Masisi should opt for 'Domexit'


This piece is an unsolicited advice to President Mokgweetsi Masisi in the spirited dogfight he is engaged in with former president Ian Khama, for the soul and control of the ruling Botswana Democratic Party (BDP).

In 2010 we advised members of the BDPs’ Barataphati faction, who were being persecuted by the then party leader, Ian Khama, to exit the BDP and form their own party. We advised that such a party should then form an alliance with established opposition parties for the 2014 general election. They listened and had it not been for the Botswana Congress Party (BCP) deciding to go it alone in the 2014 election, the opposition collective of Umbrella for Democratic Change (UDC) would have romped to power in that election. Today, we also advise Masisi to rally his troops and opt for what we call Domexit (exiting Domkrag) and form his own party.

What Masisi and his supporters should understand is that while the constitution of the BDP makes the party a people’s project, unfortunately, for decades now the practice in the party has been that the party and government are Ian Khama’s inheritance or estate from his father, the late founding president, Seretse Khama, to use for personal amusement. Tragically, Ian Khama has understood things this way and he is doggedly determined to have his way at all costs, including going down with both the party and country, if possible. His resolve is well in line with the Setswana saying that ‘moseka phofu ya gaabo ga a swe lentswe’, loosely translated meaning that ‘when one fights for his property or inheritance he does not give up the fight’.  

Perhaps, before we delve into the details of our piece we should provide some historical background. Throughout the 81 years of British colonial rule in Botswana the Bangwato dikgosi or royalty were the most influential local leaders. When liberal democracy dawned on Botswana in 1965 leading to the country’s first national elections, the solidly pro-BDP Bangwato territory by virtue of being the most populous would have more constituencies than any part of the country.  The late opposition politician, Motsamai Mpho, was of the view that “So far the British plan to keep Ngwato royalty at the top of Botswana government by giving their territory more constituencies than any other has gone well. It continues unabated even in the wake of Seretse Khama’s death” (Edge, 1996:151).

In 1977 when the Botswana Defence Force (BDF) was established Seretse appointed Ian Khama as second in command of the army over the heads of more qualified colleagues. In 1979 Seretse strategically contravened his 1956 abdication of Bangwato bogosi, which included his children, and appointed Ian Khama as kgosi of Bangwato. Following Seretse’s death in 1980 Masire succeeded him as president of the Republic. According to Professor Mpho Molomo ‘The perception of the Bangwato, when Masire succeeded Khama… was that he was only holding the fort for Khama’s son, Ian Khama Seretse Khama, to enable him to develop a career in the army, grow up and eventually take over as President’ (Molomo, 2001:101). When Masire’s portrait replaced Seretse’s in the Pula currency in line with the law of the land, there was uprising in the Bangwato tribal territory as they suspected that Masire was out to usurp the presidency, Ian Khama’s ‘inheritance’.

In 1989 President Masire appointed Ian Khama commander of the BDF. It seems the political significance of the Khama family to the BDP led to government allowing them a near monopoly of big money tenders at BDF through the family’s Seleka Springs company even when Ian Khama was the commander. Such preferential treatment bred a strong sense of entitlement on the part of the family. This may even explain why Tshekedi Khama at times seemed to have a hard time understanding why he should be subjected to primary elections in his father’s party.

On the relations between Masire and Ian Khama, Motsamai Mpho said: “I suppose that if Masire knew how much power he had as the head of state, he could discipline Ian Khama if he misbehaved. But given the origins of the BDP and the status of the Ngwato royalty in our politics, it would be a fatal mistake for him to dare to question Ian Khama…. President Masire could never criticise Ian Khama publicly. It would be suicidal” (Edge, 1996:151-152). It now seems President Masisi as President is paying the price for daring to challenge and change Ian Khama’s way of doing things.

When Festus Mogae became president in 1998 he head-hunted Ian Khama from the BDF and made him his vice president overnight. Khama agreed to quit the army and become vice president under rather crazy conditions. He soon went on an unprecedented ‘sabbatical leave’ which the then BDP youth wing leader, Lesang Magang, publicly denounced. Before long knives were out for Lesang Magang and he got marginalised in the party. 

In 2003 BDP chairman, Ponatshego Kedikilwe, complained that ‘the vice president seems to enjoy powers that no other politician who will subsequently hold that position can enjoy. Do you think the next vice president will fly army planes, even if he would be a pilot? We seem to be making special dispensations for one man, but that is not how the rule of law works; you do not create laws to enable an individual, but people…. Over the last couple of years the politics of this country has gone backwards…. We have become a demo-feudal state in the place of a democratic republic’ (Botswana Gazette, 18 June 2003). Kedikilwe went on to say that the scenario would have dire consequences for Botswana.

