With talk of President Ian Khama’s impending retirement now on every activist’s lips there is a near universal feeling among many of the most senior ones among them that their turn has now finally arrived.
With age catching up with many of them, suppressing one’s ambition for the sake of elusive party unity is no longer an option. For many of them it’s now or never.
Names like Jacob Nkate, Pelonomi Venson and Kitso Mokaila are just but a few that cross many an observer’s mind as possible contenders going forward. Of all the presidential contenders beyond 2018, Nkate is the one whose ambitions are least ambiguous.
Always a strategist he has already made it known that he is not lost to politics. More crucially he has told all who would care to listen that he will not stay in Tokyo – where he is serving as Botswana’s Ambassador – a day more than his current tour of duty in East Asia demands.
But there is yet another portent name which until now has escaped the media radar: Tebelelo Seretse, Botswana’s Ambassador to Washington.
Seretse’s stay in Washington is drawing close to an end and she is expected back home in 2015, just in time for her to carve herself a role in the ruling party elective congress.
Those in touch with her say she has never┬á given up on her long standing ambition to become National Chairman of the ruling Botswana Democratic Party, a position she has once contested at the Kanye Congress where she lost against Daniel Kwelagobe.
“She talks endlessly about becoming National Chairman of the party,” said an associate who would only talk on condition of anonymity for fear of breaching confidence.
If Seretse comes back to join politics and relaunch her fight for the control of the BDP as it looks ever more likely she will no doubt be entering an already crowded field which will among others include Khama’s successor as shall be chosen when the current president retires.
But it is Nkate and Seretse that have set the tongues wagging. They come from afar. Not only have they had similar and somewhat parallel careers, they also have for many years been political soul mates. Both are products of the party’s youth echelons.
As young lawyers the two joined Botswana Democratic Party at a time when it was unfashionable for the educated intellectual elite o openly belong to the BDP. After their political careers as senior cabinet were cut short, they both were dispatched into the diplomatic wilderness as part of President Ian Khama’s multi-pronged strategy to buy time, appease the aggrieved while also cooling down the high tensions that threatened to explode inside the BDP two years ago.
While President Khama’s buying-time tactic has worked, the same cannot be said about toning down infighting, much less resolving grievances of people like Nkate and Seretse who felt they had valid expectations to be accommodated as Specially Elected Members of Parliament after they could not make it through the regular electoral route.
The upshot of sending Nkate and Seretse into the wilderness is that either’s ambitions have visibly bludgeoned and each of the two activists is much more convinced than ever before that they have only upon themselves to realize those ambitions.
Nkate’s antithesis inside the BDP was Daniel Kwelagobe, while Seretse’s sparring partner was Pelonomi Venson. President Khama had really gotten fed up by the tussle between Seretse and Venson.
It is the two women’s fight for turf, which often got personal especially when exported beyond the confines of their Serowe backyard that annoyed Khama and made him resolute in his efforts to separate him by distance.
“These two mothers” as President Khama famously referred to them every time in of their spats, filled him with despair. These were hard times for the party.
While the BDP has faced testing times before, worse may still be to come.
Up to now, the whole machinery has not imploded mainly on account of Khama’s larger than life personality.
Time is however fast getting closer to the day when Ian Khama will no longer be around the table to resolve differences with just his mere presence. The most vulnerable might turn out be Khama’s chosen successor, who without the benefactor’s overarching patronage might stand no chance especially against experienced and potentially ruthless hands like Seretse’s and Nkate’s who will be goaded by an inner voice that this is finally their┬á turn, made all the worse by a smouldering knowledge age is not on their side.
The two’s current circumstances of perceived isolation also breeds within them a feeling that they have hanged and left to dry in the distant shores abroad. This will inevitably tend to harden their latter political incarnations, making them behave like politicians who have nothing to lose.
Nkate is far from enjoying his life in Tokyo; Seretse’s diplomatic sojourn has particularly not been among her happiest days in her career either.
A trail of letters she has written to Minister of Foreign Affairs, Phandu Skelemani, attest to an uneasy and tempestuous relationship with the head office, which may be further justification of why she is looking forward to rejoining politics.
“She has had difficulties with officials at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Her relationship with the current Permanent Secretary has not been easy. At one point she had to put up with an audit that was designed to humiliate her. To make it worse it was conducted when she was away. She still feels it was a witch-hunt, an affront on her integrity not just clear which-hunt. When Michelle Obama visited Botswana, a junior official at the Ministry refused her to accompany the first lady here. The most terrible has been when she was refused leave on the flimsiest of grounds. She is a very proud woman and really wants to get back home and join politics rather than be controlled by civil servants many of who were much junior officials when she was a senior minister of cabinet,” said a friend.