Ntuane: to hell and back
by Outsa Mokone and Spencer Mogapi
Even in repose, Leader of Opposition and Botswana Movement for Democracy (BMD) erstwhile vice president made a dramatic photograph. The sight of Botsalo Ntuane draped in an orange blanket and smiling under an orange cap was one of the many memorable diversions from the hard knocks of opposition politics.
The most flamboyant ringleader of the Botswana Democratic Party (BDP) breakaway party, which happened two years ago, brought urban chic to opposition politics. He was not only the chief strategist, but was also the hip and sexy of the new party. The colourful political activist who has a taste for the creature comforts of life was a dedicated campaigner against the Ian Khama regime without ever sliding into the austere lifestyle embraced by many opposition politicians.
His upbringing did not mark him out as a natural opposition political activist. Botsalo’s establishment pedigree is impeccable. The son of a BDP councillor from Nata in the central district, he went to Kopano English Medium School in Selibe-Phikwe and went on to lead GS 24, the BDP youth league at the University of Botswana. From the university, he joined the BDP as executive Secretary. It was the perfect establishment career and, at this stage, he was not out of place among presidents and cabinet ministers. As an establishment man, it did not come as a surprise when he was made the youngest Specially Elected Member of Parliament from where he was set for a career as a high-ranking party official. Such a career meant considerable rewards so long as he was loyal to the establishment.
Circumstances, however, stood in the way. Being young, it was only natural that he held strong views on youth issues. And as a Member of Parliament who intended contesting an urban seat, Ntuane, who was a strong critic of President Khama’s new liquor laws, represented the view of the urban youth who were not happy with the laws. He compared Botswana under Khama to a fundamentalist state in the mould of Iran and Saudi-Arabia – an invective he was humiliatingly forced to withdraw after a public apology that had all the hallmarks of Stalin’s show trials. It was the sign of bad things still to come. In March 2010, Ntuane was suspended from the BDP, accused of organising a meeting in Mogoditshane where they rallied Barata-Phathi members to form a new party. He was also accused of conniving with the opposition to try to elect Sidney Pilane and BMD president Gomolemo Motswaledi as Specially Elected MPs after the 2009 elections. He would later be expelled from the party after he failed to appear before the disciplinary hearing.
In an interview last year, Ntuane told Sunday Standard that before the BDP, he had never imagined himself ever being in opposition, certainly not against the BDP. He explained that for many years, BDP was in his blood. He loved and lived the party. From his days at university where he literally established the party’s cells from scratch, Ntuane has always been at the centre of the BDP. Many looked at him as a rising star, the very embodiment of future BDP politics. That was until he fell out with Ian Khama and got himself expelled.
Ntuane was among BDP leaders who, disillusioned with Khama’s unilateral style, broke away from the party.
"We decided to part ways with the BDP because we cannot exist within an organization where democratic principles are overstepped. Dialogue is non-existent," Ntuane said, during the launch of BMD. Defending democracy, however, demanded sacrifice and principles.
Argumentative and sharp-witted, Ntuane overwhelmed everyone who knew him with his energy. Buoyed by his elevation to the position of Leader of Opposition and the overwhelming support that greeted the new party, the youthful metro sexual politician was walking on water. Thousands of Batswana who had over the years become disillusioned with the BDP saw in Ntuane and his colleagues a group of Messiahs. In the country’s sincere-o-meter, Mr. B, as he is affectionately called, ranked up there with Bible punching priests and saints. As it turns out, the BMD was a bit of a lark, to be enjoyed while it lasted and shrugged off when it failed.
According to the Preamble of the BMD Constitution, the party was founded "to defend and advance the rights of the peoples of Botswana during and in order to interrupt and reverse the progressive destruction of their independence and the creation of what, by most accounts, threatens to be an authoritarian government". The document goes on to stress that it aims to remove the current "undemocratic" government of Botswana "through constitutional and democratic means" with the aim of restoring and promoting "a united, non-racial, non-sexist and democratic Botswana."
BMD critics, however, insist that the new party was formed in anger against Khama and its raison d’être was to bring him down. Responding to President Khama's opening address of Parliament last year, Ntuane took the one hour thirty minutes allocated to him as Leader of Opposition, casting doubt on the Khama regime's ability to rule this country, cautioning that disaster was about to befall this nation. He accused Khama of uttering dangerous remarks at a political rally in Tsamaya, after the break-up of the ruling Botswana Democratic Party (BDP) that there was imminent civil war about to explode. He said that in his address, the President failed to explain where the war would come from, urging him to retract the statement to assure Batswana of their peace and safety.
He also accused the President of using national resources, civil servants and government institutions for political events in the process trampling on the laws of the country. He said that Khama uses Kgotla meetings to address political rallies, something that his predecessors never did.
Ntuane said that there was too much waste of public resources at the Office of the President. He said, for example, that there was no reason why government should keep two presidential jets, two VIP helicopters and a VIP caravan. He proposed that one of the jets and the caravan should be sold. Ntuane was on the warpath and Khama was his target.
