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07 Jul 2019

As it tries to rally its troops, the Botswana Democratic Party (BDP) is also facing the difficulty of telling friend from foe, largely on account of an unusual situation that it has never ever had to deal with before.

The party is facing perhaps the most turbulent time in its history. Once before, some members have broken away to form their own parties (United Action Party in 1998 and Botswana Movement for Democracy in 2011) but the coming into being of the Botswana Patriotic Front (BPF) has rattled some in the party. The rattling happens on account of who is behind this project – former president and Bangwato Paramount Chief, Ian Khama. At this point in time, BPF desires to work with the opposition, namely the Umbrella for Democratic Change, and poach members from the BDP. Whereas people ordinarily just ditch a party and join a new one, some Khama supporters still remain in the BDP and as members in good standing, can attend even sensitive in-house meetings.

This problem is said to be very well-pronounced in the Central District which is legally classified as Ngwato tribal territory. A BDP source says that not too long ago his branch held an in-house meeting at which it became evident that some committee members harboured very strong BPF sympathies. One way they demonstrated such sympathies was by frowning upon any criticism of Khama whom they still consider their chief despite the fact that he has shown no meaningful interest in that office for over 40 years. Two weeks ago, some BDP councillors defected to the BPF but as part of what could be a strategy, other BPF sympathisers remained behind.  With money having been mentioned in this defection and if that allegation is at all true, it is just as likely that the BDP might buy those defectors back.

The problem goes to the very top because some MPs, especially those in the Central District, are either sitting on the fence or harbour BPF sympathies. If “dangerous” is the word, this is the more dangerous lot because these MPs have access to highly confidential information – some of it relating to campaign strategy – that they can easily leak to the BPF. And for as long as these members remain in good standing, there is nothing that can be done to deny them full membership rights.

However, it is as likely that some of the people who remain in BDP sympathise with Khama and not BPF. As the experience of one opposition activist shows, some Bangwato may join opposition parties but remain fiercely loyal to Khama. The activist in question recounts a story of addressing a Saturday political rally in Serowe North constituency at a time that Khama was still Festus Mogae’s Vice President and Serowe North MP. As MP, Khama never attended parliament and naturally this continual absence provided freedom-square fodder. Making an analogy of an educational setting to what he thought was a friendly crowd, the activist said that if parliament was a school, the Speaker (Ray Molomo at the time) a principal and constituents parents, the principal would long have summoned the parents to school and informed them that “Your child has no interest in school.” In Gaborone, that would been met with cheer and chants of “Comrades!” On that day at a Serowe freedom square, practically all the listeners met the words with radio-silence as they cringed with shock. This anecdote helps reinforce the fact that there will be people who remain loyal to both the BDP as a party that spiritually connects them to a man (founding President Sir Seretse Khama) who touched their hearts as well as to Khama in his capacity as their chief. In forming BPF, Khama essentially pitted his legacy against his father’s (as embodied in the BDP) and he is not assured of victory.

Commentators like former minister, Jacob Nkate, have stated that the dissident movement that Khama is assembling should not be taken lightly. Indeed it would be the height of folly to do so but the movement is light on some things. At the precise moment that Facebook livestreaming showed Khama arriving at the second meeting in Serowe, to announce the party’s formation, some VIP chairs under the marquee tent were empty.  Hours later, when he symbolically discarded his BDP membership card as a cue for his followers to do the same, not many cards were discarded. It is also that while BPF has been described as a Bangwato party, there has not been a large-scale defection of prominent Bangwato figures to the party. Down the road and that is supposing it firms up as a credible political movement, the party will need intellectual firepower. However, no Mongwato intellectual has been associated with the party. Then again, the decade of Khama’s administration shows that the party (which is crafted around the personal interests and world view of the ad-hocratic Khama) has no need for intellectuals.

The other advantage that the BDP still retains over BPF is that for now, the latter is not a political project but a personal vendetta whose source can be reliably traced to Khama’s falling out with some BDP leaders. Khama has publicly expressed intention to get even with President Mokgweetsi Masisi, Vice President Slumber Tsogwane, Sefhare-Ramokgonami MP, Dorcas Makgatho, and the BDP’s candidate in Bobonong, Francis Kgoboko. Khama has also failed to give the party a national profile. First, he called the party’s first “consultative” meeting in Serowe in his capacity as a Bangwato Paramount Chief. Secondly, he reneged on promise to consult nationally, announcing the party’s formation a few short days at the same village. At this point in time, BPF is essentially a tribally-branded, vendetta-driven provincial party with neither a clear policy agenda nor coherent strategic political communications strategy. On such basis, support for BPF essentially means support for Khama’s vindictiveness because that is the only thing that he has made any explicit public pronouncement on.

Ultimately, while the BDP may have BPF sleeper agents and Khama sympathisers within its ranks, the new party has no solid grounding that can give it any real advantage.

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