Ian Khama formalises his divorce from Botswana’s ruling party

In what has become a personal feud, the former president has rattled the BDP five months before elections.

Former president Ian Khama’s separation from the ruling Botswana Democratic Party (BDP) became a formal divorce last Saturday when he publicly announced he’d back the opposition in the October elections. This set the scene for an ugly showdown between Khama and President Mokgweetsi Masisi in the campaign.

Once close allies, Khama anointed him as his successor last year but the two fell out over policy and other issues. Masisi’s decision last week to lift the ban on elephant hunting which the arch-conservationist Khama imposed in 2014 seems to have been the final straw.

Some BDP elders had hoped for a reconciliation between them. Khama’s father and Botswana’s first president, Sir Seretse Khama, was after all one of the ruling party’s founding fathers. However on Saturday Khama burnt his bridges by publicly discarding his BDP membership card at a gathering of supporters in the north-eastern village of Serowe, the seat of the Bangwato tribe – or perhaps more correctly chieftainship – of which he is paramount chief.

‘I came here to tell you that I am cutting ties with the BDP as I do not recognise this party anymore. It was a mistake to choose Masisi as my successor. I will now work with the opposition to make sure that the BDP loses power in October,’ Khama said.

He shifted his allegiance to a new party, the Botswana Patriotic Front, and told his supporters the party would work with the Umbrella for Democratic Change (UDC). The UDC is a coalition of three parties, the Botswana National Front, the Botswana People’s Party and the Botswana Movement for Democracy, which came second to the BDP in the 2014 elections.

Masisi’s decision to lift the ban on elephant hunting seems to have been the final straw for Khama

Their personal feud is splitting the ruling party and raising questions about the political stability of one of Africa’s hitherto most steady democracies. Khama’s challenge will probably confront the BDP with the biggest threat to its long grip on power. Whether he can help weld the opposition into a wide enough coalition to unseat Masisi and the BDP is now a serious question.

The party has governed the country without interruption since independence in 1966. But in the 2014 general elections support fell below 50% for the first time. In a proportional representation system like that in neighbouring South Africa, it would already have been forced to govern through a coalition.

But in Botswana’s winner-takes-all constituency system, the BDP has retained a solid majority of parliamentary seats. It won 45.45% of the vote and got 37 seats in the 63-seat parliament. The UDC won 30% of the vote and got 17 seats. In third place the Botswana Congress Party won a significant 20.43% of the vote for which it received just three seats.

Together the UDC and Botswana Congress Party commanded a slim majority, and have since joined forces. But in 2017 the Alliance for Progressives broke away from UDC alliance member Botswana Movement for Democracy. This has probably more than neutralised the UDC-Botswana Congress Party merger as the Alliance for Progressives is rapidly gaining ground. This splintering, the continuing squabbles inside the UDC and the first-past-the-post constituency system may yet conspire to keep the BDP in power.

But some political commentators are starting to predict a BDP defeat in October, or at least its need to form a coalition to remain in power. Leonard Sesa, a political scientist at the University of Botswana, says Khama’s formal rupture with his alma mater presents the party with a real challenge. That is particularly so since the former president has ‘put on a different hat, that of paramount chief’ of the Bangwato.

In Botswana’s 2014 elections support for the ruling BDP party fell below 50% for the first time

He feels the BDP should be concerned about Khama’s influence on its supporters among the Bangwato. Nonetheless Sesa believes that although the BDP will probably lose some seats as a result of Khama’s defection, it will hang on to power. In part that’s because he predicts Masisi will use his powers to target any other BDP defectors.

The fallout between the two has already had wider regional ramifications. Masisi and the BDP accused Bridgette Motsepe Radebe, wife of South Africa’s former energy minister Jeff Radebe and sister-in-law to President Cyril Ramaphosa, of trying to smuggle money to Botswana’s former foreign minister Pelonomi Venson-Moitoi. At the time, Venson-Moitoi was running against Masisi for the BDP leadership.

Motsepe-Radebe is now obliged to apply for a visa if she visits Botswana again. Ramaphosa sent his foreign minister to Gaborone to reassure Masisi that Pretoria had nothing to do with Motsepe-Radebe’s alleged machinations in his country. Then Botswana’s Sunday Standard, which backs Masisi, reported last weekend that former South African president Kgalema Motlanthe was also providing support to Khama, which Motlanthe denied.

The same paper is mounting a fierce propaganda campaign against Khama, including by trashing his tribal credentials. The paper said the British-educated Khama – son of Sir Seretse Khama and the British Ruth Williams – was more Western than African and was using his tribal identity as a wedge to divide and conquer black Africans as the British colonial power had done.

Khama’s challenge will probably confront the BDP with the biggest threat to its long grip on power

‘The 65-year-old Khama has never aligned himself with any black cause, has most definitely never given a black-power salute and as president, pursued a foreign policy that put Western interests before those of the African collective,’ the paper said. It also accused Khama of undermining Bangwato culture. ‘He is the first Bangwato kgosi (leader) in the tribe’s history whose principal conversational language is not Setswana and who doesn’t speak proper (never mind idiomatic) Setswana,’ the writer claimed.

Khama was also criticised for failing to represent Botswana’s interests at United Nations and African Union (AU) summits. It’s true that Khama was never much interested in the AU in particular, and did take a unique position on many regional issues – including openly criticising then Zimbabwe president Robert Mugabe for his abuses. The point about his poor grasp of the Bangwato culture and Setswana language seems petty.

What is clear though from this article is that the BDP seems rattled by Khama’s challenge. Botswana’s constitution forbids Khama from personally making another run at the presidency. If he does succeed in toppling Masisi and the BDP, the likely beneficiary would be Duma Boko, leader of the UDC coalition.

The important thing for Khama seems to be to get rid of Masisi, even if it’s not yet clear that Khama has much in common politically with Boko and the other opposition leaders and parties. This feud has clearly become personal.

Peter Fabricius, ISS Consultant

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