identify my-self with”.

Fast forward to 2014, Khama’s soft power approach towards addressing and interacting with the nation has earned him criticism from some, more especially opposition leaders who are of the view that the same things he said in hindsight when he ascended to the highest office in the land have now come back to haunt him.

Unlike most nation leaders who after assuming office take the navigation seat, buckle up, beef up security, wear double breasted suits and enjoy being addressed in ceremonial titles while attending high level meetings around the world Khama seemed to have shunned such and would rather delegate a minister and tour the country to pay first through kgotla meetings, walkabouts and other fora.

After assuming office, Khama, the man who as vice president attended parliament meetings once in a while, adopted this approach. He introduced what has now become known as presidential walkabouts and takes the walks almost every now and then. Recently in Francistown, Khama’s walks caused quite a stir in the opposition ranks as they felt that the president was abusing his office to prop up his party candidates.

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At times when national leaders are convening at some important international summit or meeting, Khama can be seen with his trademark Khaki waist-coat and safari sun-hat walking the streets in almost any part of Botswana that he travels to with ease, choosing to delegate a member of the cabinet, especially the minister of foreign affairs or his vice president to represent the country at the international fora.

In his walkabouts, Khama visits individuals, mostly the elderly and the poor in their yards and inquire about their needs, queries and just general social overview. He is in most times accompanied by some members of the cabinet, top government officials and the intrigued public.  While it takes an average citizen more than a day which sometimes translates into weeks for their queries to be addressed in most government offices, during his walkabout, Khama puts the ‘Khama magic ‘ to work and at times resolves queries that could have taken forever  in a matter of seconds. At the meeting, ministers are often scolded right in front of the masses, permanent secretaries and junior officers alike.

All in all, the walkabouts have over time been widely publicised, attracting huge public attention whenever they are staged. After all, he goes with an entourage that includes a Botswana television crew that captures it all on camera.

While the president has used these walkabouts to execute his presidential mandate of reaching out to people and communicating and sharing government policy, he also adopted the system to attract people to his party.  

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Since the advent of general elections campaigns, the walkabouts usually precede his party’s rallies and of recent, launches of his party’s parliamentary candidates. “The president as the leader of our party’s campaign strategy uses these walkabouts to campaign for our party,” BDP Secretary Genera,l Mpho Balopi, said in an interview.

As much as the walkabouts may have brought Khama closer to the people and garnered him praise from within the BDP and the elderly, it has also attracted criticism especially from the opposition whose argument is that the walkabouts are just a populist gimmick that Khama uses for selfish reasons and more often than not, push his personal political party mandate rather than concentrate on the executive.

Because he is accorded certain privileges as the state president, most argue that Khama tends to use it to his benefit and that of the BDP. One example that has always caused havoc is that of the extensive coverage these walkabouts receive from the national broadcaster (both Botswana television and Radio Botswana) and Daily news. Most argue that the walkabouts are mainly a platform to endear people to the president and his party.

Francistown South MP, Wynter Mmolotsi, recently took his complaint a step further by gate-crashing Khama’s walkabouts in his constituency. While the government argued that the particular walkabout was official and all stakeholders were informed, Mmolotsi said that he was never informed, adding that Khama used government resources and personnel to decampaign  him, imploring his constituents to vote for his opponent from the BDP, Sylivia Muzila. 

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There has been concern that Khama often bypasses relevant channels and forums of communication and usually use these walkabouts to announce serious matters of national interest that need the input and inclusion from other policy makers which need a more formal forum.

Government spokesperson, Jeff Ramsay, explains that initially the official presidential walkabouts were the president’s way of getting in touch with the people. “They were his way of meet and greet; it’s just what he wants, liked and chose,” Ramsay said. According to Ramsay, although at first people were not familiar with the walkabouts, they are a good way of reaching out to people.

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Ramsay was however quick to point out that the president’s walkabouts are now in two folds: being the official walkabouts and of recent party campaign walkabouts. He referred to the official walkabouts as the ‘proper’ walkabouts. He rubbished any insinuations that all walkabouts that the president does are politically motivated and are meant to prejudice the opposition. “During the official walkabouts all stakeholders are informed, including the area MP and councillors who are sometimes in the opposition,” he said.



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