For the very first time in its 53 years in power, Seretse Khama’s party, the Botswana Democratic Party (BDP), goes to the polls next week shaken but not broken. Like most liberation movements in Africa and the rest of the developing world, BDP’s expiry date appears much nearer than expected.
For five decades, the party enjoyed unparalleled political support among Batswana people and the international community. Since Botswana’s independence in 1966, general elections were merely a formality.
Sir Khama died in 1980, leaving behind a solid party deeply steeped in democratic values. His successors Quett Masire and Festus Mogae built on the founding leader's legacy through good governance. Botswana became an oasis of democracy, prudent economic policy, stability and a leader in environment conservation.
The IMF and World Bank paraded Botswana and Mauritius as best at pursuing excellent economic policies - with the least corruption - in Africa.
Gaborone became the political centre for the SA Development Community (SADC). The ANC and other liberation movements used Botswana as a sanctuary and diplomatic launching pad in isolating Pretoria. Botswana was constantly sabotaged by the apartheid regime for its unwavering support.
The country earned massive support across Africa and the world as a progressive force in fighting colonialism and apartheid.
Ironically, it was the princeling, General Ian Khama - the son of the founding leader of Botswana and BDP - who let the party’s wheels come off. In his decade-long rule, Ian Khama pursued strange national and foreign policies and departed from the long tradition of the BDP.
He became undemocratic by unilaterally enacting laws to restrict trading hours for alcohol,restricted media freedom and closed space for opposition parties. Former president Festus Mogae is quoted as saying, “Khama was a strong-headed, manipulative and divisive character who threw tantrums if he did not get his way Ian is nothing like his father, he is a disappointment.”
Khama has badly fallen out with President Mokgweetsi Masisi, the man he hand-picked to succeed him. When Masisi took the reins of power, he reversed many of Khama’s draconic laws, including trophy hunting.
In doing so, Masisi thwarted Khama’s desire to rule from the grave by appointing his younger brother Tshekedi Khama as Vice-President. Masisi also replaced Ian Khama’s friend Isaac Kgosi as the country’s intelligence boss.
Masisi also reversed Khama’s foreign policy outlook. Khama took a tough position on the crises in Zimbabwe, Sudan and the the ICC. Masisi mended Botswana’s foreign policy to be in line with the rest of Africa. For instance, Botswana rescued Zimbabwe by lending it much-needed foreign currency. Khama took a hard position on China aligning Botswana with the US on many issues. But Masisi has taken a truly non-aligned posture in his foreign policy - resetting the country’s relations with Beijing.
On the eve of the elections, Ian Khama abandoned his father’s party and formed the Botswana Patriotic Front. He had campaigned heavily against Masisi and the BDP at home and abroad. To secure his own personal interest and that of his younger brother as future president, Khama is working closely with opposition parties to unseat the BDP from power.
As a result of these developments within the BDP, Masisi’s chances of attaining an outright landslide victory at the polls are no longer guaranteed. However, there are clear signals that Batswana people have seen through Khama’s divisive strategy.
BDP will either win a small margin or be forced into a coalition government. This marks the end of an era of BDP’s outright hegemony in Botswana’s politics. BDP’s story should provide lessons to the ANC.
The moment the party derails from people-centred agenda in favour of elite driven politics - it dies a natural death. Masisi might rescue BDP from a humiliating defeat at the polls but its days in power are numbered. Botswana might lose its golden record as Africa's brightest democratic star.
* Monyae is the director of Africa-China Studies at the University of Johannesburg.
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.