Of late, President Ian Khama has adopted President Donald Trump’s habit of expressing his personal views through social media. SONNY SERITE studied Khama’s Facebook posts and how the president took over the administration of his page.
It all began in the build-up to the 2014 general elections when the Botswana Democratic Party (BDP) set up several committees that were tasked with formulating strategies that would ensure the party retained its winning mantra at the national polls. The communications committee must have sweet-talked President Ian Khama into agreeing to have a Facebook account opened in his name. They reasoned to Khama that, that way, the people will feel closer to their president. The people will have some sense of personal connection to the president.
Clueless as he was at the time about how Facebook worked, Khama agreed nonetheless. He had been told of how President Barack Obama had used social media to win the hearts and votes of many Americans. He had been told of how the youth in Botswana were caught in the social media bug. And after all, the president would not be expected to go on Facebook himself as someone would be appointed to administer his page. The mandate of the administrator was simple: always be aware of the president’s itinerary and then post about where he will be traveling to, the events he will attend and the events he has attended, with accompanying photos. Where the president has given a speech, pick some excerpts from the speech and post them as said by him.
By September 2, 2014 therefore, the administrator opened the Facebook page ‘Seretse Khama Ian Khama’ and hit the ground running. The administrator posted a photo album and named it ‘‘A e jeke’’. It had photos of Khama attending BDP rallies but many people must have thought someone was being mischievous and opened a parody account using Khama’s name. It attracted only 37 likes and 3 comments. It was followed by another album titled ‘‘Tsholetsa’’ which Facebook users completely ignored. It attracted only 4 likes and not a single person submitted a comment on it.
The administrator must have then realised the cardinal blunder he or she committed after opening the account; the omission of an introduction on what the page was intended for and the assurance that it was the real Seretse Khama Ian Khama’s page.
It was only the next day, September 3, 2014 and after bombarding Facebook users with photos of President Khama in BDP regalia, that the administrator posted a welcome statement.
‘‘Welcome to my official Facebook page, where I look forward to interacting with you as we share experiences and more importantly ways through which, together, we can move our country forward. I will from time to time be available for live chats with you. Looking forward to engaging debates with everyone,’’ the statement read.
Known for his unwillingness to engage in debates, many people were still apprehensive about its authenticity. One Facebook user commented ‘‘Dumela Ian, ke kopa o confirm gore a ke wena’’ while another one wrote ‘‘Wena Facebook wena? Togela go berekisa Jeff Ramsay overtime’’. There is another one with a photo of Khama riding a motorbike with a caption ‘‘And one more for the road…enjoy your Sunday and drive safe’’. The phrase ‘one for the road’ is synonymous with alcohol and Khama would never make statements that resonate well with imbibing.
The administrator continued to update the few people who followed the page on Khama’s itinerary. Most of the times, the page posted more photos than content. It would have posts saying ‘‘Some more pictures from my travels around the country. I wish you all a great week!’’ and ‘‘Excellent afternoon in Gaborone talking and hearing the concerns of the residents’’. Facebook users gradually started to follow the page and made humorous comments with some even dropping degrading and uncouth comments. Still, you could tell some people remained doubtful it was an authentic account. Die-hard BDP activist and nominated councillor MacDonald Peloetletse worked overtime rebuking those who made rude remarks on the president’s page. ‘‘One thing I have noticed through the years is that people who hide behind pseudonyms or pen names and generic avatars seem to lose inhibitions regarding social behaviour. Abrupt, rude replies and loss of good manners seem to be the main by-products of this internet anonymity. Respect yourself even behind that false name’’, Peloetletse took a swipe at someone who had commented on Khama’s post. Facebook users continued to mock President Khama much to the annoyance of Peloetletse who seemed to get worked up as he, at some point, lashed out at someone who had been rude in their comment, “Remove your rude and insulting comments. This is a State President’s Facebook page and you need self-respect. When you post or make a comment on Facebook, don’t forget who you are and what your mother taught you. Facebook is NOT a license for abusing other individuals, mockery, or rudeness.”
The administrator, however, never responded to the rude comments or acknowledged the sweet ones. There were never ‘‘engaging debates’’ as had been promised by ‘Khama’ when he opened the page. The page was just monotonous with updates on Khama’s kgotla meetings, BDP rallies and village walkabouts. More like a script straight out of RB1.