Things got worse when Ian Khama became president in 2008 and his autocratic rule led to the split in the BDP and formation of Botswana Movement for Democracy (BMD) in 2010. Following the 2014 elections in which the party dodged the UDC bullet, its veteran member and former cabinet minister, Bahiti Temane, worried that the party had created a monster in Ian Khama who was now tormenting it. He was quoted saying ‘Somehow we made a mistake by bringing Khama in…. We all as the BDP have to blame ourselves for having created a monster out of this man, which we will have to live with for the rest of our lives. We were acting in good faith not knowing we are unnecessarily creating a strongman who is above institutional arrangements such as Parliament’ (Botswana Guardian, 9 November 2014).

Reports indicate that when Ian Khama relinquished the presidency in 2018 the understanding was that vice president Masisi would appoint Tshekedi Khama, younger brother to Ian, as vice president and eventually become president in the future. This was for continuity of the Khama dynasty in the country’s political leadership. However, Masisi appointed Slumber Tsogwane instead and this seems to have broken Ian Khama’s heart to the extent that he is now employing all kinds of shenanigans to undermine Masisi’s Presidency of the BDP and Botswana at every turn. Things have been worsened by Masisi’s highly publicised but modest crusade against corruption that had characterised Ian Khama’s government from 2008 to 2018. Masisi’s reversal of some of Khama’s favourite programmes, seen as wastage of public funds, has also greatly angered the former president.

Masisi has also done relatively well in rolling back some of the repressive measures which Khama had put in place including change of the top leadership of the once dreaded and hated Directorate of Intelligence Services (DIS). Therefore, Masisi has made something of a name for himself as a ‘liberation hero’ for many Batswana.

The consequence of going against Khama’s legacy and kleptocracy has been the formation of a shadowy faction going by the name New Jerusalem in the BDP. The faction has Khama as what in the Ku Klux Klan parlance is called Imperial Wizard. For the first time ever someone, former cabinet minister Pelonomi Venson-Moitoi, has emerged to challenge the BDP leader for the party presidency. Khama is strongly seen, even by Masisi, as having orchestrated this development as he openly backs Venson-Moitoi’s candidature. He is exploiting the numerical superiority of his tribal territory that the BDP has in terms of constituencies. However, he is not using this advantage as a bargaining chip to extract concessions from Masisi but uses or abuses it to hold him to ransom recklessly.

Our take is that Ian Khama is the only person in Botswana who can openly undermine the President’s authority as well as national interests locally and internationally and get away with it. His recent hobnobbing with the Dalai Lama against potential damaging backlash from China on Botswana does not bother him. Botswana is a small Third World country that cannot afford ill-advised posturing and flexing a thin muscle to an emerging superpower. For this recklessness he only receives idle threats from Masisi yet any other Motswana would be accused and possibly tried for treason. Some of BDP members argue that Masisi should deal ruthlessly or crush the New Jerusalem faction and Ian Khama. This would not be different to what Khama did to the Barataphathi faction that eventually formed BMD in 2010. 

Nevertheless, we believe that the current situation is more serious than was the case in 2010 because New Jerusalem is not a regular or traditional faction like Barataphathi. New Jerusalem appears to be a state within a state with a good number of its members being beneficiaries of Khama’s kleptocratic administration. They appear hell-bent on derailing Masisi’s crusade against corruption of which they were the beneficiaries, and they would do anything to achieve their objective. This includes going down with the country if push comes to shove. 

Masisi would be better advised to understand that BDP is a spent force and will be a serious liability to him. It has been in power for a very long time and naturally people have become fatigued of it and change is needed to usher in a Second Republic (post-Khamacracy and post-BDP Botswana). Since the late 1990s the BDP has only been kept in power by the opposition’s age-old self-defeating unwillingness to cooperate. Despite empirical evidence that parties that go it alone in elections lose big time this important historical lesson continues to escape some parties. 

Therefore, Masisi should leave Ian Khama with his father’s party and form his own way. (It should be understood though that Masisi’s own late father and many others such as Sir Ketumile Masire were also founders of the BDP in the early 19160s but this does not seem to matter in the BDP). Masisi should approach BDP’s child BMD, and BDP’s grandchild Alliance for Progressives (AP) for the three entities to form a new party. As the saying goes, there are no permanent enemies in politics. Moreover, the three groups will have persecution and harassment by Ian Khama as a common denominator. Masisi should start marshalling ‘domexiteers’ and strike while the iron is still hot with public and private media support and sympathy for him still high.

The new party would likely get the vote of people who otherwise could not stomach the thought of voting for Masisi through a BDP ticket even if they like what Masisi is doing so far. Such people associate BDP with corruption and Ian Khama’s legacy of repression.

