Tuesday, December 7, 2021

A weak party in power is the soft underbelly of its government; a case study of Kwelagobe’s annihilation

The many difficult problems currently besieging the government of Botswana can very easily be traced to efforts put in place over the years that when looked as a whole ultimately contrived to ebb away the strengths for which the ruling Botswana Democratic Party had become famous for.

All evidence shows that there is a direct correlation between the strength of the party in power and the ability of that party’s government to deliver on its public mandate; the stronger the party, the better its government to deliver.

Thankfully, there is an ongoing debate inside both party and government on how best to reset the balances of power. The debate pits those in favour of a stronger party against those for a stronger government.

It is a process started shortly after Khama joined politics.

In fact it was this debate that drove him to call some of his colleagues vultures in an infamous speech he delivered as Vice President in 1998.

President Ian Khama has always been in favour of a strong government vis-à-vis a weak party.

There is no evidence to suggest that he has as yet reviewed, much less changed his position.

It is also not clear whether his position has been informed by the difficulties he encountered early on in his political career, where his struggles to wrestle control of the party were long,  protracted and bloody.

What is clear though is that he ultimately reached a conclusion that the party and those that controlled it at the time was unmitigated nuisance.

Executive dysfunction and paralysis manifesting itself through corruption, inefficiency and general malaise is very much at the centre of poor showing by the BDP during the General Elections last year. When historians look back to try and pinpoint where it all started, we can be dead certain that consensus will emerge that a strange announcement by the Leader at the party’s national council, effectively banning ministers from simultaneously holding positions in the party’s executive began the rollercoaster of descent into anarchy.

The target when it all started was Daniel Kwelogobe. Khama’s strategy was to bring to an end what he perceived to be Kwelagobe’s unfettered power and hold on the BDP ÔÇô exactly what in his memoirs, the late Mompati Merafhe has referred to as Kwelagobe’s “inappropriate power.”

Tragically, Khama’s plan went pear-shaped.

Besides the lunacy that it really was, there is no evidence to suggest that delinking party from government resulted in either of the two institutions becoming more efficient. Rather all evidence point to enhanced lack of coordination, with either side always on a mode of second guessing the other.

It culminated with both party and government becoming shadows of their former selves.

When the announcement to link the two was made everybody was caught by surprise. The decision was unilateral ÔÇô adopted at neither party nor government. As it turned out number of ministers who were also in party positions or aspiring to be them were lost for sixes. They could however only grieve and grumble. On the other hand, Kwelagobe, who was really the target of this headless moratorium had an easy decision to make.

While Kwelagobe was irrefutably the target of Khama’s ire, the victim or collateral damage, to use a favorite American military parlance, turned out to be Jacob Nkate.

Nkate had just won his first term ÔÇô and as turned out the only one – as Secretary General of the BDP, taking over from Kwelagobe who was retiring after 27 years of unbroken service.

To be fair to Nkate, he had also just completed spelling out his detailed vision for renewal of the BDP. Being told to choose between his Secretary General position and that one in cabinet where he was serving as a senior mister responsible for education was not only emotionally hurtful, it also put paid his ambitions of implementing his vision for the party. Quite predictably he chose cabinet over party, but two years later he had lost his seat in parliament. Hopes of him being nominated Specially elected Member of Parliament were dashed, , kick-starting a long season of a stay in political wilderness that culminated with him being banished to Tokyo where he is still serving as Botswana’s Ambassador to Japan.

For Kwelagobe choosing between party and government was probably one of the easiest decisions of his political career. When everybody opted to stay in cabinet, Kwelagobe chose the party, because, he said at the time “it is the territory with which I am most familiar.”

That was chiefly because his interest and passion, both of which seemed to increase with his age had always rested with the party. The truth of the matter is that Kwelagobe had long lost interest in ministerial positions.
From his early days, Kwelagobe never really enjoyed his job in cabinet anywhere near that of the party.

For him a cabinet deployment was only useful as far as it fulfilled his party mandate as it did his stranglehold on that party.

It is perhaps not surprising that a fast glance of Kwelagobe’s cabinet career shows that he enjoyed himself most when he served as Minister of Agriculture, in the late 1980s.

The Ministry of Agriculture, more than all the other ministries allowed him a leeway and indeed direct interaction with ordinary people.

At the Ministry of Agriculture the line between party and government was blurred as instead of spending time talking to technocrats and government experts, he was always among the farmers in the countryside ÔÇô the bulk of who made up the base of BDP support.

But still after he chose party over government a false impression was created that he had in fact been sacked from cabinet.

His ministerial car and other privileges were abruptly withdrawn. State radio announced that he had been dropped from cabinet. Additional pain was inflicted on him as it all happened as he was on a party assignment somewhere in the Chobe enclave.

Luckily for him the intended humiliation against him backfired as the public correctly read his persecution as crude punishment for his decision to choose party over cabinet against the wishes of the President. In the eyes of the public, Kwelagobe’s mistreatment by the President became further incontrovertible┬á proof that he was all along the intended target of what became ill-fated crusade to delink party from government.

While the whole decree by President Khama to detach party from government was from beginning to the end erroneous, there was at least one thing on which he was correct; which is that Kwelagobe had over the years skillfully wrought a watertight network of activists who he was using as proxies to run the party, government and by extension country. Many of these activists were so young as to be his grandchildren. They openly paid him homage and allegiance. Some of them were not only looking up to him for guidance, they were even prepared to lay down their lives for him. Such was the loyalty that Kwelagobe inspired. And it filled Khama with both disdain and despair. For the president who had a roadmap that railroaded him to control both party and government, Kwelagobe was both a nuisance and an unwelcome distraction. Worse, he was perceived to be a bad influence on the party’s nationwide activists. To add salt to injury many cabinet ministers still revered him and conferred with him on government issues long after he had left cabinet.

But weakening the party just as a way of getting rid of one man could never have been a wise solution. It seems to have been an overstretch right from inception. As events have proved it has been a decision for which the whole country is still paying a heavy price, with no end in sight.

Khama’s ill-tempered vendetta against Kwelagobe has bequeathed him and his government a rickety structured party whose intermittent decline now seems impossible to stem.

After last year’s elections, Kwelagobe lost his seat in parliament that he had occupied since 1969.
In effect Kwelagobe’s loss has in a way been Khama’s victory.

With Kwelagobe holding no official position inside the BDP means that the party has now been totally detached from its patron saint. That in comparison has been a much smaller price.
A much bigger price has been a weakened party that has also become rudderless facing likely defeat at the next General Elections.

Nothing best encapsulates BDP weakness than recent vulture-like uninvited guests who descended on the party and declared themselves its messiahs offering themselves as possible Treasurers. At another level that inertia and weakness are also feeding into government operations.

A recent announcement that Government intends to create a Graduate Volunteer Scheme under which graduates will be paid P600 is nothing short of a scandal. It is the embodiment of a government that has lost not just direction but also a sense of its own worth. To reverse the slide into this abyss, those in charge have to start by reviving the party first. A strong party in power effortlessly leads to a strong government.

A weak party in power on the other hand is the soft underbelly of its government.

It is a great lesson from which those in opposition can learn a lot as they attempt to seize.

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