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In Botswana, Masisi-Khama rivalry set to play out in October vote

By Crystal Orderson
Posted on Friday, 14 June 2019 17:50

President of Botswana Mokgweetsi Masisi is fending of challenges from former president Ian Khama. REUTERS/Caitlin Ochs

In an unprecedented move in Botswana's democracy, former president Ian Khama is taking the fight to the country's governing party and current president, Mokgweetsi Masisi.

Khama is behind a new party launched in late May called the Botswana Patriotic Front (BPF), which is siphoning off some support from Masisi.

Khama’s father Seretse Khama founded the Botswana Democratic Party (BDP) in the the early 1960s and it has been in power since 1966. Ian Khama is cross that Masisi, who Khama backed to replace him as leader of the BDP, has restricted his influence as a former president and sacked a key ally, former intelligence boss Isaac Kgosi, who is now on trial facing charges including obstruction of justice.

Chronology of the breakdown

  • Last October, Khama stepped down and handed over to Masisi.
  • In January 2019, the authorities arrested former Directorate of Intelligence Services chief Isaac Kgosi.
  • For the first time ever, there was going to be a challenge for the BDP leadership. In April, former foreign affairs minister Pelonomi Venson-Moitoi threw her name in the ring to lead the BDP but ultimately withdrew her candidacy. Insiders saw the move as an attempt by Khama to replace Masisi.
  • In May 2019, Khama sent shockwaves through the political establishment when he announced that he was leaving the BDP and then announced his support for the BPF. Khama called Masisi a “traitor who is betraying the country. Khama said that he could not sit silent and watch the country fail. Khama has not announced if he will contest the October election.
  • Masisi has mostly kept quiet on the spat. But on his return from a US trip in early June, he said that he should be given the space to rule the country and that it is up to the people to decide whether they wanted him to remain in power.

Public sparring

During a recent public relations tour in South Africa, Khama told the SABC that he is not betraying his father’s legacy or that of the ruling BDP but is speaking out because he loves the country:

“Yes. We have a standoff between us. I have had to put up with attempts of being isolated and it is difficult. The ruling party is divided and I am aware that a lot of people are very unhappy and there is uncertainty in the country and I have even heard investors are holding back from investing.”

Masisi took to Facebook and government media, saying he must be given the space to rule the country. “Promises were made and assurances given that once he vacated office, he will always support the government, that he will never destabilise government but now, a total somersault!”, Masisi told a media briefing.

Transition troubles

Gladys Mokhawa, a political analyst from the University of Botswana, tells The Africa Report that an important question is whether the Masisi/Khama is about “a broken relationship or is it the difficulty of transitioning”.

Mokhawa argues: “This is a test of the ruling BDP and its ability to transfer leadership and power from one leader to the other.”

The country heads to the polls in October, and Mokhawa says it is unfortunate that key political issues are not being debated because so much attention is being focused on the rivalries at the top.

The conflict between Khama and Masisi takes away attention from whether the BDP will deliver a credible manifesto, adds Mokhawa. “Are they going to improve on healthcare, education or corruption? We are not seeing any substantive issues being discussed, and we should be discussing issues affecting the country.”

South Africa shockwaves

In an explosive investigative report by the country’s leading Sunday newspaper, the Sunday Standard, says that President Cyril Ramaphosa’s sister-in-law and mining millionaire Bridgette Radebe is financially supporting Khama’s new party.

On 10 June, the Sunday Standard reported that Radebe financed Khama’s meeting in Serowe, where he announced his resignation from the ruling party and unveiled the BPF.

In April, the government banned Radebe from entering the country visa-free.

Radebe and her brother, billionaire businessman Patrice Motsepe, have denied claims that there are seeking to interfere in Botswana’s politics.

The bottom line

Khama will challenge Masisi on the election campaign trail whether he runs himself or not. However, the governing BDP remains hugely popular in the rural areas. The May lifting of the elephant-hunting ban might have irked international players, but locals have lauded Masisi for looking after communities.

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