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Never in the history of the Botswana Democratic Party (BDP) has a sitting president been challenged at an elective congress, especially in an election year. With a senior, record-breaking party member backing (some say, masterminding) her campaign and ahead of this year’s general election, Serowe South MP, Pelonomi Venson-Moitoi, is challenging President Mokgweetsi Masisi for the party’s presidency. Oddly for unorthodox candidacy that suggests a crisis, her campaign platform neither proves there is a crisis that requires urgent change of party leadership nor features a detailed crisis response plan.
A point has been made even by people who are not emotionally invested in the outcome that as a party member in good standing, Venson-Moitoi absolutely has the right to challenge Masisi for the presidency. The fact of the matter though is that the issue is not that simple because what she wants to achieve by exercising that right is crucial.
Freedom House has warned about how dictators have perfected the art of using democratic processes to undermine democracy. In the past, this species would either not hold elections at all or hold sham ones in which their parties won with a huge margin. Former Zairean dictator, Mobuto Sese Seko, is said to have asked a fellow African leader with genuine befuddlement how it was possible for a sitting president to lose an election that he is in charge of. Over time, condemnation and economic sanctions from the west forced dictators to perfect their game by holding elections that meet all standards acceptable to the west but rigging the outcome in their favour. Two very good examples are dictators Yoweri Museveni of Uganda and his protégé, Paul Kagame of Rwanda, who persistently apply Mobuto-esque standards during national elections in their respective countries. In short, these leaders use democratic processes to undermine democracy.
Half a world away in a country that touts itself as the most democratic, a man who is clearly autocratic, Donald Trump, also used democratic processes to attain power that he is now using to undermine democracy.
Coming back home, Botswana has just emerged from a very dark period in its 52-year history. General Ian Khama, a man who cut his professional teeth in an institution that is necessarily autocratic, turned the whole country into a barracks and got into a never-ending fight with democracy. The constitution concentrates a lot of power in the presidency but dissatisfied with that, hogged even more powers and, in some cases, in an unlawful manner. As even successive generations of MPs themselves have said themselves, the executive uses parliament as a mere rubberstamp. Under Khama and as the Minister of International Affairs and Cooperation, Unity Dow, confirmed in a viral Facebook post, the executive itself became a rubberstamp of his own personal decisions. Judicial independence was severely compromised and Botswana’s score on this indicator declined steadily during the period that Khama was president. Going as far back as the late 1990s when he was Commander of the Botswana Defence Force, Khama believed that a critical media should be severely and financially punished. When the Botswana Gazette, then under the editorship of Sunday Standard’s editor, Outsa Mokone, published a story about how Khama’s own family members were benefitting from lucrative BDF tenders, he banned the sale of the paper at all barracks across the country. As president and with much more power than he had as BDF commander, Khama used the same method of punishment to kill off critical newspapers. Financial dependents of journalists who were laid off as a result were the collateral damage in a war that Khama felt he had to win at all costs.
In making Masisi his successor, Khama thought that he would spend his retirement in peace but that is not happening because the former has launched an anti-corruption crusade that doesn’t give Khama peace of mind. While she has vehemently denied it, this is the context in which Venson-Moitoi comes into the picture. Her candidacy is, in actual fact, Khama’s reworked retirement plan and her presidency will serve as his insurance policy against prosecution. There can be no doubt that in the event Venson-Moitoi wins, Khama would want her to do more than protect him from prosecution. For starters, he doesn’t want her to be president because there is historical evidence that Khama has never been happy with a Botswana president not called Khama and sought to undermine each one of them: Sir Ketumile Masire, Festus Mogae and now Masisi.
Khama would want President Venson-Moitoi to make his own brother, Tshekedi, Vice President secure in the knowledge that he would end up president and continue a royal-political dynasty that goes back to the turn of the 20th century. There can be no doubt that the Khama family is feeling the weight of history because for the first time since the late 1800s, a Khama is not part of the nation’s executive leadership. Khama introduced a suite of disastrous policies that all failed and that Masisi has had to scrap because they are not taking the nation anywhere. Concerned about his own legacy, Khama would want President Venson-Moitoi to re-introduce those policies. Khama didn’t consult and would expect Venson-Moitoi to do the same thing. Khama would especially want President Venson-Moitoi to bring back the old Directorate of Intelligence Services and Security (DISS) which under him was a terror (and on some days hit) squad that was controlled directly from the Office of the President. Under Khama and his DISS, people learnt to look over their shoulders and to keep their thoughts to themselves when in public places.
As BDF Commander and as president, Khama undermined Botswana economic security – which is an important aspect of national security. Security sources says that under his command and through a company owned by his younger brothers, BDF amassed materiel that is now rotting away at army barracks across the country because the army never had need for it in the first place. Through the economic stimulus package (ESP), he effectively appointed himself finance minister and arbiter of mega-construction project tenders in order to close out other citizens from the formal public tendering system. Ongoing corruption investigations have linked companies that won lucrative ESP tenders to Khama’s long-time aide, confidant and former DISS boss, Colonel Isaac Kgosi. As president, Khama undemocratically introduced a hunting ban at the expense of hundreds of thousands of citizens who were benefitting from this hunting. This decision was coloured by personal interest because Khama has personal stake in wildlife photographic tourism whose practitioners felt was threatened by hunting. A study by a German university found that countries whose top leadership meet with the Dalai Lama lose 8.1 percent on average in exports to China two years following the meeting. That eventuality has not stopped Khama from seeking audience with Tibet's exiled spiritual leader. This meeting will imperil Botswana’s economy.
That Khama, an autocratic man, would be the power behind the throne in a Venson-Moitoi presidency means that Botswana’s future will effectively be a repeat of its 2008-2018 past. Supposing she wants to restore Botswana to its democratic promise (like Masisi is doing), Khama would make a spirited effort to get rid of her - like he is doing with Masisi. Khama is transactional and his support her is investment he expects returns on.
However, if Venson-Moitoi offers a future different from Khama’s decade, she has to state her views on numerous ticklish issues. Nobody knows her thoughts on the 2008-2018 DISS; on Khama subverting both law and process to introduce ESP; on whether Botswana should purchase attack helicopters or jet fighters; on Seleka Springs; on whether Khama should fly army aircraft he doesn’t qualify to fly; on whether he should be allowed to fly, at will, from Gaborone to Seronga for the sole purpose of handing out flattened dumplings at pop-up soup kitchens; on the hunting ban; on whether she believes what the Elephants Without Borders is saying about elephants; on who has final say on the hiring of private secretaries at the Office of the President; on the current anti-corruption crusade, especially on whether Khama should be investigated for alleged looting of state coffers; and on whether Tshekedi even qualifies to become Vice President. Her promises of a bright future will only seem credible once she can talk earnestly and substantively about the dark past that Botswana has just emerged from. A good many people are still traumatised about what happened during the past decade and Venson-Moitoi needs to reassure the nation that it won’t relive that nightmare – or explain why it wasn’t a nightmare.
Candidates that seek to run in a democratic election must have genuine interest in the survival of democracy itself. However, Khama’s outside role in Venson-Moitoi’s candidacy is evidence of a plot to take Botswana back to 2008 through what is essentially a democratic process – then reinstitute autocracy. Nobody has a right to use democratic processes (Venson-Moitoi included) to undermine democracy.