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Masisi and Khama’s spat rocks the steady Botswana boat

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Masisi and Khama’s spat rocks the steady Botswana boat

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Will the increasingly ugly and public spat between Botswana’s President Mokgweetsi Masisi and his predecessor Ian Khama remain just a shoving match? Or could it rock the ruling Democratic Party and even jeopardise the stability of Africa’s hitherto most stable country?

Relations between the former bosom buddies have plummeted since Masisi, previously Khama’s education minister and deputy, took over as president last April. Masisi, who surprisingly admits to having been a ‘bootlicker’ back then, dutifully accepted everything Khama said or did when he was in his cabinet.

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He charmed Khama into appointing him deputy president, lining him up for the top job. But the moment he got it, he began asserting himself, reversing a raft of Khama decisions and appointments. Masisi also restricted Khama’s perks and privileges, including reportedly curbing the former president’s proclivity to commandeer and fly official aircraft whenever he wanted to.

Masisi scrapped Botswana’s complete hunting ban and is now allowing controlled culling of its huge elephant population. This policy was dear to the heart of the arch-conservationist Khama. Masisi has also relaxed some of the strict liquor laws that Khama imposed.

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Masisi has made several other changes that Khama doesn’t like. Khama was never very fond of China and publicly berated it for the poor quality of its workmanship in a coal-fired power station it built in Botswana. He also defied Beijing’s ultra-sensitivities around granting any recognition at all to the Dalai Lama, Tibet’s spiritual leader.

Khama was en route to meeting the Buddhist patriarch in India last weekend when he spoke to City Press at Johannesburg’s OR Tambo International Airport. He said Masisi’s administration didn’t support his visit because it had taken a different tack on China, doing China’s bidding and agreeing to have no contact with those, like the Dalai Lama, whom Beijing did not like.

Masisi’s administration also seems to have changed tack on Zimbabwe. Where Khama stood out in the Southern African Development Community by openly criticising former president Robert Mugabe, Masisi seems to be toeing the regional line by providing political and even financial support to Mugabe’s successor Emmerson Mnangagwa.

Masisi has also removed officials close to Khama. He demoted his brother Tshekedi Khama from the important tourism portfolio to youth and sports. University of Botswana political scientist Leonard Sesa says Ian Khama had hoped that Masisi would repay his loyalty by promoting his brother to deputy president. Masisi also fired and arrested Khama’s intelligence chief Isaac Kgosi and replaced him with Peter Magosi – whom Khama had once fired.

Sesa, who last April opined that Khama had complete trust in Masisi, says there is now a ‘total rift’ between the two men. So much so that Khama has openly backed his former foreign minister Pelonomi Venson-Moitoi to challenge Masisi for the ruling Botswana Democratic Party’s presidential nomination for the October elections. The BDP has governed since independence and it will be the first time that a sitting national president will be challenged for the party’s nomination.

This represents a complete shift from the BDP tradition of carefully choreographing presidential successions. The president has always resigned some 18 months before elections, handing over to his deputy, who thereby learns the ropes – and gains the advantage of incumbency over presidential rivals. The system has been sharply criticised for being less than fully democratic. Khama has now upset that tradition with unpredictable consequences for the BDP and the country.

Khama told City Press that Masisi’s administration was threatening to suspend several councillors who had attended a meeting in his home village – which is also Venson-Moitoi’s home village – to discuss negative developments in Botswana. Khama said many of the councillors threatened with suspension were also delegates to the BDP’s elective conference in April and supporters of Venson-Moitoi. He suspected the suspensions were a stratagem to decrease the votes in her favour.

If the councillors were suspended, this could split the BDP, he warned. This could in turn sabotage the party’s chances of winning a majority in Parliament forcing it, at the least, to go into a coalition with other parties to retain power.

Sesa shares Khama’s view that the BDP could split after the elective conference. Venson-Moitoi could lead a breakaway faction to form a new party if she loses the BDP nomination, which seems likely. Sesa disagrees, though, with Khama’s prediction that this split would cost the BDP victory in the October elections. He believes the opposition in Botswana is so divided that it will still not prevail.

Nonetheless that victory cannot be guaranteed when one considers that the BDP has been steadily losing support over the years, dropping to 53% in the 2014 general elections. It seems now that only a weak opposition and a happy distribution of the vote in a first-past-the-post constituency system could save the BDP.

The extent of Khama’s animosity towards Masisi was evident in the City Press interview where he accused Masisi of dragging Botswana backwards and even threatened to seek international intervention, if necessary, to ‘return Botswana to stability’. What exactly constituted the instability, he did not elaborate on. Khama himself seems largely responsible for such instability.

Many suspect though that the large pride and ego of Khama – the son of independent Botswana’s first president Sir Seretse Khama and a member of the country’s aristocracy – has been hurt by what he sees as his successor’s dismantling of his legacy, that he will not give up the fight.

The ramifications for Botswana are uncertain. This is a country renowned as Africa’s most stable. Much of that stability is owed, rightly or wrongly, to the BDP’s steady hand on the tiller. Maybe that’s also been a rather dead hand. Certainly the BDP has not addressed some critical existential questions, like where will the money come from when the diamonds are all gone.

So maybe, after half a century of rule by one party, Botswana needs new political blood. But there are no obvious opposition leaders waiting in the wings. And certainly none with any bright ideas about tackling the country’s major challenges. And let us not forget that political stability is a commodity rarer and more precious than diamonds on this continent.

Written by Peter Fabricius, ISS Consultant

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