Botswana police say opposition leader died in car crash; conspiracy theories fly ahead of vote

He was a former stalwart in Botswana's ruling party who defected to become a rising star in the political opposition ahead of elections in October. He was also a musical composer who performed with his choir in the 1990s in the United States and other countries. He was, a grief-stricken speaker said at a memorial service in the southern African country, "a mighty good man."

The July 30 death of 44-year-old Gomolemo Motswaledi in what the police say was a road accident highlighted brewing tension in Botswana, reputed to be one of the most stable and cleanly governed nations on the continent and known to foreign tourists for its well-protected wildlife. The opposition opened a parallel investigation, saying Motswaledi may have been assassinated by pro-government agents, although evidence is lacking.

The conspiracy theories sharpened an election campaign likely to deliver another victory for the ruling Botswana Democratic Party, whose electoral dominance since independence from Britain in 1966 has increasingly frustrated opponents who say the party is shedding old-style consensus politics and tightening its grip on state machinery. Zimbabwe and South Africa, while following different paths after shaking off white rule, are among Botswana's neighbors in southern Africa where parties with liberation-era credentials have also stayed in power for decades.

Tall and dynamic, Motswaledi was once an ally of President Ian Khama but fell out with him and formed the Botswana Movement for Democracy in 2010 to challenge what he described as a concentration of power among presidential loyalists. In July, he was elected deputy president of the Umbrella for Democratic Change, an opposition coalition gearing up for an Oct. 24 vote expected to be closer than past contests.

In 2009, the ruling party won 45 of 57 directly elected parliamentary seats but won the popular vote by a smaller margin with 53.3 percent, leading fractious opposition groups to complain they were inadequately represented.

Motswaledi's death shocked Botswana, a sparsely populated country of 2 million people that is described by its own government as one of the world's most peaceful societies. Black-clad mourners filed past Motswaledi's casket, and the KTM Choir, which he once led, sang in his honor. Newspapers and social media buzzed with rumor that Motswaledi was the victim of a sinister plot, but police said last week that his death "was the result of a road accident uninduced by any foul play" near the border with South Africa.

"It is not common practice for the Botswana's Police Service to publicize the findings of police investigations of this nature, but for speculations and innuendos made by some commentators in the mainstream media and social media regarding this accident, we have found it necessary to make public the result of this particular investigation," Keabetswe Makgophe, the police commissioner, said in a statement. Police have said Motswaledi, who was traveling alone, apparently lost control of the vehicle.

However, forensic and other experts investigating the case on behalf of the opposition have not ruled out foul play, said Duma Boko, head of the Umbrella for Democratic Change.

"There can be no doubt that this was no normal death in a car," media in Botswana quoted Boko as saying.

The opposition has noted that damage to the car was not severe and the air bags did not activate, according to reports. Motswaledi was heading from Johannesburg to a political meeting in Gaborone, Botswana's capital, his supporters said.

Suspicions about alleged state skullduggery have grown under Khama, a former military commander and son of independence leader Seretse Khama who became president in 2008. The formation of an intelligence agency, the Directorate of Intelligence and Security, was met with negative publicity because of oversight concerns.

"Owing to an overly secretive culture under the guise of national security at times, the agency has allowed its image to be defined by sensationalist reporting in the media based on the dearth of factual information at the reporters' disposal," defense expert Lesego Tsholofelo wrote in a research paper this year.

In 2012, Khama pardoned several members of the security forces who had been sentenced to prison for the 2009 murder of criminal suspect John Kalafatis, fueling opposition allegations that the government condoned extrajudicial killings.

Festus Mogae, a former president, recently expressed concern about the rule of law in Botswana. That prompted a robust response from government spokesman Jeff Ramsay, who said international ratings confirm Botswana's "continued status as an open society with an open economy" and some of the most disciplined civil servants in Africa.

Many singers who worked with Motswaledi described him as a strict but gentle director. They recalled his dance moves and how he encouraged colleagues to sing in the local Setswana language rather than only English. Mmegi Online, a news outlet, quoted popular singer Nnunu Ramogotsi as saying she was devastated by her mentor's death.

"I was still expecting to learn a lot from him," she said.