Finally, on Wednesday afternoon, Ian Khama made up his mind, and presented his choice for vice president for ratification by parliament. It had taken Botswana’s president a long time to get to this point – so long, in fact, that he actually campaigned without a running mate, and governed the country for two weeks without a deputy in place.
To understand why he agonised over this decision, it’s necessary to understand a strange quirk of politics in Botswana – and to understand this, we must go back to 1998, towards the end of President Ketumile Masire’s fourth term in office. Masire did a strange thing. Eighteen months before his term officially ended, he resigned, but not before amending the Constitution to limit all future presidents to a maximum of 10 years in office (he’d been in power for 18 years by that time, so the amendment was perhaps a little hypocritical, but no less laudable for it). He also made sure that the vice president automatically succeeded the president should the president step down.
“By resigning before the end of his term, Masire triggered the new ‘automatic succession’ provision. He also disconnected presidential term limits from the electoral cycle. Unless and until the Botswana Democratic Party (BDP) loses an election, each president will choose his own successor,” observed Amy Poteete, an associate professor at Concordia University and an expert on Botswana’s politics.
That’s what Khama is doing now. He’s not just choosing a deputy – he’s choosing the next president of Botswana.
Step forward Mokgweetsi Masisi. When Khama resigns in three and a half years, as he must, Masisi will take over (barring an unprecedented political reshuffle before then). Masisi will then enjoy 18 months of unchallenged incumbency before having to contest any elections. He’ll take the benefits of incumbency – the name recognition, the access to state resources – into those elections with him. It’s a genius political strategy. It also encourages continuity of policy across administrations. Former president Masire, it seems, knew exactly what he was doing when he stepped down early.
So what do we know about the new VP? Xinhua has a brief profile: He’s a teacher by training, but has spent most of his career on the administrative side of education, specifically curriculum development. He picked up a postgraduate degree along the way, and did a stint with the United Nations Children’s Fund before getting involved in politics.
He lost his first contest, failing to get past the ruling party primaries for a parliamentary seat in 2003. In 2008-2009, he tried again, eventually winning the seat for Moshupa, a district not too far from Gaborone. He rose quickly in government, first as assistant minister for presidential affairs and public administration, then as minister for that department, then as education and skills development. Now he’s vice president, with the top job in his sights.
But he wasn’t Khama’s first choice as successor. That honour went to Khama’s brother, Tshekedi Khama. If Tshekedi had been appointed, and subsequently became president, then three of Botswana’s five post independence presidents would have been from the Khama family (founding president Sir Seretse Khama sired both Ian and Tshekedi).
The family connection seems to be Tshekedi’s main drawcard. As the Mail & Guardian observed in 2012, when he was elevated suddenly from inconspicuous backbencher to minister of wildlife, environment and tourism, a position he continues to occupy, “Tshekedi is a low profile MP who has not distinguished himself in Parliament and it is unclear what qualifications he has for the job”.
But opposition to Tshekedi was stiff, even from within the ruling party. The VP pick must be ratified by parliament, but Khama feared that Tshekedi would be rejected in a secret ballot where parliamentarians could defy the president without fear of retribution. So Khama pushed for a vote by show of hands – a method that would allow him to see exactly who voted with him, and who didn’t.
In an encouraging show of independence, the judiciary was having none of this. The court ruled that parliament should continue to vote in secret, forcing Khama to change his pick or face a party revolt. Sensibly, he opted for the former option, submitting Masisi instead. DM
Photo: Botswana’s vice-president Mokgweetsi Masisi and president Ian Khama (MmegiOnline)
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