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Theatre of the absurd plays out in Botswana power feud

Wednesday July 24 2019

Ian Kham, Mokgweetsi Masisi

This file photo taken on March 27, 2018 shows Botswana's President Seretse Ian Khama standing next to his Vice-President Mokgweetsi Masisi during a rally in his village Serowe, before officially stepping down on March 31 and handing power to him on April 1. PHOTO | MONIRUL BHUIYAN | AFP 

WENE OWINO
By WENE OWINO
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Just days before Botswana President Mokgweetsi Masisi left Gaborone for Nairobi, Kenya the military plane he was using for a local trip developed problems as it was taxing to fly out of Botswana’s second city, Francistown.

The authorities released a statement explaining the minor incident but this did not stop conspiracy theorists from falling back on a lingering narrative of a plot to take President Masisi's life.

The mishap came less than a month after the president aborted a trip to Maputo, Mozambique mid-air on suspicion that a group of Botswana nationals in South Africa had hired assassin to kill Masisi, who has fallen out badly with his predecessor and benefactor, Lt-Gen (rtd) Ian Khama.

Indeed Khama wasted no time in dismissing the assassination reports as an attempt by Masisi to besmirch his opponents, as part of an official propaganda to win public support to his side.

The alleged assassination plot arises from unprecedented fall-out between the two men that has left Botswana in unchartered waters.

The trend in Africa has been of retired president keeping cordial relationships with the incumbents.

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A watershed, however, appears to be drawn with president Joan Lourenco of Angola, Felix Tshisekedi of DR Congo and Muhammadu Buhari of Nigeria also having frosty relationships with their predecessors Eduardo dos Santos, Obasanjo, Joseph Kabila and Olusegun Obasanjo respectively.

The rivalry in Botswana, however, has slipped out of the country's borders with President Masisi's handlers believing that a top family in South Africa is working behind the scenes to infiltrate the ruling Botswana Democratic Party and force a regime change.

Entitlement

The Khama-Masisi fallout stems from a sense of entitlement of the Khamas, their Ngwato people and their main metropolis, Serowe to the country’s presidency.

The highly respected Sir Seretse Khama was Botswana’s first president and the exploits of his eldest son, Ian, were elevated to pantheon status.

When his father appointed him as deputy army commander at the age of 24 in 1977 the younger Khama was reputed to be the world’s youngest brigadier.

These undercurrent's came to the fore in demonstrations against Masire portrait being on the Pula, the country's currency which trades at 10.52 units to the dollar, which was torn or burnt for good measure.

After President Masire was knighted by the Queen of England in 1991, a delegation of women from Ngwatoland travelled to Gaborone demanding answers why Masire's wife Olebile was bestowed with the title ‘Lady’ instead of Seretse's widow, Ruth.

The Ngwato loyalists, Serowe and the Khama family must have gratified in 1998 when new President Festus Mogae plucked Ian from the military and named him his vice president, effectively placing him at the head of the succession queue.

In gratitude, Khama did everything to overshadow his boss.

For example, he was granted a controversial ‘leave’ from politics in 2000 and was allowed to fly military planes contrary to the findings of the Ombudsdman.

Pressed for an explanation, President Mogae said the privileges were part of a deal he had cut with Khama when he persuaded him to leave politics.

It is unlikely the deal included the second in command, arrogantly insulting fellow politicians and issuing parallel directives that raised concerns within BDP that the president-in-waiting had dictatorial tendencies.

These fears would be realised when Khama came to power in 2008 he rattled the establishment with his unilateral directives, leading to a split in BDP as his critics formed the Botswana Movement for Democracy in 2010.

Putin option

There was speculation that Khama's inner circle even contemplated him not leaving power when his two term limit was served, prompting frequent if lukewarm denials.

Cabinet minister Unity Dow was to later sensationally go public with claims that she was present on a number of occasions when the ex-leader asserted that he wanted the Putin option after he left office in April 2018.

Ms Dow said that Khama revealed his wishes that he could still rule Botswana like Russian leader Vladimir Putin who uses a puppet in Dmitry Medvedev to retain power.

Fears of a Putin option have recently emerged in Kenya following the dalliance between President Uhuru Kenyatta, whose constitutional term ends in 2022, and former prime minister Raila Odinga with an eye on changing Kenya's constitution.

Not surprisingly, Khama engineered a second split in the ruling party while in retirement, becoming the first ex-BDP president to join the opposition Botswana Patriotic Front which was formed in June.

In retrospect, a usually measured Mogae publicly aired regrets at having handed over power to Khama who, in poetic justice, harbours similar regrets over his choice of President Masisi, possibly because he is no Medvedev.

Previously a man of few words, Khama is nowadays uncharacteristically voluble, launching broadsides against President Masisi who has chosen to remain guarded.

Just like he rode roughshod over party and government structures, Khama has broken with Botswana's tradition of 'presidential diplomacy' which was cultivated by Masire and Mogae.