Reconciliation or realpolitik? Botswana’s new vice president

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This month, a new Vice President took to the stage in Botswana. Here, Dr Shane Mac Giollabhui and Sarah Jane Cooper-Knock explore the significance of that appointment and ask what it might mean for party politics in the country. Shane is a Deparmental Lecturer at the Department of Politics and International Relations at the University of Oxford and Sarah Jane is a DPhil student at the the Oxford Department of International Development.

With Mompati Merafhe stepping down at the end of July as Vice President (VP) of Botswana, all eyes were on President Ian Khama to see who amongst the National Assembly he would choose as Merafhe’s successor.

Finally, at the beginning of the month, he nominated Dr. Ponatshego ‘PHK’ Kedikilwe to the post. A seasoned and senior politician, Kedikilwe had been acting as VP for much of the last year whilst Merafhe was too ill to fulfill his duties. In this sense, Khama’s appointment was unsurprising. His nomination passed with 38 ‘yes’ votes, 12 abstentions and six absentees.

But Kedikilwe is a old political rival of the President. And, since the Constitution was altered in 1997, the VP automatically succeeds the President should the latter die or resign. Therefore, Khama’s nomination of his political opponent needs some explanation.

Since independence, Khama’s party, the BDP, has developed an extraordinary sense of its own ‘natural’ entitlement to rule. The history of the BDP has been, in essence, the history of a conservative, landed elite (comprising, in the main, cattle-barons) that has managed to reconcile the major social formations in the country, while delivering strong economic growth.

There are lots of concrete historical factors that can account for the strong record of delivery of the BDP-in-office: minimal colonial involvement; strong tradition of limited government; entrenched rule of law; institutions of private property; an external threat; and a geographically-concentrated population. However, key to their political success was two factors. First, the BDP leadership were inclusive. Second, they both inflated and politicised the state. These two factors worked to secure the party’s dominance and marginalise any opposition.

In the past decade, however, the dominance of the BDP has looked increasingly fragile and bitter factional conflict has developed inside the ruling party. For over two decades now, the Botswana Democratic Party has been riven by a factional divide between the ‘Barata Phathi’ (which means love of the party) faction and the dominant ‘A Team’. Whilst rifts within the BDP are many and various, this factional divide is key to understanding power struggles within the party throughout the 1990s and 2000s. The divide between these two factions crystallised after a corruption scandal in the government in 1991. However, academics argue, neither faction are motivated by political principle. In the past, Kedikilwe had lead the Barata Phathi faction. The rival group has previously counted Festus Mogae, Ian Khama and Merafhe (Kedikilwe’s predecessor) amongst its leading members.

In recent years, two processes in particular have served to exacerbate the factional divides. First, opportunities for state-based patronage have contracted, making competition for spoils more intense. Second, in 2003 the party introduced primaries for all its parliamentary candidates. The move was made on the recommendation of a prominent South African political scientist, in reaction to complaints that the BDP was becoming increasingly isolated from its opponents within and without the party. Colloquially the primaries became known as bulela ditswe in Setswana, which literally means ‘opening the floodgates’. The name was fitting, and the process largely served to give a public political stage to intra-party conflict.

At times, the Barata Phathi faction have posed a real potential threat to Khama, but ultimately they have fallen victim to the President’s ‘institutionalised intolerance’. Where primaries have been won by those outside the A Team, the results of these contests are liable to be rejected. A similar patten has emerged in struggles for party leadership. In 2009, for example, Barata Phathi won all of the party’s central committee positions, leaving the A-Team empty handed In response, Khama (ab)used his Presidential privileges to flood the party structures with A-Team sympathisers and appointed extra members to the party’s central committee, diluting Barata Phathi’s lead.

Facing the political intransigence of Khama, some members of the Barata Phathi would later split to become the Botswana Movement for Democracy (BMD). And, although Kedikilwe stayed, it was rumoured that he was biding his time to transfer to the new party.

In light of these long-running divides, what should we make of PHK’s appointment? Has the President had a Damascene conversion to the politics of factional reconciliation?

Parliamentary Speaker, Nasha, has claimed Khama’s nomination as a victory for democracy and the transfer of executive power. However, Khama’s endorsement of Kedikilwe is far more strategic than Nasha’s effusive reception suggests.

For starters, his appointment has a sunset clause. Kedikilwe has announced his intention to retire from politics when the legislative term ends in 2014. This makes his appointment temporary, and therefore a fairly safe tactical maneuver. Only after the 2014 elections will Khama appoint the VP that he hopes to succeed him in office.

Second, Kedikilwe is popular, and promoting him could help the BDP to regain the seats they have lost to the BMD. An MP since 1984, Kedikilwe has earned a reputation as a competent minister in the offices of Education, Finance, as well as Planning, Presidential Affairs and Administration. Moreover, being fluent in Setswana (unlike Khama) he has a popular appeal that is buttressed by the a history of political battles against the President.

Crucially for Khama, however, that political independence seems to be firmly in the past. This year, Kedikilwe distanced himself from the BMD. At a rally in Selebi-Phikwe he directly denied rumours that he was planning to cross the floor at a later date and seems to have made a substantive break from this stringent anti-Khama faction.

Tactically then, Kedikilwe seems like a safe bet. That said, his appointment will not help the President navigate the country’s geographical political cleavage. Both Kedikilwe originate in the North. In a recent article, Dr Makgala, of the University of Botswana, has argued that whilst a geographical power balance was carefully balanced in the early independence period, this came undone under President Masire in the mid 1980s. Since that time, the north-south divide has remained politically salient despite the fact that, according to Makgala, there is not a stark infrastructural divide between the two regions.

Within Khama’s cabinet, we are also still yet to see who will take over Kedikilwe’s post in the Ministry (rumours have it that Kedikilwe will be relieved of his post amidst an extensive cabinet reshuffle in a few months). The post is a vital one, as Botswana’s mineral sector accounts for 40% of the country’s GDP and 50% of the government’s income. It is likely that we will see one of Khama’s more natural allies take the position, and could become a step on the ladder to Vice Presidency in 2014. In that case, we should watch out for members of Khama’s inner circle whose names were floated for VP, especially the Minister of Presidential Affairs and Public Administrations, Mokgweetsi Masisi (a virulent defender of Khama and the BDP both inside and outside parliament) or the Minister of Defence, Justice, and Security, Ndelu Seretse (the President’s first cousin).

In the meantime, the appointment of talismanic Kedikilwe can be considered a skillful tactical manoeuvre by Khama and his inner circle who are determined to keep their hold on power. What remains to be seen is whether this represents a return to the old inclusivity of the BDP. Such inclusivity does not make single party dominance desirable democratically, but it certainly makes it more politically sustainable.

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