• ‘Since 1966, tribalism has been used as a political strategy, but hardly paid dividends’
• ‘Khama’s case in 2019 was no exception despite enlisting the support of his influential South African acquaintances and business moguls’.
Three University of Botswana political science lecturers have dissected former President Ian Khama’s influence during the hotly contested 2019 General Elections which saw him joining forces with the opposition.
In a research paper titled ‘The Discourse of Tribalism in Botswana’s 2019 General Elections’, researchers Christian John Makgala, Andy Chebanne, Boga Thura Manatsha, and Leonard Sesa found that Khama’s approach was not entirely new in Botswana’s politics, but only bigger in scale, and instigated by a paramount chief and former President.
Contrary to widespread condemnation of former President Ian Khama -who is Bangwato Kgosikgolo, for adopting a tribalistic posture by personalizing the Botswana Patriotic Front (BPF) campaign ahead of 2019 elections around his fallout with President Mokgweetsi Masisi, the UB dons argue that tribalism has always been part of Botswana politics.
Following what he termed ‘betrayal’ by Masisi, Khama retreated to his home village of Serowe -a place he ‘lords over’ as paramount chief and facilitated the formation of the opposition Botswana Patriotic Front (BPF). At every opportunity, the former president, who had returned to active politics told his growing audiences that Masisi was persecuting him despite that he had made him Vice President. Soon thereafter, the slogan ‘eseng mo go Kgosikgolo’ (‘not on our Paramount chief’), printed boldly on campaign T-shirts that had a huge photo of Ian Khama, gained popularity and became synonymous with BPF campaigns. In short, it was a warning to Masisi to stop harassing Khama who had launched an onslaught on the ruling Botswana Democratic Party (BDP) politicians, particularly in Bangwato tribal territory (the Central District).
The UB academics highlight that in fact since Botswana’s independence in 1966, ‘tribalism’ has invariably been used by individual politicians as a short-term political strategy, but hardly paid dividends. “Therefore, Khama’s case in 2019 was no exception despite enlisting the support of his influential South African acquaintances and business moguls,” Makgala et al concluded.
Botswana’s much touted peaceful presidential succession experienced uncertainty after the transition on 1 April 2019 as a result of former President Ian Khama’s public fallout with his ‘handpicked’ successor, President Mokgweetsi Masisi. Khama spearheaded a robust campaign to dislodge Masisi and the long-time ruling Botswana Democratic Party (BDP) from power. He actively assisted in the formation of a new political party, the Botswana Patriotic Front (BPF). Khama also mobilized the country’s most populous Central District, the Bangwato tribal territory, of which he is kgosi (paramount chief), for the hotly contested 2019 general elections.
With his influence, the opposition managed to dislodge the BDP from the Central District winning most constituencies including all the three Serowe constituencies which the ruling party lost for the first time since 1965.
Two perspectives emerged on Khama’s approach, which was labeled loosely as ‘tribalism’. One school of thought was that the Westernised and bi-racial Khama was not socialized sufficiently into Tswana culture and tribal life to be a tribalist. Therefore, he was said to be using cunningly a colonial-style strategy of divide and rule to achieve his agenda. The second school of thought opined that Khama was a ‘shameless tribalist’ hell-bent on stoking ‘tribalism’ among the ‘Bangwato’ to bring Masisi’s government to its knees.
As part of their conclusions, the researchers note that the research paper has demonstrated that tribalism and ethnicity also feature a lot in Botswana’s political landscape. This is not extraordinary as it happens across sub-Saharan Africa but only differs in scale. Botswana is seen as ‘a success story’ and a ‘politically stable’ country in a gloomy continent; hence some of its social ills are glossed over by analysts.
Nonetheless, tribalism and ethnicity in Botswana are unlikely to reach the level of Rwanda or Burundi where deadly ethnic conflicts often recur. Commentators urge the Botswana political leaders and all stakeholders to ensure that tribal and ethnic tolerance is entrenched and consolidated. Botswana’s democratic culture seems to function well compared to many other countries in Africa, hence the Rwandan scenario is unlikely to obtain. The use of tribal and ethnic cards to attain political office in Botswana has not been successful, unless it involves a chief, as in the case of Ian Khama. He, however, failed to achieve his main objective of ousting Masisi, but only won three seats in his tribal fortress, Serowe. Credit should also be given to him for helping the UDC to win some seats in the Central District. Generally, voters are aware that the tribal card is counter-productive to the nation-building exercise. But sometimes tribal and ethnic loyalty seems to take precedence over national unity and cohesion. In almost every national election, political activists invariably try to play the tribal card.
The researchers argue that, in the case of Khama, it seems he had banked on the fame his family name holds in the country, and a perception that the country is beholden to the Khamas, but like others exploiting tribal agenda in politics, his approach was not largely successful. This is despite having a family name that was/is a brand with a very long history and synonymous with political power and privilege in Botswana, as well as cross-border moneyed connections in South Africa.
During the 2019 campaign Khama enjoyed the support of his childhood friend South African businesswoman Bridgette Motsepe-Radebe who allegedly bankrolled the BPF campaign.
Although Khama failed to oust Masisi and the BDP, his party, the BPF, won three seats in his home village, Serowe. This shows that tribal loyalty, especially when a chief is involved in politics, can change the political landscape. The Serowe region had always been the stronghold of the BDP, since 1965 when the first national elections were held.
The involvement of dikgosi in Botswana’s partisan politics and elections was noted by the Southern African Development Community (SADC) election observers as a negative development for the country. The SADC advised against dikgosi’s active participation in party politics and elections (SADC 2019).
Progressive, as it is, this advice ignores the fact that since independence in 1966, Botswana’s ruling political elite has drastically curtailed the chiefs’ powers. Thus, the chiefs now know that attaining political office gives one real political and economic power. The ruling party, the BDP, has, over the years, enjoyed massive support from the chiefs. It appears that the problem arises when the chiefs resign from their hereditary position to join opposition ranks. This article does not argue that tribalism and ethnicity determined the outcome of the 2019 general elections. It only confines itself to the discourse of tribalism as it relates to the Khama-Masisi feud. Perhaps, a detailed study on how tribalism, and even regionalism, directly influenced the outcome of the 2019 elections is needed.