Wednesday, July 17, 2024

Sebetela could replace Masisi as BDP president ahead of 2024 elections

President Mokgweetsi Masisi’s fate as state president is all but sealed: unless he applies a long-standing African standard in terms of which the incumbent doesn’t lose, COVID-19 will make him a one-term president. However, Masisi being a one-term president and the Botswana Democratic Party rule coming to an end in 2024 are two separate issues.

After taking over from Ian Khama, Masisi began to cultivate political support around himself as an individual. More than anything else, what initially looked like a massive anti-corruption crusade in 2018 endeared Masisi to a lot of people. Where Khama had been virulently anti-democratic (as reflected in his attitude towards the media, trade unions and nettlesome civil society) Masisi showed willingness to engage non-combatively with forces that Khama had drawn a sword against for the rest of his 20 years in government, half of that period as vice president and the other half as president.

Masisi did many more things to break with a past that reversed gains that Botswana had 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 on the Botswana Police Service’ Special Branch (which some people never even knew existed) but morphed into what the president of the Botswana Congress Party, Dumelang Saleshando, described as a “death squad” after it assassinated a Gaborone man in cold blood.

Ahead of the 2019 general election, it became common to hear people, some of them members of the opposition, publicly state that “I am not a member of the Botswana Democratic Party but I will vote for it in the coming general election.” And indeed there are people who voted for the BDP in 2019 precisely because at least during the pre-election period, they had a lot of faith in Masisi. One set of voters did because it wanted him to get a chance to prove himself, something Khama was making almost impossible by undermining Masisi at every turn and creating another centre of power.

After more than three years in power, Masisi’s abilities and weaknesses as a leader are on full display. In as far as meritocracy goes, some score him very low. He hasn’t helped the situation by tending to over-promise and under-deliver. However, across the board, Botswana is a non-meritocratic society and the meritocracy standard was never going to determine whether or not he is returned to office in 2024. Botswana presidents have typically thrown money at problems but on account of Covid-19, Masisi finds himself in a position of not being able to do so. Almost three months into the 2021/22 financial year, the Ministry of Finance and Economic Development announced that the Ministry of Health and Wellness had exhausted its funds for the year. Many more ministries and government departments are all but broke and in a country where the government is the largest consumer of services and products, that is a problem of historic proportions. As many more people have observed, this is the problem that will make Masisi a one-term president – a comparative analysis of Botswana’s president might actually show that he is not the least-performing in terms of ability to lead.

However, that is not how the problem is understood on the streets. At that level, Masisi is being compared with his predecessors – who never had to contend with anything like Covid-19 – and being judged unfavourably. To be clear, Masisi’s style of leadership is also a factor. He has proved himself unable to stay the course and to deliver on his grand promises. Where stability would be the most desirable in times these turbulent, he has switched around both political and administrative leaders at MoHW as many times as to leave no doubt in anyone’s mind that there is no stability in a ministry that critical. For someone who was championing the anti-corruption crusade before the 2019 general election, he has also been reluctant to talk publicly about suspect deals that he (or his relatives) have been dubiously associated with. He has all but disengaged with the media and the civil society and has lost appetite to undertake the constitutional review that he once promised.

These and factors have serious implications for the BDP’s electoral chances in 2024 and a recent appointment decision that Masisi personally made might prove to have been fateful in an unusual way. This month, Masisi created a new position (Chief of Staff) to which he appointed former minister and Palapye MP, Boyce Sebetela. There has been public reporting that all along, Sebetela has been part of Masisi’s kitchen cabinet. Prior to this appointment, Sebetela worked as Group Manager (Strategy and Business Improvement) at the Debswana Diamond Company where he cut his teeth in the world of work upon completion of a mineral process engineering degree at the University of Exeter (Camborne School of Mines) in 1986. Inside the BDP, it is an open secret that Sebetela harbours presidential ambition. Opportunity to further such ambition could present itself before the 2024 elections.

Not only are some BDP disgruntled with Masisi’s style of leadership and handling of the Covid-19 pandemic, there is also very strong feeling with certain quarters that he will be an electoral liability in 2024. While the bulk of the blame for what is now happening economically should be put on Covid-19, one too many voters point the finger of blame at Masisi. He could bring charts and quote figures in an attempt to absolve himself of blame but voters don’t get deep like that – something the BDP disgruntled are well aware of. Voters just want a name and an election date. Both on and offline, there is now tendency to express the sentiment that 2024 is taking too long to come because Masisi has to be voted out of office. Unlike 2019 when Masisi attracted support from the opposition members – some of whom voted for the BDP for the first time ever – there is now a strong anti-Masisi feeling.

In the event that a substantial and influential enough cleavage that sees Masisi as an electoral liability forms with the BDP, there is real possibility that he might be dropped as a candidate. After all, the party already has experience of trying to ditch its president ahead of a general election and what failed in Kang in 2019 might just succeed some place ahead of 2024. If that happens, who would the possible BDP presidential candidates be? Slumber Tsogwane has spent the last three years in Masisi’s shadow and has been associated with his failures. Besides, Tsogwane doesn’t inspire any confidence as the sort of visionary leader a BDP that is down on its knees needs.

In the circumstances, the next most powerful BDP operative at the Office of the President would be Sebetela, a putative Prime Minister with one foot firmly planted in the Government Enclave and the other in Tsholetsa House (the BDP headquarters) – and one with fierce presidential ambition. With Sebetela as presidential candidate, the party can (ironically) make a more credible case for Masisi’s much-vaunted “reset.”

Far-fetched? Maybe, but the political intrigue of the 2024 elections, in both the BDP and opposition but certainly in the former, will be extraordinary.

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