Opinion is divided over whether President Dr Mokgweetsi Masisi can deliver a free and fair general election given his temperament as well as the existing legal infrastructure governing elections. Masisi took over from Lt. Gen. Dr Ian Khama just over a year ago. General elections are scheduled for October this year. When Dr Masisi became President his job was clearly cut out for him.
The country had experienced unprecedented shrinking of the democratic space in its history during the 10 years of Dr. Khama’s rule. His fight against corruption also spiralled into the period of Dr Khama’s tenure in office.Dr Masisi’s mandate is to restore the relative democracy and political tolerance that Botswana has enjoyed for over 50 years both within the ruling Botswana Democratic Party (BDP) and the nation at large. Dr Masisi’s first test of leadership was his party’s primary elections which were roundly criticised by losers as flawed and therefore unfair. After failing to obtain redress, some of the losers registered to contest as independent candidates while others have gone to court.
The party was immediately rent by strife and cleavages amid accusations that the President and his allies influenced the outcome of the primaries in favour of their preferred candidates. Dr Masisi also had had to contend with rejection from a section of cabinet which clamoured for his removal from the position of Vice President so that he does not benefit from the automatic promotion provision of the constitution to become the next President. He had been in that office for only a few months. The then President, Dr Khama managed to weather the storm in favour of Dr Masisi much to the chagrin of those who considered themselves more qualified to be Vice President.
Another of Dr Masisi tests was when Dr Pelonomi Venson-Moitoi announced her candidacy to the BDP presidency. His firing of Dr Moitoi the moment she declared her intention to challenge him in the BDP presidential race in which the winner becomes the party presidential candidate in the general election, sent shockwaves throughout the party and country. Ironically, the President had, on several occasions, publicly said that he would be happy to be challenged for the highest office in the land. “At one point he even told us at a BDP retreat that he was actually itching for competition. He said in Setswana, ‘Ke baba disebe’,” said a Member of Parliament who attended the BDP retreat.
Dr Masisi’s level of tolerance was further put to the test when two members of the public asked him what seemed to be innocent questions at a kgotla meeting in Serowe. Instead of addressing the questions he went ballistic! Some attribute his rather irrational behaviour to a siege mentality that had developed the moment he realised that, unlike his predecessors, he was going to be challenged for the party presidency. Observers maintain that he took the matter personally as he felt belittled hence the urge to scatter his enemies by all means possible. The decision to challenge Dr Masisi resulted in a slugfest not known in the history of the ruling party.
Amid a farrago of accusations and counter-accusations between the two, the party now finds itself divided into two factions which factions think nothing of throwing niggling denunciations against one another with the sole aim of damaging the other. The fact that foreign players are involved in an attempt to oust him has not helped matters. This probably explains why he has not made a real effort at approaching Dr. Khama for reconciliation. For failing to reach out to the former President, Dr Masisi has been accused of arrogance. Interestingly, after beating Nonofo Molefhi in the race for chairmanship of the party a few years ago, Dr Masisi brought Molefhi back into cabinet.
Many saw that as an impressive act of magnanimity by the President. Regarding Dr Khama and Dr Moitoi however, the President seems ready to fight to the death! Ironically, while he ignores the two, he has seen the need to engage both the African National Congress (ANC) and the South African government on the alleged interference of South African nationals in the internal affairs of the BDP and, by extension, the country.
Significantly, the collusion with foreigners by his opponents seems to have triggered a surge of sympathy for the President. Although many appreciate Dr Masisi’s efforts to fight corruption, they are worried that the whole exercise looks like a witch-hunt considering that only associates of the former president, Dr Khama have been apprehended thus far. Many point to the fact that Dr Masisi’s name was mentioned in the National Petroleum Fund (NPF) as an indication that the President is himself not a bundle of integrity. His reaching out to the workers’ unions, opposition party leaders and the media has earned him accolades from multitudes.
Dr. Masisi recently increased public servants salaries with the army getting a more substantial increase. He has also toured all military barracks addressing soldiers and the police on their welfare.
“We have never seen any of our presidents since independence touring all the military barracks and addressing the armed forces. “This is not genuine. The President wants to buy the support of the army in the event of a nasty eventuality,” said an anti-Masisi BDP activist who accused the President of politicising the armed forces. Speaking on condition of anonymity, the source who believes that “Masisi is a thousand times worse than Khama,” claimed that, the security apparatus is being used by Dr Masisi to victimise those who do not support him.
The President has also been receiving approvals from those who are happy with his efforts at mending relations with especially neighbouring countries such as Zimbabwe after a foreign relations onslaught was visited on the countrys’ foreign relations by Dr Khama through his ‘rooftop diplomacy.’ It is also up to President Masisi and his government to facilitate the amendment of the Electoral Act to be in line with democratic principles. The President agreed with the opposition Botswana Congress Party (BCP) which had taken government to court, for, among others, amending the Electoral Act to facilitate the use of Electronical Voting Machines (EVM) starting this year. The BCP had filed a court case opposing the amendment. To many, this is an indication that Dr Masisi is committed to fair play in the elections. However, many argue that the conduct of the Kang congress was anything but democratic.
Dr Moitoi withdrew from the race citing gross irregularities. Dr Masisi, just like his predecessors, will fail to conduct fair elections if the public media continues to cover the ruling party while giving the opposition less airtime ahead of the election. The opposition has always complained that, instead of reporting to the Office of the President (OP) which office also appoints the secretary of the IEC, the elections management body should report to Parliament. Nor does the IEC issue the writ of elections as this is done by the Head of State in the case of general elections and Minister in charge of local government in the case of by-elections.
The elections date is a strictly guarded secret known only to the state President. There is the ever present suspicion that he announces it strategically to favour his party. The opposition has also demanded that counting and announcement of results be done at the voting station to eliminate any suspicion that the boxes are tempered with on their way to the central point. Asked whether the Umbrella for Democratic Change is worried that the 2019 general elections will be fair following what happened at Kang where Dr Masisi is alleged to have rigged the congress elections, UDC Head of Communications, Moeti Mohwasa replied: “We were alarmed about what happened at the BDP congress where there was cheating. Clearly, if they can cheat one of their own in the manner they did at Kang, we should worry. “The UDC intends to release regular democracy alerts to share with everybody including the international community what is happening.”
When asked for comment, IEC Principal Public Relations Officer Osupile Maroba, indicated that it was up to all the stakeholders to protect the integrity of the election process by playing their part. “With respect to voter trafficking for example, it is up to the stakeholders to report the matter to us and the courts will then decide whether or not the concerned person or people are struck off the roll or not. The nation must rest assured that we will abide by the law,” said Maroba.