Monday, May 27, 2024

A rebel with a cause

Moutlakgola Ngwako’s detractors like to regale friends with stories about how his wife went to take measurements of the State House windows to buy curtains in preparations for their ascension to the first address while the nation was still mourning the death of Sir Seretse Khama.

The story of Ngwako’s bid for the country’s presidency is always embellished and trimmed to suit the occasion, but the motive is always the same: To portray him as brash with more ambition than a sense of moral rectitude.

Ngwako’s friends, however, recall a take no hostages politician who was not given to deceit and always told it like it is instead of sneaking to whispers behind turned backs.

Former cabinet minister, David Magang, remembers a man with a heart as big as his mouth.
Magang’s first encounter with the controversial politician was in the 1950s at Moeng College where Ngwako was the school bursar.

As a form one fresher, the young Magang, then the best student in the overall Bechuanaland, attracted Ngwako’s attention and ridicule when he could not raise money to buy text books.

True to character, Ngwako never attempted to sugarcoat his concern as he asked: “Do you mean you came all the way from Molepolole without money to buy school books?”

Embarrassed by public display of his impoverished background, Magang pleaded with the country’s second best student turned close friend, Festus Mogae to share his textbooks.

Embarrassing as Magang’s first encounter with Ngwako was, it was to be the beginning of a close relationship that spanned over fifty years.
Many years later, the student and his former bursar sat together in cabinet as ministers of state, with Magang having turned from a penniless young student from a poor background to an accomplished millionaire businessman.

At the event to unveil Ngwako’s tombstone in Mookane last week, Magang said more than anything he was attracted by the older man’s boldness, his preparedness to speak his mind and willingness to live with the outcome of his actions.
Even as things did not turn his way, Ngwako would always come back as resilient, brave, sincere and above all honest.

Never a person to hold back his thoughts or attempt to dance to the popular grail of political correctness, Ngwako was brave, honest and authentic, a rare combination among politicians ÔÇô a tribe whose preoccupation is always self preservation including by use of deceit.
Openly argumentative and highly ambitious, with a passionate loathing for sycophancy and tokenism, Magang says to this day, Ngwako’s is the only name invariably quoted as a person who never had second thoughts about taking the feared and revered Seretse Khama head-on on matters of principle.

Ngwako was openly repelled by the unquestioning and unthinking obedience that other cabinet ministers, including Vice President Ketumile Masire, extended to Seretse Khama.

“May be it’s because, like Seretse, he was from Serowe and they had grown up together.”
Following the death of Seretse Khama in 1980, Ngwako was to be the only person to make it clear that he aspired to become the new State President.
Still a young Member of Parliament, Magang did not support Ngwako and told him so.
But the older Ngwako admired the young Magang’s the frankness.

Even as they differed on many issues, (as when Ngwako sanctioned the deportation of Magang’s client and when Ngwako licensed a chain store that literally throttled Magang’s supermarket) still their friendship and affection for each other grew keener.
As Magang puts it, even as other ministers submitted themselves to the Presidents (both Seretse Khama and Masire) not for a day did Ngwako ever surrender his convictions.
With time, Ngwako proved a tough and open minded politician capable of speaking his mind while at the time maintaining a close and profound attachment to cultural values and tradition.
“Very argumentative to the very end, Ngwako balked against conquest. You could be assured that Ngwako would never yield on a point of principle,” says Magang.

Ngwako’s stubbornness became evident after he was offered the position of Speaker of Parliament to entice him to leave the Palapye constituency in favour of the future President, Festus Mogae.
Even as it became clear that he was going to lose to the new kid on the block, Ngwako insisted that he wanted to face the intellectually savvy technocrat at the primaries.

In the end, Mogae won the primaries, but “Ngwako was happy that democracy had been allowed to take its course,” says Magang.

Magang says through out his life Ngwako came across as certain in his beliefs, a man who relentlessly argued his point to the end.
“Even as he conceded defeat gracefully he would harp on his conviction that he lost only because the opposing side had numbers behind them.”
Although Ngwako was clearly hurt and depressed by charges that he was leader of a BDP ring that wanted to oust Ketumile Masire, what pained and rankled him most was the “cowardice” of the people who were spreading the rumours.

“It gave Mout no relief that nobody was brave enough to come into the open to press charges against him or substantiate them,” says Magang.
In 1981 at a BDP Congress, a plot to further sideline him was hatched by leading party stalwarts who accused him of having formed the Labour Party to use it as a vehicle to fight the Masire hegemony inside the BDP.

While the air was thick with rumours, nobody was brave enough to confront Ngwako with the allegations.

Magang remembers Ngwako approaching him, “clearly pained by what he saw as yet another malicious campaign by some of his colleagues to tarnish his credibility.”

Ngwako’s forthrightness became even clearer in 1984 when the parliamentary position of the then Vice President Peter Mmusi was becoming untenable.

A close Masire ally, Mmusi was billed to square up for a second round in Gaborone South against the increasingly popular Kenneth Koma.
A worried Masire convened the BDP inner circle to warn them of his fears about the impending disaster were Mmusi to lose.

“Ngwako told Masire to his face that as much as he would celebrate Mmusi’s victory; the fact of the matter was that the future of the country and party did not rely on Mmusi winning the by-election.”
Masire was not impressed.

He was even more hurt when his fears were confirmed as Koma comprehensively routed Mmusi at the polls. Not about to let go of his long trusted aide and friend, it was then that the President hatched a plan to sacrifice Specially Elected Member of Parliament Gaotlhaetse Matlhabaphiri to make way for Peter Mmusi.

Ngwako’s runs against Masire and associates were far from over.

In 1985, at a BDP Congress in Francistown, something happened that led to Ngwako openly wonder what the difference was between Botswana and the rest of autocratic countries like Malawi and Zambia.

The party constitution was amended to allow Masire a life presidency for as long as the BDP remained in power. Ngwako could not hold back his anger and irritation.

The usual suspects were at it again that the reason why he opposed the amendment was because he (Ngwako) had connived with his younger friend, the lawyer Magang to unseat Masire.

If the resilient Ngwako thought the amendment of the party constitution was bad enough, an even greater shock awaited him.

In 1988 at yet another BDP National Congress, a ranking functionary and Minister of State, Edison Masisi, came up with a motion that used internal divisions as a pretext to basically call off Central Committee elections. Before the motion could be debated President Masire endorsed the motion.
Ngwako was so annoyed by the illegality of the motion that after the Congress he organised a group of sympathizers, including David Magang, to petition President Masire.

“It was to be many years later before Masire admitted that amending the constitution and calling off the elections were wrong.”

Magang has read Masire’s autobiography published last year.

The former minister is disappointed about some facts in it.

He takes particular exception to veiled assertions by Masire that, through and through, Magang and Ngwako were working in cahoots to have one of themselves elevated to the presidency. “After Peter Mmusi resigned, Masire called me and asked for my opinion on who to appoint as Deputy. I rooted for Mogae, Ngwako and Merafhe, in that order. I am surprised and hurt that in his book Masire says Ngwako and myself recommended ourselves.”

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