Former president Ian Khama and his anointed successor President Mokgweetsi Masisi have been more than colleagues but real brothers in arms. What even brought them much closer was a common history of being scions of Botswana’s founding leaders.
Actually, Masisi was always towering head and shoulders above the rest of the pack in cheer leading and parrying criticisms levelled against Khama. He was the champion and face of Khama’s pet projects. As planned on April 1, 2018 Khama was too happy to step down a year before the expiry of his last term proper and in line with the constitutional provision of automatic succession and the wishes of his mentor, Masisi took the oath of office as the fifth President of the Republic of Botswana.
Khama’s dreams had come true and he was ready to take the back seat. The inauguration of a new President confirmed to the whole world once again Botswana’s well-known and deep-seated commitment to the maintenance of the rule of law and a seamless and peaceful transfer of authority from one hand to the other. Content with the process and final orderly transfer of power, the incoming new President told the watching world that, “I wish to implore every citizen to cherish and jealously guard this noble ideal which ideal allows us to shine as a beacon and example of hope, stability, peace and tranquillity as we do today and now through this very seamless transition of political power from a retiring Head of State to a new one predictably known in advance as per constitutional dictate.”
In his inauguration speech, Masisi had heart-warming and kind words for his past immediate predecessor, showering him with accolades for his good stewardship of the country.
“At this juncture, let me recognise and appreciate the immense contribution that my immediate predecessor, Khama has made to this country in improving the welfare of its people. President Khama’s unwavering commitment to take our people out of poverty is second to none. Your contribution to environmental conservation, promotion and development of sports and arts, and your regular and consistent interactions with ordinary Batswana is an enduring legacy that will stand the test of time.”
Masisi’s maiden speech did not betray any signs of any trouble in paradise maintaining an impression that the possibility of fallout between the two political allies was distant and unlikely. Behind this façade dark clouds were gathering and it was a matter of time before their sharp differences played themselves out in the public domain. In the cat and mouse existence of ex-comrades in arms, can be found the genesis and emergency birthing of yet another BDP offspring, the Botswana Patriotic Front (BPF) in July 2019. This historic moment was two months away from the October general election.
Khama has since assumed the role of the ‘God father’ and chief adviser of Botswana’s newest political formation, the BPF. At its infancy, the BPF was confronted with numerous competing priorities and some of the tasks at hand appeared almost insurmountable. The tempting and feasible choice appeared to be focusing on building the BPF brand first and mobilising resources to prepare for participation in future party election seasons.
The 2019 general election looked beyond reach. It was too late and considered an act of folly for the new kid on the bloc to attempt to get a stake in the Parliamentary and council seats on offer. Its readiness for the 2019 October election was clearly questionable and prospects of success were limited, if any. With the hindsight benefit, those who ruled out the BPF did so at their own peril. At the top of the BPF was a rare breed of charismatic, gifted, courageous and determined leaders who were prepared to teach the BDP a lesson it would never forget.
There was Biggie Butale, former Cabinet minister, now the founding president of the BPF who had been expelled from the BDP and wanted to stage a war of revenge against his former political home. At the disposal of the party president were the full services of the patron of the party, former President Khama. His (Khama’s) cup of anger was saturated and he had every reason to spend sleepless nights to accomplish the mission of unseating the BDP.
Khama’s royal advantage coupled with his universal appeal across the length and breadth of the country proved to be a potent arsenal in the hands of the BPF. It was under the inspiration and direction of Khama that the new political formation and the Umbrella for Democratic Change (UDC) became the unlikeliest political bedfellows forging a strategic partnership, which on paper brought much closer the fulfilment of the deferred dream of regime change. The goal was to politically emasculate and annihilate the BDP and bring to an abrupt end its over 50 years of uninterrupted grip on power. At the grassroots, the rank and file of the party, its foot soldiers had grown weary and sick of the behaviour and conduct of the new crop of BDP leaders. For Khama and Butale and their following, mission failure was not an option.
Finally at the risk of being thought foolish and facing the prospect of suffering a humiliating defeat at the hands of seasoned campaigners, the BPF decided to audaciously throw its hat in the ring. It was a classical case of building a vessel while sailing. Khama, the principal campaigner, was all over the political show, addressing rallies which attracted electrifying crowds. Khama’s endless countrywide tours kept the mighty BDP on its toes and seemed for the first time that the BDP had found its match. It will be remembered that for five decades, the BDP enjoyed royal patronage especially from the Khama family.
Now, the opposition with its own paramount chief was giving the BDP a dose of its own medicine, having also wrestled Goodhope-Mabutsane from the BDP in 2014 and subsequently retaining it with an overwhelming majority via a by-election won through the influence of Kgosi Lotlaamoreng. The debutant BPF against all odds rattled the BDP and acquitted itself well in the 2019 elections. The BPF political tornado sent a strong message in the Central District, where the BDP was uprooted in Serowe, suffering losses of three constituencies. Gammangwato territory has been the citadel of the BDP since formation and the unexpected defeat must have caused the BDP some stomach indigestion. Sefhare-Ramokgonami rejected the BDP bid in favour of the BPF’s partner, the UDC.
The BDP made a miraculous escape in Lerala-Maunatlala where the BDP prodigal son Prince Maele, to some extent backed by the BPF gave the BDP a run for its money. In Mahalapye, again the BPF ally, UDC routed the BDP transferring for the first time power to the opposition. And Shoshong, Tonota and Nkange fell in the hands of the opposition. The opposition achieved total power and control over the whole of Maun and Selebi-Phikwe for the first time since independence. These opposition victories in the northern hemisphere could not have been possible without the influence of the BPF and the never die attitude of its patron. It is clearly evident that from Dibete to Mohembo a conscious decision had been taken to usher in a new political dispensation. Small though it may be, the BPF nearly achieved its mission of being a game changer and rewriting the political landscape of Botswana.
However, time will tell whether the BPF will continue to enjoy good will and the warm reception of 2019. The BPF must reflect on its over-reliance on the Khama magic.
He has done his part in its formative phase and it is really time for the BPF to contemplate a future without Khama. The latter is not growing young and ultimately age will catch up with him causing him to retire from active politics. Already his continuing involvement in the running of the party is unsettling some elements. The BPF must deal with negative perceptions that it is a family affair and that it cannot thrive beyond the precincts of the Central District.
It must invest its energies and resources to grow beyond its present stage and truly become national in character. The BPF must also develop maturity on internal conflict management and resolution. The dispute over the fate of its founding president must be addressed with extreme care and due diligence. A small fragile and still growing party cannot survive a major schism.