Botswana's presidents at war

By Lucas Ledwaba December 15, 2020
Botswana's Ian Khama (L) shakes hands with President Mokgweetsi Masisi. Getty Images Botswana's Ian Khama (L) shakes hands with President Mokgweetsi Masisi. Getty Images

As Botswana's former leader Ian Khama announces plans to sue the state over corruption and terrorism claims, NewsAfrica Magazine asks what lies behind President Masisi’s feud with his predecessor.

At the official opening of the 38th Ordinary Summit of SADC Heads of State and Government in Windhoek in 2018, newly installed Botswana president Mokgweetsi Masisi paid a glowing tribute to his predecessor Ian Khama.

Khama had ruled the diamond-rich country – feted as a rare bastion of peace, political stability and good governance in Africa – since 2008, handing over the reins to his deputy president and political protégé towards the end of his second five-year term.

Addressing the SADC summit for the first time as head of state, Masisi expressed his gratitude to Khama, ‘for his selfless contribution towards the SADC agenda during his tenure as the President of the Republic of Botswana for the last 10 years, particularly, as the Chair of SADC.’

But back home in Gaborone, storm clouds were gathering between Masisi and his former Botswana Democratic Party (BDP) ally – who filed a $.2 million defamation claim against the state in October.

The former president was accused by Masisi’s government of corruption, money laundering and planning to commit acts of terrorism.

It’s said he conspired with South African businesswoman and ambassador to the Pan African Parliament Bridgette Motsepe to siphon more than $10 billion from the country’s coffers.

The government alleged that the pair achieved this with the assistance of former spy Wilhemina Maswabi, codenamed Butterfly.

Maswabi, who is said to have been romantically linked to the country’s former spy chief Isaac Kgosi, was arrested and charged last year for her role in the apparent theft of $10 billion, which the state says has been stashed in foreign accounts, including several South African banks.

However, the South African Reserve Bank has denied knowledge of any transaction being transferred to the country from Botswana, either by Motsepe or anyone else involved.

While Botswana’s Reserve Bank has similarly denied any knowledge of such a large amount of money leaving Botswana, something which is only allowed to happen with their approval.

The case against the former spy is still pending in the Botswana High Court. However, a report by UK-based law firm Omnia Strategy cleared Khama and Motsepe of the allegations.

Omnia, which is led by renowned barrister Cherie Blair – wife of former UK prime minister Tony Blair – said in the report released in August that the allegations against Khama and Bridgette Motsepe were a fabrication.

The investigation by Blair was conducted at the request of Motsepe, who owns the Mmakau Mining firm in South Africa, and is sister to South Africa’s First Lady, Tshepo Ramaphosa.

It concluded: ‘There is not a shred of evidence to support the State’s allegations about Special Unit Accounts and financial impropriety by President Khama, Ambassador Motsepe, Isaac Kgosi, or Butterfly herself.’

Among the accusations against Khama is that he and Motsepe were planning to use the funds to finance acts of terror in the southern African nation, known for years as a bastion of democratic stability and peace.

Some of the jaw-dropping details were revealed in an affidavit by Jako Hubona, the Directorate on Corruption and Economic Crimes’ key investigator, opposing Maswabi’s bail.

According to Hubona, who was publicly ‘disowned’ by the unit shortly before we went to print, Khama and the spy chief Kgosi instructed that three ‘special unit accounts’ were opened with the Bank of Botswana for the $10 billion allegedly siphoned of the state.

Hubona said Maswabi was found to have more than $390 million in her nine global personal accounts.

He then went on to implicate Ambassador Motsepe saying she held the purse strings to some of the alleged stolen money.

Hubona said Motsepe and Maswabi were co-signatories for South African bank accounts that were holding some of the stolen money.

Motsepe has admitted to being a long-time friend of Khama.

She has previously been accused of meddling in the leadership race of the ruling BDP party, which has run the country since independence in the 1960s.

The businesswoman was also reportedly financing a campaign for Pelonomi Venson-Moitoi, who was endorsed by Khama and running against Masisi for the BDP party presidential position ahead of last year’s general election.

But the report by Blair pours cold water over these allegations.

‘Tellingly, we have unraveled the inconsistencies, errors and fabrications within a matter of weeks, some within days, and there was no magic to our efforts,’ Blair stated.

‘Clearly, any remotely competent or properly motivated prosecutor should have quickly seen such flimsy evidence for what it was, and it should never have been put before the court. Had these allegations been properly investigated, those responsible would have realised that this was a case which any reasonable and fair-minded prosecutor would have abandoned for lack of credible evidence.’

The report concluded that it was ‘possible’ that the author of the affidavit had included intentional ‘inconsistencies’ to ‘frustrate a proper analysis of the allegations.’

Yet although the investigation by Blair clears Khama, Ambassador Motsepe and the others implicated by the state, the incident has overshadowed the former president’s reputation as a stickler for discipline and a crusader against corruption.

Fighting back, Khama questioned his former deputy’s attack on him, which he dubbed ‘foolishness, victimisation and political intolerance’.

President Masisi may have been hand-picked by Khama as his successor, but the new president’s approach has been anything but one of a continuity. In one of the first major shocks of his presidency, Masisi rocked Botswana’s political establishment and tourism sector – which accounts for 12 per cent of GDP – by scrapping the country’s complete hunting ban on elephants.

The new president also announced that he intended to sell Botswana’s stockpiled ivory – a move that caused a huge global surge in elephant poaching when it was last done in 2008.

Masisi’s about turn in policy didn’t end with the elephant issue, which was very close to his predecessor’s heart (Khama consistently lobbied against any global relaxation of ivory sales and famously told poachers they would be sent home in body bags if caught).

He also struck right at the heart of the Khama family dynasty. He demoted Khama’s brother Tshekedi from his position as minister of tourism and dumped him in the relatively low rank of youth and sport minister.

Tshekedi had been tipped as Masisi’s possible future deputy.

And, in a highly symbolic move, Masisi replaced Khama’s former intelligence chief Isaac Kgosi, with Peter Magosi, who had been fired by Khama.

The schism between the two Botswanan presidents, meanwhile, led to Khama withdrawing his support for his successor in last year’s elections. He subsequently left the party – founded by his father, Botswana’s first president Sir Seretse Khama – and formed the opposition Botswana Patriotic Front.

But while the Khama-Masisi fallout may herald the start of a more dog-eat-dog political era in a country once revered for its peaceful democracy.

The jury's out on how the incident will affect relations with the country’s main tradition partner and ally South Africa, given 14 of its banks, not to mention the president’s own sister-in-law, have been thrown on the bonfire during Masisi’s squabble with his mentor.