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Botswana leaders’ fight blights Africa’s democracy poster child

March 25, 2020

By Khonani Ontebetse

The fight between former President Ian Khama and current President Mokgweetsi Masisi is threatening the image of Botswana as a leading democracy in Africa
The fight between former President Ian Khama and current President Mokgweetsi Masisi is threatening the image of Botswana as a leading democracy in Africa

Botswana’s reputation as one the least corrupt countries on the continent is under renewed scrutiny as the tension between the immediate former and current administration boils over.

There are no indications that former Botswana President Ian Khama and his chosen successor and current President Mokgweetsi Masisi may find themselves sitting side-by-side as part of their reconciliation efforts.

This was not helped by Khama’s decision late last year to quit the ruling Botswana Democratic Party (BDP) which was founded by his father in the 1960s and has been ruling the southern African nation since independence from Britain in 1966.

It is understood that hopes of Khama and Masisi smoking a peace pipe were dashed when Khama founded the Botswana Patriotic Front (BPF) together with some disgruntled BDP members, a few months before the general election last year.

Initially, the rumblings of displeasure and growing agitation behind the scenes between the two men was swept under the carpet a few months after Khama handed his chosen successor the baton. Masisi’s administration tried to play down the tension between the two men. But it exploded into the public domain during the build up to the October general election held last year when Khama accused Masisi of failing to provide effective leadership.

Masisi and Khama have never made the reason for their fallout public except that the latter accused the former of reversing some of his policies such as the hunting ban and alcohol levy. On the other hand, Masisi accused Khama of trying to force him to do him favours which were outside the precincts of the law.

“I have met a couple of times with the mediators and expressed my sentiments regarding the conflict with Masisi, but I have never received any feedback following our meetings,” he was quoted as saying in March this year.

For his part, Masisi has since informed Parliament that relations between him and Khama is so bad that he has asked former president Festus Mogae and former Speaker of the National Assembly Patrick Balopi to mediate between them, but to no avail.

The tension between the two men took a new twist late last year, when Khama and some BPF members did not attend Masisi’s inauguration. Before that, at one point Khama even advised opposition coalition Umbrella for Democratic Change (UDC) leader Duma Boko to investigate what the BPF termed grand election fraud that was allegedly done by the BDP in last year’s tightly contested election. Prior to the poll day, Khama even campaigned for the UDC and opposition in general as he sought to oust Masisi whom he also accused of being undemocratic and drunk with power.

While the BDP won the general election after securing 38 of 57 seats and UDC garnering 15 seats, BPF three seats and Alliance for Progressives managing one seat, Khama and UDC insisted that the elections were rigged. The UDC even went to the extent of challenging the outcome of the general election as it accused the BDP of rigging the election aided by the Directorate of Intelligence and Security (DIS) and the Independent Electoral Commission. The UDC petitioned the High Court lost the case on technical grounds as among other things it did not file the petitions within 30 days as prescribed by the law.

Still the UDC and Khama insist that the elections were rigged, something that observers say makes it difficult for Khama and Masisi to reconcile.

Recently, Khama reacted angrily to thin veiled insinuations by Masisi that he is the invisible hand behind the escalating rhino poaching crisis in the country.  Khama said Masisi was to blame because when he occupied office, he withdrew arms of war from the anti-poaching unity on the grounds that it was illegal for the unit to be armed with such guns.

President Masisi is firmly in control and is expected to deliver positive results .Photo AFP
President Masisi is firmly in control and is expected to deliver positive results .Photo AFP

Masisi’s government has also taken a decision to sideline Khama as former head of state who should be invited to important and official government events. Under normal circumstances, former heads of states are invited to come and commemorate special events such as the annual commemoration of the fallen heroes and heroines that is organized by the Botswana Defence Force and the Office of the President.

There is no evidence to suggest that the Office of the President extended invitation to Khama just like it happened last year.

In a previous interview with this reporter last year, Khama said over the phone “I was not invited. I don’t understand why I was not invited because as a former commander of the Botswana Defence Force it is within my right,” he said. Khama added that does not necessarily mean that not being invited would stop him from commemorating the fallen heroes.

While President Masisi officiated at the commemoration of the fallen heroes and heroines at the Central Business District by laying a wreath for the fallen BDF heroes and heroines, Khama also had a parallel commemoration whereat he as was accompanied by his younger brother and former Tourism Minister Tshekedi Khama. Tshekedi has also quit the BDP and he is representing BPF in Parliament.

While former president Khama was in March this year quoted as having adopted a reconciliatory tone, he had used the commemoration of the fallen heroes and heroines to take a swipe at Masisi’s administration.

“We will continue fighting to restore democracy in Botswana,” Khama told his audience, mostly former soldiers from his influential tribe called Bangwato.

Last year BDF spokesperson Tebo Dikole confirmed that the former President was not invited. When asked why they did not invite Khama since he was not only a former president but also former commander of the armed forces, Dikole explained that the designation of former president precedes that of former commander hence the reason Khama did not receive a an invitation.

Commenting on the ongoing feud and reports of escalating corruption, political analyst, Mpho Mojaki said “Botswana has long been regarded as a diamond –rich nation, corruption-free, democratic, prosperous, and peaceful. Smooth transfer of presidential power, meaning that the incumbent vacates office a year before his chosen predecessor occupies office and normally that is before the general elections.” He added that “with these tension and other cases of corruption, the country’s image is at risk.”

As the tension between Khama and Masisi rages on, they have also been linked to a $25 USD million money laundering case. The prosecution claims that the money siphoned off from the National Petroleum Fund was meant to build fuel storage facilities across the country but was diverted by the former Directorate of Intelligence and Security Isaac Kgosi to buy military equipment from Israel. Some of the accused persons who had acted as middleman have since claimed that Khama and Masisi benefitted from the money. The two men have since distanced themselves from such accusations. 

*Culled from March Issue of PAV Magazine

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