Masisi-Khama feud puts the presidency at a crossroads

Khama and Masisi are yet to smoke the peace pipe
Khama and Masisi are yet to smoke the peace pipe

Botswana has enjoyed peaceful transitions of power from one President to another for the past five decades.

But the country has never had to deal with open disagreement and tension between a sitting President and his predecessor.

This seems like a script from the Art of War. The 2019 polls were unique in that they were the first election in the post-Khama era. Ian Khama will undoubtedly go down as one of the most polarising political figures of our time.

Masisi’s presidency is a classic tale of ‘new Presidents, old bureaucracies’. Although he comes in with the promise of a new dawn, he inherits the same institutions, a somewhat fiscally conservative treasury, an economy hanging by a thread and a party still ridden with establishment politics.

Of course, new presidents come with renewed hope, expectations and promises of change, but bureaucracies also thrive on comfort, continuity, familiarity, and procedure (the right way of doing things and tsamaiso).

Masisi and the country’s post-Khama election and the build up to it have rubbed Ian Khama the wrong way. In his quest to consolidate power and ‘clean up’, we have seen frequent tussles between him and former president Khama, with some spilling over into international media outlets.

The tussle has also evolved into a political battle, with Ian Khama leaving the Botswana Democratic Party (BDP) to launch a full-on assault to disrupt the BDP’s sustained stay in government through alliances and patronship with opposition political parties.

The institution of the presidency is therefore at war with itself. President Masisi may have stabilised the BDP for now, consolidated power, built alliances and won the 2019 elections with huge margins while increasing BDP’s popular vote, but the Khama issue still hangs over him. There are several ways this will likely play out.

In order to guarantee peace, lead by example and give the institution of the presidency the dignity it deserves, both men will have to compromise and make up.

The prospects of Khama’s return to the ruling party are currently very low. The damage has already been done and the two will probably never see eye-to-eye politically. But the non-partisan approach in the interests of nation building must take priority immediately.

Khama is no doubt a strongman who is least likely to desire any compromise that projects him as the lesser of the two. President Masisi may also desire to protect his pride and keep the olive branch to himself while projecting an image of power.

I do not see the two coming to terms under any agreement that includes an apology any time soon because of how strongly they both feel they are doing what is right.

Herein lies a paradox: The Presidency must always seek to be a unifier, unifying diverse people and diverse interests. However, the job also requires taking bold stands and making occasional unpopular or controversial decisions. We require the President to be a gifted political broker.

The Masisi-Khama ordeal started off as trivial disagreements on bureaucracies and curtailed privileges. But the political spillover has essentially translated into divisions across the country and political spaces, in particular, Serowe. The presidency is a mirror image of the country and whatever happens at the top will define what happens on the ground.

It is in the interest of Khama and his legacy that he moves on. I do not think history will be kind to him in this regard. Presidential terms exist for a reason; to allow a President to step down and to give the next leader a chance to govern. In addition, it is intended to allow the outgoing President a chance to reflect on his own leadership, his failures, achievements and how he can work to serve the country better in retirement.

It is also a chance for the nation to breathe, introspect and think about the leadership they want or need going forward. Although Ian Khama stepped down from the presidency as required, his over-imposing presence in the country’s domestic politics is an overbearing misstep that I think will have multiple ripple effects in the next decade or so. 

Equally, it is also in the interests of President Masisi to find a way to put this to bed, lest it spirals into another debacle that will eventually reflect badly on his own presidential legacy. As the current occupant of the office, President Masisi has more to lose if he does not nip this in the bud.

The majority of the moral burden to extend an olive branch also rests on him as the incumbent. Both are leaders in their respective political camps with huge influence and following. At the end of the day, after politics everyone has to go home and live together.

No President successfully writes their own version of history in order to make it any kinder to them. They can only try to present subjective versions to counter many other perspectives. Khama’s legacy has already been written and judgement passed by those who lived to see him rise through the ranks and those who endured his presidency as well as his post-presidency.

Masisi still has five or 10 more years to write his. The Khama vs. Masisi feud is neither good for the country nor for the both of them. Politically, with Khama’s continued engagement with opposition parties, their relationship will likely never be the same again and will only get worse with the corruption scandals that continue to be unearthed that purportedly occurred under Khama’s administration.

Khama will likely continue to see this as a witch-hunt against him and his associates, propagated by none other than Masisi’s regime.

Masisi will also never take kindly to Khama’s dalliances with the opposition, which will most likely continue seeing that Khama is not interested in being the elderly president who jet sets across the world, mediating conflicts or speaking at events of respectable institutions.

The right thing for the presidency as an institution is that occupants and former occupants give it the respect and dignity it deserves. In the interest of peace, the highest political office in the land must rise above politics. Politically speaking, this will be a game of hardball. Only a neutral occupant of the office stands to rid the office of the stench.

*Bakang Ntshingane is a graduate student at Chonbuk National University’s Department of International Trade in South Korea.

Editor's Comment
Not yet uhuru

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