The bitter feud between former President of Botswana Ian Khama and his chosen successor-turned-rival, current President Mokgweetsi Masisi, persists in generating distracting headlines. In the latest developments, Khama’s twin brothers, one of whom is a member of parliament, were detained by the country’s Directorate of Intelligence and Security. The reason for their detention remains unclear to the public, although speculation abounds that it relates to an ongoing investigation of the former president. Though they have subsequently been released, the former president claims that the incident is part of a pattern of harassment and intimidation aimed at muddying his reputation and weakening the power of his political opposition movement.
The spectacle is depressing and pulls focus from the important issues the country needs to address to build on its decades of development successes. Botswana has had a particularly painful experience with COVID-19, and the country continues to suffer from the economic fallout of the pandemic. It is highly vulnerable to climate change and has struggled to diversify its economy. There is far more important business before the country than the high-profile rift between its political elites.
But the latest developments also resurface perennial questions about Botswana’s domestic intelligence service, the Directorate of Intelligence and Security (DIS). Established under President Ian Khama in 2008, the DIS inspired fear and suspicion from its inception. In a country frequently and justifiably lauded for its commitment to the rule of law and accountable institutions, the new agency—and the scope of its authorities—was poorly understood. Simply the perception that a domestic intelligence agency could be weaponized for personal or political purposes by any president is anathema to Botswana’s political culture. That popular perception took hold during Ian Khama’s tenure, and now, ironically, the entity once thought to do his bidding is accused of persecuting him. The relationship between the Khamas and Masisi may well be irreparable. But ensuring that the DIS is professionalized, demystified, and subject to rigorous oversight could help Botswana’s democracy weather the storm kicked up by the current episode of political animus.