For some time, Khama played the perfect adversary. He would not meet Ntuane and broke away from the country’s tradition of putting the Leader of Opposition on the itinerary of visiting Heads of State. This only provided fodder for Ntuane’s anti-Khama crusade. Then Khama decided to meet the Leader of Opposition and their relationship thawed. A few months later, Khama turned up at Ntuane’s wedding bearing gifts. Also in tow was Khama’s most trusted lieutenant, Isaac Kgosi, who is also head of the country’s intelligence services. Then life happened. The umbrella, which Ntuane saw as a stepping stone to power, collapsed. The opposition was embroiled in a controversy that threatened his position as leader of opposition. The BNF which was the BMD’s main ally was imploding. The euphoria that greeted the BMD dissipated, members started deserting the new party in droves and its finances dried up. Ntuane saw his star waning and the dream of one day walking the establishment corridors was suddenly a distant dream. This was not how he imagined life after BDP. “Some of us have been in the ruling party and have had direct association with power. We have no wish to remain in opposition forever,” he told Sunday Standard last year. “Opposition is not a badge of honour,” he said.
For a man who was not so much of an establishment deviant as an establishment man who had lost his way into opposition politics, Ntuane found himself as a rebel without a cause. While he was strutting political rallies dripping orange, the establishment man in him was calling him back home. Ntuane found himself at pains to explain why he was breaking ranks with his colleagues in opposition to break bread with the BDP during their 50th anniversary. “I have noted the decision of the National Executive Committee (NEC) of my party, rescinding the resolution of 16th February 2011 to participate in the 50th anniversary commemoration of the founding of the BDP. It will be recalled that I was on Duma FM on Wednesday evening, being interviewed about my time as BDP Executive Secretary.” Ntuane said it is necessary for political parties in a pluralistic political environment such as Botswana’s to peacefully co-exist and “hence why it is in order for the BMD to take part in the commemoration.”
He said it is not his desire to interrogate the grounds for the change of heart by the BMD leadership; however he maintains that there is no basis in a country like Botswana for politicians to refer to others as enemies.
“There are many countries where such labels are used, appropriately it might be said, because the politics they practise are a matter of life and death. On the contrary what we have in our country, for which we are internationally renowned, and which we must all promote is a culture of political tolerance, mutual respect and peaceful co-existence between all political players and organisations. I refuse to subscribe to an emerging narrative that seeks to say if we hold different political views, then that necessarily defines us as enemies and therefore we cannot sit at the same table and break bread.” Ntuane said this new narrative is disturbing and cannot auger well for Botswana.
“In Botswana, with our small population and close family ties, political affiliation has never been a source of division or conflict. This is a correct path, envied by many, from which we should not deviate. In the same Duma FM interview I cited the example of the ANC’s centenary celebrations in December 2011 in Bloemfontein where organisations that had fought to the death such as the IFP and the ANC were able to sit side by side.
“I am not an enemy of the BDP. Neither do I think the BDP considers me or my party as an enemy. After all this is not the language of Botswana politics. We are political rivals and competitors and that is as far as it goes.
“I could canvass the issues of why for a new political party like the BMD it is critical to use a function such as the 50th anniversary celebrations; which will attract eminent personalities and political organisations from across the sub region; for networking purposes. That though will amount to challenging the decision of the NEC. I have no wish to do so,” he explained.
With respect to attending the 50th anniversary commemoration, Ntuane disclosed that even before the BMD made a decision, subsequently rescinded, the BDP had formally extended a personal invitation to him as a former Executive secretary at Tsholetsa House (1996/7-2004). “It was drawn to my attention that all those who have occupied the office have been similarly invited. As an advocate of political tolerance, respect and peaceful co-existence I will honour this invitation in my personal capacity because my historic association and indeed contribution to the BDP, both good and bad, during my time as a member and worker cannot be erased. My current political affiliation cannot alter the facts of history.” Many were, however, beginning to question his true motives.
A dribble of leaks from inside the BDP suggested that a possible “back love” between the ruling party and the leader of opposition was beginning to take shape. Conventional wisdom, however, held that of all the parties that Ntuane may wish to join the BDP would have been lowest on the list. The Leader of Opposition pitched his opposition credentials on the coattails of conventional wisdom, arguing that he would never return to the BDP.
Addressing a BMD rally at the bus terminal in Gaborone last year, Ntuane assured everyone that he was not going back to the BDP. This was after he received strong criticism from some in opposition ranks over his response to the State of the Nation Address. His critics said Ntuane did not represent the opposition well and that he betrayed the opposition struggle. This after he appealed to President Khama’s government to pardon the over 700 dismissed public workers, who defied a court order to return to work. Every passing day, however, produced a fresh slant on Ntuane’s plans to rejoin the BDP. Most BDP insiders saw Ntuane as a key player in the end-game. Ntuane ranged through the controversy like a moving target. Indications are that Ntuane, who had already made up his mind to rejoin the BDP, was suffering from cold feet. The BDP leadership kept its cool until last week when Ntuane’s feet had thawed out sufficiently to jump together.
While many are ashamed by the turn of events, there is a section that says the apex is still to come.
The Khama watchers insist Ntuane is now literally at the mercy of President Khama.
And it will be interesting to see just how the young politician will, with time, be made to pay for the many insults he used to hurl at the tactician president not famous for forgiveness.