The towering politics of football and nocturnal meetings at pricey hotels

15 Jul 2019

BY BOTLHALE KOOTHUPILE

“This is quite a game, politics. There are no permanent enemies and no permanent friends, only permanent interests,” William Clay.

The above adage fits snugly in relation to the state of affairs of Botswana football.

On the eve of the Botswana Premier League (BPL) board meeting on the wintry evening of Thursday 4th of July, a group of football mean men converged at iTowers in Gaborone’s Central Business District (CBD).

In the realms of power in the local football corridors, these were no ordinary men. These were the representatives of the majority of the 16 teams that make the Botswana Premier League (BPL), the very men who, for most of the time, hold the keys to the Botswana Football Association (BFA) presidency seat.

Nothing could have aroused suspicion of the men’s meeting. After all, these men meet occasionally to deliberate on issues of football.

However, on this particular day, the men, many of whom are regarded as ‘enemies’ for the majority of time, had come here for one and only one purpose, ‘to plot the downfall of the then BPL Board Chairman Jagdish Shah and his Vice Solomon Mantswe.

It is not yet clear who had called the meeting, but two men, Gaborone United financier Nicholas Zakhem and the suspended Extension Gunners Chairman Tariq Babitseng, have so far emerged as the alleged conveners of the meeting.

Save for the teams of the two men who were the subject of the discussion that night, being Shah and Mantswe, almost all the teams were represented at the meeting.

Interestingly enough, two men who had for a long time openly opposed the secret meetings held at itowers, being Babitseng and the former BFA president Tebogo Sebego were part and parcel of the said meeting.

In fact, on the eve of the Botswana National Olympic Committee (BNOC) elections two years ago, Sebego in one of his Facebook posts wrote “BNOC Elections … iTowers is back! Envelopes shall roll. I have seen envelopes killing my sport!” as he railed against the iTowers secret meetings.

According to a source, for a while now, the change in Sebego’s attitude towards his long time adversaries is not surprising as he has of late been on the fence when divisive matters are discussed at the BPL board.

“Sebego still harbours the ambition of leading the BFA again and he knows he cannot offend the BPL Board members who are a big electorate,” the source said.

Reached for comment, Sebego acknowledged he was part of the iTowers meeting, which he said was at the invite of Babitseng.

“He [Babitseng] called me and informed me that Zakhem would like to speak to me on the issues relating to the BPL. He implored me to just go and hear what Zak had to say,” Sebego said.

The Notwane Football Club president however insisted he went to the meeting with knowledge that they were going to discuss the way forward for the premier league.

On the allegations that he is always on the fence to avoid offending any of the BPL Board members, who are the voters in the BFA elections, Sebego denied the allegations.

“I never hide when issues are discussed at the BPL Board and I am one of the most vocal when I do not agree with any decision,” he said.

For his part, Babitseng said he was one of the conveners of the iTowers meeting. He said the meeting was meant to chart a way forward for the BPL after what he termed ‘failure by Shah to grow the BPL.’

“I have always been a critic of Shah as I believed he was only protecting the interest of Rollers at the expense of all other teams in the league. I have been open about my opposition to him. It has nothing to do with him as a person but rather with how he ran the Premier league,” Babitseng said.

On his relationship with Zakhem, Babitseng said while they have not always seen eye to eye on certain issues, they share certain opinions on matters relating to the BPL and its growth.

“Zakhem and I have differed on issues but that does not mean we cannot agree on some issues. When it comes to growing the premier league and football, we have similar opinions and that is why the two of us felt Shah was failing the league, hence we united to oust him,” he said.

Babitseng also said the meeting was convened to map a way forward for the premier league, adding that at the meeting, votes were canvassed to oust the BPL Board and his Vice.

At the said meeting, a decision was then taken that Seiphetlho Sefhako should stand for the Chairmanship of the BPL Board against Shah, with Njabulo Gilika getting a nod to stand against Mantswe.

“The meeting attendants had anticipated that Shah and Mantswe would seek a re-election and had planned on inflicting a humiliating defeat on them,” a source revealed.

Unbeknown to the coup plotters, on the very same day they met at iTowers to decide the fate of Shah and Mantswe, one of the members, not comfortable with the secret meeting, leaked the information to the duo.

Now with inside information on what transpired at the meeting, the BPL Board and his Vice were well armed and resolved not to stand for elections.

When the BPL Board meeting convened on Friday, Shah and Mantswe, fully aware of the previous day’s meeting pulled the rug beneath their would-be deposers’ feet.

“At the meeting, Shah and Mantswe informed the boardmembers they have no interest of standing for elections. The move took the BPL Board members by surprise as they had not anticipated such,” a source said.

Reached for comment, Mantswe confirmed that he and Shah knew of the iTowers plot way before the BPL Board convened on Friday.

He however said their decision not to stand for elections had nothing to do with the meeting as they had long taken a decision not to stand.

“As far as February, I had written a letter to the Chairman requesting that I be relieved of my vice chairman duties as I had other commitments. He then requested that I stick with him until the end of the season when we would then give way for a substantive leadership voted for by BPL Board members,” he explained.

Mantswe went on to add that when they called the meeting, they always wanted it to be an elective meeting.

“The iTowers meeting was always a work in futility for the conveners as we were still going to hand over the reins as we felt we had played our part. For me personally, my two year term had elapsed and I had no intention of standing for re-election,” he said.