In Lesotho, Malawi and the developed Israel, leaders left their ruling parties, established new ones and got enough support to regain power. In Israel prime minister Ariel Sharon left the ruling Likud Party in November 2005 and said ‘If I had stayed in the Likud, I would have probably won in the primaries, and would have led the Likud to victory in the elections. This would have been the safest move for me personally, however it is not the way to serve the State of Israel. Staying in the Likud means wasting time on political struggles, rather than acting on behalf of the state’. In this statement Likud can easily be replaced with BDP and the State of Israel with Botswana. In Malawi former president, Bakili Muluzi’s excessive interference in the affairs of the ruling United Democratic Front (UDF) greatly irked his successor, Bingu wa Mutharika, who left UDF in early 2005 to form his own Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) which won the elections in 2009.

In a new party Masisi will be well in control and enjoy unqualified loyalty of members. This will differ with the current situation in the BDP where he is second-guessing the loyalty of important party leaders and members. The new party would be an agent for meaningful change whereby meritocracy and talent determine one’s access to economic opportunities not party membership or membership of a faction within the ruling party as has been the case for decades now. Such a development would make the man a hero of the Second Republic while Seretse Khama remains the hero of the First Republic.

The endorsement for the BDP presidency Masisi has been getting from BDP regions including those in Khama’s Central District, shows that Masisi can win them if he puts up a good campaign in the national election against the BDP. The endorsement he got in Venson-Moitoi’s constituency of Serowe South has rattled the New Jerusalem faction. This has led to Venson-Moitoi instituting legal proceedings against the BDP. Unfortunately, once the court route is pursued reconciliation becomes impossible in the party and a split becomes inevitable. In post- Kang BDP congress things are likely to deteriorate for the party. History teaches us that all major party splits took place after a controversial elective congress.

Remember the 1997 BNF Ledumang congress that gave birth to the BCP, 2009 BDP Kanye congress that led to the formation of BMD, and 2016 BMD Bobonong congress that resulted in the formation of AP. If Masisi wins at Kang and the BDP avoids a split, New Jerusalem would likely field independent candidates in BDP strongholds in order to split the votes and ensure the party candidates loss. Alternatively, they may choose to support opposition candidates against BDP candidates in order to render Masisi’s victory at Kang a pyrrhic and useless one.

Although Masisi seems to be earning himself some fans and praise-singers in his purported fight against corruption, we are not carried away by this fight against corruption. Already, as some have observed it seems selective and targeted only at those associated with Ian Khama or the New Jerusalem faction. His crusade against corruption will increasingly target New Jerusalem elements while ignoring those in his faction or those shifting allegiance from New Jerusalem to his faction. This casts doubt on his sincerity in fighting corruption and may become an election issue by the opposition. Already it is being noted that despite reports of alleged serious corruption on the part of Permanent Secretary to the President (PSP), Carter Morupisi, Masisi is turning a blind eye. In a way the PSP could become a political liability to Masisi in a similar manner to what the deposed DIS supremo, Isaac Kgosi, has been to Ian Khama. 

Interestingly, in his memoirs Masire writes that ‘When I became president, Phil Steenkamp was PSP. I replaced him not because I myself was unhappy with his performance, but because people were making very frivolous and unfair accusations against him. They were exploiting the fact that he was a white, naturalised Motswana, and he did not shrink from taking unpopular decisions. While Phil Steenkamp was an excellent and loyal administrator, he became somewhat of a liability to me in political terms’ (Masire, 2006:93).

Again people would start demanding that Masisi institutes an investigation into the Khama family’s Seleka Springs that has monopolised big money tenders at the BDF and possibly other national security agencies for decades now. The retired soldiers association and national institutions such as the cash-strapped University of Botswana among others should form  companies and bid for these tenders for the benefit of the larger portion of the society instead of just one family.

Moreover, the shadowy Seleka Springs does not seem to have any visible corporate social responsibility to plough back into the community the astronomical money bags (possibly billions of pula) the company rakes in from these tenders. Sporting codes and clubs are desperate for funding and the company does not seem interested in helping them. It behaves like a foreign entity which is only interested in profiteering and having nothing to do with what goes on in the society it profits from. Once operating from outside the BDP and not dependent on the Khama’s patronage and paternalism in terms of constituencies, Masisi would be able to address these weighty national concerns. He may be able to cause a substantial dent to the unemployment crisis we are faced with, and also create equitable wealth redistribution in the Second Republic. Such a move would also enable Masisi to end state capture by the likes of Seleka Springs’ monopoly capital, as they would put it in the South African political discourse.

Again once outside the BDP Masisi would be able to deal with Ian Khama decisively and ruthlessly without vacillating and appearing weak and helpless as is the case now. We doubt if once out of power the BDP can survive the struggle in the deprived opposition ranks. Over time it could become a small regional or Serowe-based party. 

*Makgala and Mmekwa are contributing authors to Mmegi

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