BDP elders regain their voice, prominence in party affairs

24 Feb 2019

After 10 years in the political wilderness, elders in the Botswana Democratic Party are back in the fold and able to offer counsel previously shunned by the party leadership.

Sunday Standard learns from one of those elders that during the presidency of Sir Ketumile Masire when elders cohered into not a formal structure but recognisable entity, substantive consultations were conducted with this group. Masire would, as required, tap the wisdom and institutional memory of these elders. Elders would also be called upon occasionally to mediate disputes within the party. Masire’s successor, Festus Mogae, continued this tradition but during this particular administration, a one-of-kind politician, General Ian Khama, was frowning and waiting in the wings.

When Khama’s star turn came on April 1, 2008, he immediately changed the rules not just in the party but in the government as well. The youngest general in the world at the time that he joined the Botswana Defence Force in 1977, Khama’s entire work experience was restricted to a necessarily undemocratic institution. He mostly scoffed at consultation with fellow African leaders, his own cabinet, party and trade unions, preferring instead to put himself under the spell of a mostly white and foreign kitchen cabinet whose untested and often unscientific theories he packaged into presidential directives that nobody dared question.

As regards the BDP, that style of governance disrupted an arrangement that gave elders a big say in the running of the party. However, since succeeding Khama last year April, President Mokgweetsi Masisi has sought to restore both the country and the BDP to its original democratic promise.

At the funeral of the second president and founding father, Sir Ketumile Masire, BDP stalwart and former cabinet minister, Daniel Kwelagobe, took potshots at General Khama by imploring the “national leadership” (Khama in other words) to “retrace its footsteps to the crossroads” and reorient its right path forward. Masisi would seem to have expanded this theme by making a loaded statement that also paid tribute to men like Khama’s own father, Masire and his own father who set the country on the right path at independence.

“Botswana is indeed fortunate to have had visionary leaders during its formative years, who were able to distinguish this nation from others, through their consistent adherence to shared values and principles, in particular, respect for human rights, democracy, the rule of law, and the spirit of consultation or therisanyo and botho,” he said in his inauguration speech.

Khama shared those values and principles at a rhetorical level only and in practical terms, brought to governance the autocracy that the army that he grew up in necessarily uses to maintain order and get things done.  No less a person than his own predecessor, Mogae, publicly expressed worry that Botswana’s democratic gains were being reversed during a visit to Tanzania in 2014. Khama didn’t believe in therisanyo and would make major policy pronouncements at kgotla and other meetings when the relevant parties had not been consulted.

The BDP constitution establishes a Council of Elders which is appointed directly by the president. There is concern in some BDP quarters that this arrangement weakens the Council because it can’t be assertive with someone (the president) who singlehandedly appointed it. 

The current Council’s first major assignment after Masisi took over was to broker a peace deal between him and Khama. The two men, who once literally stood shoulder to shoulder in the past, don’t even see eye to eye today. In his first state-of-the-nation address last year, Masisi told the nation that the mediation by the Council failed.

“Mr. Speaker, Batswana are all aware that the transition from the previous administration has not been as smooth as expected. However, it ought to be noted, I have in my attempt to smoothen the process engaged senior citizens namely, His Excellency Dr. Festus Mogae, His Honour Dr. Ponatshego Kedikilwe, Honourable Ray Molomo, Honourable Patrick Balopi and Honourable David Magang to assist and lead in smoothening the transition. I regret to announce that their efforts have not borne fruit up to this point,” he said.

With the BDP being returned to its democratic promise after 10 years, there is a feeling in some quarters that as part of improving operational efficiency and human resource deployment, the party should establish a formal Veterans League similar to that of South Africa’s African National Congress – which party the BDP has a working relationship with. This League would operate like and have similar status as the Women’s Wing and Youth League. Currently, the BDP has a Veterans’ Forum which is elected at branch level and which some adjudge unequal to the task of dealing assertively with senior party members. And indeed one cannot imagine the Serowe South Branch Veterans Forum asking Khama tough questions about his role in awarding lucrative tenders to Seleka Springs, a company owned by his younger brothers that amassed a fortune when he was army commander.

The BDP’s constitution says that the Forum (an advisory body) shall consist of older members of the party with a distinguished record of service in both the party and society at large. “Older members” is ambiguous because it doesn’t state the age bracket that qualifies one to be a veteran. In the event the BDP establishes an ANC-like Veterans’ League, it is being proposed that it should adopt standards similar to those that South Africa’s ruling party has. The ANC Veteran’s League is open to all ANC members (60 years of age or older) who have served the party and the movement over an unbroken period of 40 years and operates on a national, provincial and branch basis. It functions as an autonomous body within the overall structure of the ANC and has its own constitution, rules and regulations.

However, whatever Masisi is doing to deepen democracy in the BDP is being met with very fierce resistance from Khama. Ahead of the 2019 general election, a sitting party president (Masisi) is ahistorically being challenged by Serowe South MP, Pelonomi Venson-Moitoi. In preparation for the upcoming elective national congress in April, the Central Region has voted in favour of Masisi. Today (Sunday), a meeting with the obvious intent of reversing the outcome of a democratic electoral process, is to be held at Lady Khama Community Hall in Serowe. Khama will attend the meeting and it is more than likely that he masterminded it.