For now, ex-President Khama will be more powerful than President Masisi

25 Mar 2018

As innovation on a Shakespearean line, “uneasy lie the shoulders that bear the presidential sash” should about sum up the position that Mokgweetsi Masisi finds himself in as he becomes the fifth Motswana and man, second southerner and post-graduate degree holder as well as first teacher, Mokgatla and non-former-finance minister to assume the presidency of Botswana on April 1.

For the entire duration of his national “farewell” tour and at last week’s national council of the Botswana Democratic Party, President Ian Khama, has been a little too keen to stress that “I am not going anywhere, I will still be around.” His being around sets off alarm bells and truth be told, there are people who would give Khama their entire inheritance as enticement to have him drop completely out of sight. Khama’s being around will be in the form of his patronage of Lady Khama Charity Trust. He would still be visiting the poor and would expect Btv cameras to follow him around as he donates blankets and food hampers. It would be interesting to see out where Btv cameras go when a Khama philanthropic engagement clashes with a Masisi political rally.

Khama will also be around as the BDP’s “Chief Campaigner” ahead of next year’s general election. As the supreme traditional leader of the Bangwato (“Chief” in language that is now deemed inappropriate) that title has a double meaning. On its own, the fact of Khama’s outsized role in party and national politics carries weight that should put severe strain on Masisi’s shoulders for two reasons. Firstly, such responsibility will definitely ensure that Khama retains very close contact with party structures and voters nationwide while Masisi is holed up in Gaborone, juggling a full and varied slate of presidential duties. Secondly, the BDP will hold a special congress next year at which nothing is off the table. If Khama is unhappy with Masisi, he can use his back-channel influence to precipitate an election that could result in the replacement of the latter with someone he is more comfortable with as president.

There is another troubling aspect that deftly employs the refined science of personal branding. Last month, the Bank of Botswana carpeted the country with P10 notes that bear the portrait of a man leaving office on April 1. Anywhere in the world, lowest-denomination currency notes are the most used. This means that in their daily business transactions, voters will be seeing a former and not sitting president. Given how much spare time he has on his hands, that former president will be physically present in their communities donating blankets. Those living elsewhere will later see this philanthropy on Btv news. Fortifying his personal political brand this way will definitely give Khama more power than Masisi. That view is held in capitals of the First World where this transition is being watched with keen interest.

Khama’s history of interpersonal relations shows that he is a largely transactional person. It is unlikely he would still be donating blankets or go on meet-and-greet walkabouts if he was not rewarded with ululating. He also expects cabinet ministers to be loyal to him personally. Masisi’s ascension has always smacked of a deal because no newcomer to parliament rises from assistant minister to president within nine years. It would be nothing short of willful naïveté to imagine that there are no strings attached to Khama’s anointment of Masisi as his successor. One string that should come into public view exactly a week from now is Masisi’s choice of vice president. All the smart is on Khama’s younger brother, Tshekedi Khama, who is the Minister of Environment, Natural Resources Conservation and Tourism, but only April 1 will tell.

Tshekedi Khama as Vice President will be getting coaching lessons from his elder brother. As vice president, Khama sought to overshadow President Festus Mogae and could well recommend that Tshekedi should do the same thing with Masisi.