Friday, July 12, 2024

The empire strikes back

Former President Ian Khama is back with a bang. His arrival back into Botswana’s political scene, from whence he actually never left is perhaps the most enduring sign of the man’s longevity. As he launches a second attempt to oust the man he handpicked as his successor, Khama demonstrably clings to Botswana’s political landscape both as a force but also a danger. There is a good number of ruling party backbenchers who publicly look up to him and defer to him as still their leader. In cabinet, some ministers still swear loyalty to him. And over half of opposition members of parliament believe they are in parliament because of him. In Serowe the popularity of his name is second only to that of Jesus. This is a man who has persisted in his refusal to be classified as extinct. He defiantly fought the forces of nature, when until the end he fought and won against the mandatory phase of the presidency called the “lame duck.”

For the last three years Khama has been absolutely isolated from public life.Not only did government discredit him, they actively disavowed him and distanced themselves from him.Those who pled his innocence were equally if not more targeted.It has been like what in Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe once called an age of madness.He had been deserted by many people, including those who he personally favored, uplifted and empowered. Many of them treated him like a leper as they tripped over themselves to ingratiate themselves to the incoming president.He fought back – on multiple fronts and just never relented.For some time his chief antagonist in government was Carter Morupisi, the man he had appointed a Permanent Secretary to the President.

Morupisi has now fallen out with Masisi and is fighting in court to stay out of jail.From the beginning some people have rightly labelled Khama’s fight with his successor, Mokgweetsi Masisi as phony.Masisi has spent the last three years dismantling all the visible symbols and relics of Ian Khama presidency. He is still not done yet. Khama was explicitly removed from all government and quasi-government organisations he led even in the most nominal and ceremonial of capacities.Saying anything charitable or positive about Khama was criminalized. Yet after working so hard to obliterate the man from people’s psyches, today Masisi government stands in absolute embarrassment at their sheer failure to defeat Ian Khama. Khama remains a pain against which Masisi as the doctor is yet to find a therapy. It is a failure that will no doubt attract consequences. Now Khama has been able to forcefully re-enter public imagination.The gait in his stride reflects both his excitement and also growing confidence with himself. The former – as he is popularly known is enjoying himself.  And clearly having a good time. A trending video shows him with a band of his security detail dancing to the tune of “Jerusalema” – a global hit by South African hitmaker Master KG.

He is celebrating the defeat oy his other nemesis, Donald Trump. For him a bigger prize is still on its way down the road.This image is in direct contrast to many in cabinet, a majority of who cut a miserable image of themselves – clearly distracted as they struggle to get to grips with fast moving events of running a government during a global pandemic that is killing multitudes around the world and ravaging economies alike. Rightly or wrongly, Khama is a man who believes that better days are yet to come. He sees himself as being at the centre of a winning operation while his opponents in government are running a failing operation that is sliding non-stop down a cliff. To everybody’s surprise, Masisi and his inner circle continue to obsess about Ian Khama.They worry about a man who is out of power but whose determined sway continues to have a stranglehold on the many levers of the state.

Khama has infiltrated every level of government.Because Masisi and his people are worried at how easily Khama manipulates government officials including at high levels, there is a lot of mistrust even among this cohort.This makes it easy for Khama to take a dig at them – thus further spreading his tentacles inside government.It becomes an exasperating vicious cycle. A whole government machinery is yet to get fully aligned to growing public expectations that the current administration casually created. Many of them are still learning the ropes.Individually, a good number of them look overwhelmed and even lost.Khama has had a rough three years. Those of his followers with little faith at one point got worried that he was going to leave the country. The state had denied him access to aeroplanes and helicopters – his beloved toys.  But that has not stopped him from traveling to every corner of the countryKhama is a tea leaves reader.

And is thorough in many things he does.He has remained in a campaign mode, since elections.  He is in personal touch with councilors and activists.This has kept functionaries happy as they feel relevant and appreciated.  Botswana is headed for a perilous moment. Khama strategy from day one has been to de-legitmise Masisi. And he’s succeeding. If the dispute is a cautionary tale, it is that a head of state should never consume himself with petty political battles because victory in any of them is never guaranteed. Khama and his people are emboldened. They are now in a space where they feel confident to take Masisi and his people head-on. They have been registering big wins at the courts.They are now going after government with counter suits. They accuse government of malicious political prosecutions – a big charge by and of itself.

Short of a constitutional review its impossible to see a trade-off that Masisi has up the sleeve to save himself from Khama and the mob, many of them with long and clearly irreconcilable grievances against Masisi personally.Delivery on key promises made was always going to buy time and provide a bulwark of guarantees for Masisi.But on that front too, Masisi government has been clumsy – when gauged against the many promises they made but left unfulfilled. In the meantime, Khama is creating an iron shield around the central district in general and Serowe in particular.  It is an albatross few will touch. He’s painting the district yellow, and by election time in 2024, much of those areas will have become no-go zones for Botswana Democratic Party. The ruling party structures have been ravaged by defections to Khama’s Botswana Patriotic Front.  Keeping morale high among the BDP troops has been near impossible.  And Khama’s party has been effective in telling the people across the district that Masisi government is getting back at them as punishment for sticking with Khama, their Emperor. That narrative has so far proved a good-sell.Using the Botswana Patriotic Front as a vehicle that needs him more than he needs it, Khama has been able to consolidate in those areas.

The reason why BDP councilors in the Central district are leaving their party in droves is because they have totally discounted the chances of their party in the next elections. And they are not expecting miracles hence their decision to file out to BPF while there is still time .In the meantime, a hastily prepared Masisi prepared Constitutional amendment to stem the defections is going for a second reading in parliament. It is more a sign of defeat than initiative. He had promised a sweeping Constitutional Review. Feeling cornered he is now picking and choosing clauses that might offer him and the BDP some respite. For BDP activists in the vast district, options are running out, and short of a defection to BPF, there is not much for them to soften the blow. It’s a stinging rebuke to the BDP and Masisi in particular who was hoping to beat Khama in his own backyard at election time. The district is heavily invested on the Emperor; less so on his association with a motley crew of opposition political parties Khama’s confidence is on the rise. And once again everybody feels they need him to survive – at least politically.

RELATED STORIES

Read this week's paper