It was easy to decipher that Khama, as is the case with most high-profile pages, was not personally behind the statements posted in his name. There were several giveaways to pick the administrator was not Khama himself. For instance, the administrator often used the phrase ‘‘betsho’’ and this is not the phrase Khama uses as he instead uses ‘‘bagaetsho’’. Some posts were just too shallow to come from Khama himself. Take for instance these ones, ‘‘This morning I am going into a Cabinet meeting’’ and ‘‘A first selfie, at the BEC Awards’’.
Khama’s Facebook page continued to attract more followers and the administrator excitedly posted, ‘‘A month ago I opened this page to help me to communicate directly with Batswana and to give you an insight into my daily activities. The response has been amazing. In such a short, time we have reached 40,000 likes! Thank you for liking, sharing and commenting. Let’s keep Moving Botswana Forward!’’.
As time went by, and for reasons yet unestablished, Khama took over the reins and started to personally post statements that came straight from his heart without being filtered by technocrats. He tried very hard to restrain himself in the initial stages of his assuming the administrator role of his Facebook page. He posted on February 19, 2016; ‘‘I have been approached by many people to comment on my choice for President in the upcoming presidential elections in the United States of America. As a sitting Head of State, it is not appropriate to indicate my preference even though I may privately have one. I hope that whoever is elected as the next President of the United States of America, will uphold the fundamental democratic principles and values which successive American Administrations have sought to promote both domestically and internationally…” This post was Khama’s diplomatic disapproval of Trump’s candidacy in the American presidency.
While Khama refused to participate in the presidential debates back home, it appears he enjoyed and religiously followed the presidential debates between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. On September 27, 2016 Khama wrote ‘‘It is obvious for me after this first debate who should be the next President of the United States of America’’.
Even as he had promised not to publicly declare his preferred candidate between Trump and Clinton, Khama eventually could not hold his peace no more as he started to publicly discredit Trump.On June 15, 2016 Khama posted, ‘‘The expectation a nation has of people in public service is that they should be a force for unification, as well as stability, and not to say or do anything which divides its citizens. That is why, for example, we look up to the clergy for such leadership, we also look to our traditional leaders for similar guidance and leadership, as well as politicians as national leaders. I therefore, once again, express concern over the many remarks that have emanated from the Republican Presidential candidate in the USA, Donald Trump, which seem to suggest that should he become President, the U.S. will embark upon an era of poor relations with the rest of the world, and he will alienate different ethnic and religious communities within the U.S., leading to a huge setback in foreign relations and the need for internal harmony in that country.’’
Khama discredited Trump while endorsing Clinton. On July 27, 2016 Khama posted, ‘‘I applaud the nation building speeches coming out of the Democratic Party National Convention in the United States of America, as opposed to the scare mongering and divisive utterances that emanated from the Republic Convention’’.
He continued showering Clinton’s party with praises on July 28, 2016, ‘‘The Democratic Party National Convention in the U.S has turned up “trumps” again with powerful speakers and speeches’’.
But Trump became President of the United States of America and Khama had to eat humble pie. Zimbabwe president Robert Mugabe became Khama’s next ‘cyberbullying’ victim. Last month when the World Health Organization (WHO) announced Mugabe as its goodwill ambassador, there was global criticism and Khama’s response was sweet and short. He posted, ‘‘W.H.O.?’’ and everyone who commented on his posted seemed to understand he was making fun of UN’s poor decision which they later went back on.
When Mugabe expelled his vice president Emmerson Mnangagwa after an alleged fallout with Grace Mugabe, Khama could not resist the temptation to comment in his personal capacity and he posted, ‘‘Another Vice President has lost their job as a result of a fall from GRACE’’. Khama was referring to the fact that Mnangagwa was the second vice president to be fired at the behest of Grace as it happened first to Joyce Mujuru who also lost her vice presidency due to Grace’s influence.
Last week when the military confined Mugabe to house arrest and called on him to retire, Khama was at it again as he posted, ‘‘Better late than never’’. 588 Facebook users shared his post. 522 people commented.
While in Botswana Khama’s social media posts are probably not officially archived, in the US presidential comments are archived. Last October, the White House announced a “digital transition”—the process by which the Obama presidency would hand over the reins to its various social-media accounts, their followers kept intact, while also resetting and archiving their former contents in compliance with the Presidential Records Act. Normally, such preservation seals materials up in physical repositories, such as those maintained at the National Archives or the various presidential libraries.