Former Botswana president Ian Khama claims Masisi is ‘targeting my family’

By Carien du Plessis
Posted on Monday, 28 March 2022 11:47

Botswana President Ian Khama (L) chats to Zambian President Edgar Lungu during the swearing in of Zimbabwe's new president Emmerson Mnangagwa in Harare
Botswana President Ian Khama (L) chats to Zambian President Edgar Lungu during the swearing in of Zimbabwe's new president Emmerson Mnangagwa in Harare, Zimbabwe, November 24, 2017. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko

Former Botswana president Ian Khama is at the centre of an opposition campaign to oust President Mokgweetsi Masisi in the 2024 general elections.

Khama, who has been living in South Africa since November in fear for his life back home, has addressed a number of opposition rallies via video link earlier this month.

“Their popularity has sunk to the bottom,” he says of the governing Botswana Democratic Party in a Zoom interview from an undisclosed location in Johannesburg. “Anyone will tell you this, including members of the ruling party. They know the situation but also fear for themselves if they’re speaking out,” he says, repeating claims – rejected by the high court – that Masisi won the 2019 election by rigging.

  • The BDP had 38 seats against the Umbrella for Democratic Change’s 15, the Botswana Patriotic Front’s three, and the Alliance for Progressives’ single seat.

“People travel down here and I have met leaders of opposition parties more than once,” Khama says. They have been discussing ways of uniting the opposition to take on the BDP, which has been in power since the country’s independence in 1966. Khama defected from the BDP shortly after the party re-elected Masisi as leader early in 2019.

Khama says opposition parties gained six wards in 12 by-elections in recent weeks and now hold nine of these wards.

“Leaders of all the [opposition] parties came together and said they will put together a position paper on how they will cooperate in 2024. If they do succeed in uniting themselves then you’re only talking about one grouping against the ruling party,” he says. “The ruling party won in some constituencies [in 2019] because of the split vote.

Analysts have, however, previously pointed out that the BDP has made comebacks in general elections despite a weak showing in by-elections, which generally favour the opposition.

Butterfly court case

Khama has accused Masisi of corruption after taking over the presidency in 2018. Masisi was deputy president at the time when Khama’s second five-year presidential term came to an end.

The two, however, had a fallout and Khama called on Masisi to resign. In turn, Khama’s name got dragged into a court case in which former intelligence agent Welheminah Maswabi, codenamed Butterfly, was accused of financing terrorism and corruption.

In this case Khama and South African businesswoman Bridgette Motsepe – President Cyril Ramaphosa’s sister-in-law – were accused of taking more than $10bn out of Botswana and depositing it in bank accounts in South Africa. This also implicated the SA Reserve Bank and major South African banks where Motsepe was alleged to have deposited the money.

Khama and Motsepe in 2020 commissioned Cherie Blair’s Omnia Strategy to do a report that cleared them.

A high court judge in Botswana last year in August ruled that the charges were “fabricated and are outright false”. But the case is being kept alive in the form of a mandamus application against South African authorities by white minority rights lobby group AfriForum on behalf of the Botswana government.

This mandamus – an order from a superior court to a lower court – was to force South Africa to respond to a request for mutual legal assistance but South Africa’s justice department said the request needed time and resources to respond to.

Motsepe last week told The Africa Report that she was lobbying to have the court case dropped, but she has avoided dragging Ramaphosa into the matter.

Persecution fears

Government’s employment of AfriForum to do its prosecutions has led to criticism by lawyers and some in government who point out that AfriForum is generally considered to be a white rightwing organisation, and it isn’t even from Botswana.

Khama claims this was one of the things behind former minister Mpho Balopi’s resignation from cabinet in December.

Balopi is BDP secretary general.

Khama believes he is being unfairly persecuted, and he left Botswana in November last year after learning of an intention by authorities to arrest him for allegedly being in possession of stolen weapons.

Most recently, Khama says, his family members in Botswana are being harassed.

Nearly two weeks ago, his brothers, Tshekedi and Anthony, were detained by state security, Khama posted on his Facebook page, and added that Tshekedi’s wife was also being targeted.

Khama believes the order to detain his brothers came directly from Masisi.

Khama says Masisi was getting frustrated at not being able to get to him and about losing support, so he started “targeting my family”. Some family members went into hiding.

Khama adds that he was getting ready to return to Botswana when this happened, but aides have since told him to rather stay put. “They said it would be the end of me,” he says.

“There are people who have been more suspicious of the man than I was allowing myself to be, but I feel that is now changing,” Khama says of Masisi.

Government spokesperson Batlhalefi Leagajang did not respond to a request for comment on these allegations.

Khama says he had been involved in some “regional initiatives” to try resolve the matter, but did not want to expand on this.

Although he says he had sympathy from some governments in the area, no leader has openly criticised Masisi in this regard. He also says he put together a delegation four months ago to go see Masisi and “to iron out differences” but Masisi hasn’t indicated yet when he would be able to meet.

Some positives

Khama does have some praise for Masisi’s government in relation to the stance it took in the United Nations on the conflict in Ukraine. Botswana earlier this month voted in favour of a UN General Assembly resolution to condemn Russia’s aggression in Ukraine.

“Instructions that our officials at the UN were given were the right instructions,” Khama says. “Whatever differences would have existed between the two countries, there is no justification whatsoever for Putin to have launched that attack on Ukraine.”

He is reluctant to express an opinion about South Africa’s abstention from that vote, which has subsequently been interpreted as support for Russia.

Botswana has been ranked one of the least corrupt in Africa and it ranks 45th out of 180 countries on Transparency International’s 2021 Corruption Perception Index. This represents a drop of five spaces from the year before.

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