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“I am not a member of the Botswana Democratic Party but I will vote for it in the coming general election.”
That is a sentiment that some people have begun to express openly both online and offline. Voting in Botswana has largely been based on party of preference – Nehemiah Modubule’s electoral victory in 2009 should have been the first successful independent candidacy but he hitched his campaign wagon too closely to the Botswana National Front to have been a trailblazer in that regard. After 10 years of General Ian Khama’s administration, Botswana is not what it was in 2008 when he took over from Festus Mogae. Lately, Khama has been touting his decades-long public service as a badge of honour but on an objective basis, he has no track record of success to show for the 40-plus years that he was in the Botswana Police Service, the Botswana Defence Force and the presidency. His attempts to redesign the civil service and its administration, in part by replacing technocracy with adhocracy, didn’t produce any positive results. Under his command, corruption at BDF became rampant and the cancer spread throughout the civil service when he became president.
One of the things that Khama’s successor, President Mokgweetsi Masisi, is trying to do is root out corruption in the government as well as restore normalcy in the administration of the civil service. Masisi is doing many more things to break with a past that reversed gains that Botswana made over decades. Under Khama, the Directorate of Intelligence Services and Security (DISS) held sway but in firing its dreaded Director General, Colonel Isaac Kgosi, Masisi endeared himself to many people who, for a full 10 years, had uncharacteristically lived under fear of a state security organ. DISS was supposed to be an improvement of BPS’ Special Branch (which some people never even knew existed) but morphed into what an opposition leader, Dumelang Saleshando, described as a “death squad” after it assassinated a Gaborone man in cold blood. According to Sunday Standard, Kgosi showed up at the scene minutes after the assassination and congratulated the killers - whom Khama would later pardon after their conviction, with “Good job guys”.
Under Khama, the “government-is-deeply-concerned-about” statements targeting other national leaders became a staple on state media as Botswana pursued a hypocritical rooftop diplomacy that was oriented towards western interest. Not only did Khama shun international and continental summits, he also alienated Botswana from Africa and in so doing sabotaged Pelonomi Venson-Moitoi’s bid for the chairpersonship of the African Union Commission. Khama didn’t care too much about consultation, at one point introducing a foreign-reserves-sponsored programme (the economic stimulus package) without consulting the finance minister.
DIS has a new boss, Peter Magosi, who was on Btv earlier this month stressing the need to have good relations with members of the public and the media. Masisi had planned to attend an African Unionsummit in Mauritania but missed it on account of maintenance work being done on his official jet. This would have been the first time in 10 years that a Botswana president had attended an AU summit. Every indication is that he will, like all three Botswana presidents before Khama, attend AU summits on a regular basis. He has been travelling all over the globe to reassert Botswana’s interest in global affairs at presidential level and in some cases, has participated in panel discussions that Khama could never have been part of. Since April 1 this year when Masisi took over, the foreign affairs ministry no longer issues “government-is-deeply-concerned-about” statements. Time and again, Masisi has stressed the importance of consultation.
These and other efforts have earned Masisi accolades from the public but there is another dynamic. Historically, Botswana’s opposition coalitions start by showing a lot of promise that soon fizzles out. The Umbrella for Democratic Change (UDC) is following similar pattern and the man who heads both UDC and the main party within it, Duma Boko, has been too closely associated with Khama who, at this point in time, has fallen out with Masisi. In the last session of parliament, Boko tabled a motion of no-confidence on Masisi on a certificate of urgency and ever since, there have been rumours that Boko was doing Khama’s bidding. People who are happy with what Masisi is doing fear that a UDC’s win could mean a return to the dark old days. President Boko would be too severely compromised to be assertive with Khama who would then be able to control Boko the way he wants to control Masisi. While Boko has strenuously denied any relationship with Khama, some UDC members are doubtful and see BDP as a better gamble than their own party in the 2019 general election. They are not attracted to the BDP but to the policies of a leader who is trying to undo the harm Khama did over a decade. This is ahistorical in Botswana’s politics.
Much has been made of the fact that Masisi’s fight with Khama will bleed voters from the BDP, especially in the Central District where Khama is Bangwato Paramount Chief. There is of course a type of voter in the Central District whose warm feelings for Khama endure despite his many shortcomings as a leader. However, Bangwato are not a like-minded monolith who blindly follow Khama wherever he goes. Even in Serowe itself, there are Bangwato who are concerned about Khama’s disinterest in tribal administration affairs, about his reluctance to relinquish power when his term of office has ended, about his elevation of circus antics above statesmanship, about his destructive norm-busting and about his closeness to the west than to Africa. A prominent Serowe/Palapye Mongwato with aristocratic ties jokes that instead of following in his father’s footsteps, Khama is instead following in his mother’s – “O ja mmaagwe boswa go na le gore a je rraagwe boswa.” The meaning of the joke is that where he should have gone to the kgotlato take up his royal duties as a Paramount Chief, Khama is doing Red Cross-like work, travelling around the country donating food hampers and blankets. His mother, Lady Ruth Khama, was a long-serving president of the Botswana Red Cross Society.
Putting faith in Masisi would itself be a gamble not unlike one Khama made by anointing him as his successor. Khama thought Masisi would be a stooge that he would be able to control from Mosu – or the PC-24 expected to be piloting now but is finding out the hard way how wrong he was. Likewise, voters who think that Masisi is who they think he is may also find out the hard way after he gets his own electoral mandate next year exactly who he is. The recent Serowe meeting revealed a side of his that a good many people were repulsed by. All Masisi had to do was answer or dodge a couple of questions that he should have expected but he chose to become personal when answering some. There is a whole voter bloc that likes Masisi because they believe he is a good person all the way round and wouldn’t countenance abusing his power the way Khama did. However, his performance at the Serowe kgotla gave one a lot of pause.