Ian Khama to sue Botswana’s government for defamation

Ian Khama to sue Botswana’s government for defamation
Former President of Botswana Seretse Khama Ian Khama. (Photo: Alejandro Ernesto/EPA)

Former Botswana president Ian Khama is preparing to sue his government for allegedly defaming him, and has asked British barrister Cherie Blair’s Omnia Strategy firm to help with the investigations. It’s an unprecedented move but, he believes, a necessary one.

In a VIP suite at Lanseria Airport, the trained pilot who once held the reins of one of Africa’s model democracies is talking about crash landings. Former Botswana president Ian Khama is planning to sue the government – which he voluntarily left last year – for “spinning a web of lies and deceit against me and others back home, and South African citizens”.

With the latter he was referring to his long-time friend and South African businesswoman Bridgitte Motsepe-Radebe, and the accusations under oath by an investigator for Botswana’s Directorate on Corruption and Economic Crime, Jako Hubona, that the duo were involved in money laundering to sponsor opposition politicians and terrorism.

Motsepe-Radebe had already called her own press conference in November 2019 to start pushing back against the claims, and a few days later released letters from Absa and Nedbank confirming that the accounts she is alleged to have used to receive illicit outflows from Botswana did not exist.

Already, I’m happy to say, evidence has emerged clearly indicating some of those allegations are false,” Khama told journalists on Thursday 12 December. He’d jetted into South Africa for the morning to repeat the press conference he gave in Botswana a few days before, where he announced his litigious intentions. Motsepe-Radebe’s involvement meant that South Africans also had an interest in his case, he said, but he also indicated that he wanted to encourage the South African government to get more involved by asking questions about Hubona’s allegations against her.

Khama said: “We have engaged a team overseas to continue with these investigations, to follow up and to give us the reports, which will probably take a couple of months.” These reports would be made public “so that everybody knows that [the Botswana] government sponsored fraud, and fabricated evidence”. Then, he said, the legal team would sue and push criminal charges against the individuals involved.

The overseas team is British barrister Cherie Blair’s Omnia Strategy, described on its website as “a specialist law firm providing world-class bespoke solutions to cross-border disputes”. Khama was in London last month to meet with Blair, whose firm he engaged because, he said, some of the allegations made against him involved offshore accounts in other countries such as Hong Kong.

Blair’s involvement would also serve a double purpose. The Cherie Blair Foundation for Women, even though it mainly focuses on women’s economic rights, would take up the case and do advocacy on behalf of the intelligence agent Welhelminah Maswabi, codename “Butterfly”, in whose trial on charges of money laundering Khama’s and Motsepe-Radebe’s names were mentioned. Maswabi was released on bail recently after a month behind bars.

Unfortunately, Khama said, the implications of suing Botswana’s government would be “quite serious, severe”, a “crash landing for our country. It is going to do a lot of damage to our reputation”. It was necessary, though, “to ensure that this kind of criminality never is repeated again to anybody, whether they are citizens of our country or citizens of a friendly neighbouring state”. Khama also said the state’s allegations in the Butterfly money-laundering case, amounting to billions of dollars, would damage the good reputation of the Botswana Central Bank if they were true.

Khama said things were not easy. Spooks were following him and tapping his phone, and he didn’t feel physically safe, he said. Masisi’s claims of a planned coup and assassination plot against him were unheard of in that country before. So, leaving the Botswana Democratic Party founded by his father, Sir Seretse Khama, was painful, but “if the current leadership are going to violate the principles and morals that we believed in, I’m not just going to say I was born and I will die in the BDP at any cost. The time has to come when you stand up and say ‘this is not what we’re about’.”

Khama threw his weight behind the newly formed Botswana Patriotic Front before the country’s general elections in October, which, together with the other opposition parties, performed worse than their leaders had hoped. Khama and Motsepe-Radebe’s PR fightback started soon after the results were out. Some of the parties duly instituted court cases to challenge these. At the same time, businessman Paul O’Sullivan’s Forensics for Justice last week also jumped into the fray by releasing a report based on affidavits by individuals alleging vote-rigging.

Whether true or false, if sustained, these amount to the kind of reputational attacks the Botswana government could take years to recover from. Khama’s image, especially in the West, is of a good leader who governed well and who didn’t overstay his welcome. He stepped down from the presidency after exactly 10 years, as legally required in Botswana. When he makes allegations, the international community is likely to sit up and listen, and Masisi’s government could become tarnished in their eyes. Markets would react to negative sentiment and investors might start thinking twice before coming to Botswana.

On the sidelines of the press conference, Khama said his aim was “to claim back the situation we have been enjoying all these decades since our independence”, which included “rule of law, tolerance, freedom of association, accountability, transparency”.

Botswana, a former British protectorate, attained self-government in 1966. Khama added that he would soon start his own foundation which would serve as a watchdog and which would issue reports on the situation in the country. For now, he refused to reveal any more details on this.

Khama believes Masisi himself is behind his persecution.

Masisi told two people he is going to fix me. How am I going to be fixed? How do you fix somebody?” he said. Khama believed the situation could not be resolved with Masisi in power, because “he brought the [current] situation about”. For now, his hope is that those election petitions will be successful. He still had faith in the courts. DM


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