Masisi, Khama sink Botswana party into bitter succession fight

Friday February 8 2019

Botswana’s former President Seretse I

Botswana’s former President Seretse Ian Khama (left) standing next to his successor Mokgweetsi Masisi during a rally in Serowe, on March 27, 2018. FILE | NATION MEDIA. 

By Peter Dube

A few days before April’s Fools Day last year, Botswana President Ian Khama, spoke glowingly about his choice of successor, his then deputy Mokgweetsi Masisi.

President Khama assured the nation it would be in safe hands. At midnight, on March 31, 2018, Mr Khama’s 10-year race as the southern African country’s president, came to an end.

As it rained in the capital Gaborone on April 1, Mr Masisi was sworn-in, continuing a tradition that has attracted envy from peers, in a continent known for turbulent transitions. Botswana had completed a fourth and yet another bloodless transfer of power.
Botswana is widely regarded as a bastion of peace, in a sea of instability, and Mr Khama’s exit only served to validate that.

However, months down the line, the veil of tranquility was crudely lifted. Shortly after taking the oath of office, President Masisi encountered the first turbulence as he was forced to counter damaging reports that Botswana had turned into a safe haven for poachers, who were decimating elephants, which at over 100,000, is the largest population in the world.

For years, regarded as a no-go zone for poachers, reports emerged that there was a sudden surge in elephant poaching, with 87 killed in President Masisi’s first two months, which, however, Gaborone denied.
The poaching reports attracted global media attention, and it was the first incident which pointed to a souring relationship between President Masisi and his predecessor.

Mr Khama’s brother, Tshekedi Khama, was in charge of the Wildlife ministry and the incumbent was not impressed that false impressions had been created, which had the potential to harm Botswana’s key tourism industry.

The Botswana government was forced to organise a media tour, and the reports of widespread poaching were disproved. Only 19 elephant corpses were found, with only six identified as victims of poaching.
Mr Khama had criticised his successor’s decision to disarm wildlife officers.

“I do not really know the reason why the wildlife officials were disarmed. But it was unfortunate. It is possible that the decision could be partly responsible for the increase in poaching,” he told the local media.

That only brought to the fore a simmering conflict between President Masisi and Mr Khama, a feud which has ultimately proved to be the proverbial elephant in the room.

Subsequently, President Masisi started pulling to pieces most of the policies which his predecessor had left in place, including those on immigration. During Mr Khama’s administration, a number of people were denied entry into Botswana, while some expatriates were deported under unexplained circumstances.

The former president’s request for an aircraft to attend to a private function was declined, and it became apparent that their relationship had broken down.

During last November’s State of the Nation Address (Sona), President Masisi, for the first time, acknowledged that it was not all rosy between him and his former boss.

“Batswana are all aware that the transition from the previous administration has not been as smooth as expected,” he said.

At one stage, Mr Khama’s staff at his official residence were withdrawn, but immediately reinstated after he threatened to go to court. President Masisi also stoked the fires when he dismissed Mr Khama’s trusted lieutenant, Mr Isaac Kgosi, the country’s former Intelligence chief.

The two’s relationship has taken a turn for the worse after the Directorate of Intelligence and Security Services (DISS) pounced on Mr Kgosi recently in a Hollywood type arrest.

Mr Kgosi was arriving from India, and in an unprecedented development, was handcuffed in full media glare at the Sir Seretse Khama International Airport in Gaborone. The former spy chief was once regarded as one of the most powerful men during Mr Khama’s presidency.

The fallout between Mr Khama and President Masisi has seen factionalism engulf the ruling Botswana Democratic Party (BDP).
For the first time in the history of the party, the President will be challenged at the BDP’s elective congress in July.

Former Cabinet minister Pelonomi Venson-Moitoi, a known associate of the former President, is challenging President Masisi.

Dr Venson-Moitoi, a former journalist who stood for and lost the African Union chair elections, was fired from Cabinet last month after she came out publicly, to state that she would be challenging the incumbent.

Fears were growing that the public spectacle might hurt BDP’s chances at what was expected to be a watershed poll, due in October this year. However, BDP does not see the conflict having any bearing on the party’s chances.

“The BDP has been able to resolve its internal issues from time to time. It’s been rigorous with that and that is why those who leave the party are able to come back because it is the most stable party in the country. We expect this to pass very soon,” BDP chairperson of Communications and International Relations Kagelelo Kentse said.
He admitted that the transition of power between the two leaders has not been smooth, and poses challenges.

Despite acknowledging the challenge, Mr Kentse said as a party, they were handling the matter “very well”.

The opposition was looking to capitalise and topple the BDP from power for the first time since independence from Britain in 1966.
A coalition of opposition parties, the Umbrella for Democratic Change (UDC), has said their eyes were on the ball, and they were less worried about what was going on in BDP.

“This will definitely affect BDP’s chances. Khama commands a lot of following particularly in the Central District (where he comes from). This will reduce the BDP’s chances of winning in those constituencies. The feud is dividing the BDP. Their popular vote was already declining in 2014, and with this infighting, we expect the situation to get worse,” Mr Mohwasa said.

A piece of history was created during the 2014 elections, when, for the first time, the BDP’s popular vote dropped below 50 percent to 47.
Peter Dube is a Monitor correspondent.