It was a chance meeting, nothing like a scene from those old spy movies. No planned rendezvous, no badly lit smoked filled room, none of those shadowy world props. It is just me and my spy informant huddled over his shopping trolley outside Chicken Licken restaurant, oblivious to the bustle of Game City shoppers. He is rumbling on about how Botswana politics are morphing into a high stakes drama, a subject that comes up even before enquiries about the health of children these days. Then suddenly, “ah comrade!” The “ah comrade” is because Umbrella for Democratic Change (UDC) President, Duma Boko who was on a personal errand at Game City has just stopped by for a chit chat. After exchanging banter and a few pleasantries, my deep-throat ÔÇô an intelligence expert who does work for a number of spy organisations ÔÇô dropped the bombshell: “Please warn Ndaba that the DIS has a hit out on him”, he said matter of factly. He could have been making an observation about the weather. If Boko was shocked by the revelation, he did not show it. The UDC president just cocked his head to the side and said “yes we know about that. We have already received the Intel.” The scribe in me was intrigued. My curiosity took me down a macabre rabbit hole: A secret sharing of notes here and anonymous interviews there revealed a cloak and dagger story which surprisingly is common knowledge in intelligence circles. To most political watchers, this is a sign of the times. Botswana is entering an era of brass knuckle politics and backroom intrigues as the UDC seems to be gaining ground on the ruling Botswana Democratic Party (BDP). If the stakes are high for President Khama, they are even higher for Directorate of intelligence and Security Services (DISS) Director General, Isaac Kgosi. A corruption investigation against him is complete and the docket is being kept under lock and key at the Directorate on Corruption and Economic Crime (DCEC). Detractors dreaming of dragging him to court, however, would first have to go past his legal advisor Sidney Pilane and the unyielding BDP leadership. Pilane and his son in law, Jacob Sesinyi are part of Kgosi’s ginger group, a collection of unofficial advisers he consults in parallel to the DISS and government officials ÔÇô a kitchen cabinet of sorts. They are his legal advisors, his publicists and his gate keepers.
The BMD connection
It is almost an article of faith that first on the bucket list of a UDC government would be to dust off Kgosi’s docket and book a date for his day in court. There is however a small problem: The Botswana Movement for Democracy (BMD) a partner in UDC may find themselves in a conflict of interest unless they can stave off a strong challenge from Pilane. It is an open secret that Pilane has designs on the BMD presidency and this has sparked panic among the UDC command. That is hardly surprising. The BMD presidential challenger has built a formidable war chest which has enabled him to harness part of the BMD structures to his side, ready to take on Gaolathe at the 2017 party congress, in a fight insiders fear may push the party off the cliff. The idea that Pilane is the BMD b├¬tes noire is not new. Over the past years, the man most BMD grassroots followers love to hate has occupied top spot in the demonology of the party. Across a range of activities ÔÇô from the row over forensic investigation into former BMD President Gomolemo Motswaledi’s death to controversies in the elections of the BMD youth league committee and party executive committee, most BMD supporters believed that Pilane was forever lurking behind the headlines.
This has not been lost on the street smart lawyer. Twelve months ago, Pilane wrote a letter to the editor complaining that he was being made the BMD fall-guy : “The BMD is in the throes of a dispute over the election of the Youth League Committee at the recent Congress. The manner in which the dispute is being handled borders on a crisis. I am told that my name has been mentioned during the ensuing quarrel. The allegation, as I understand it, is that the victorious Youth League Committee led by Phenyo Segokgo wishes me to return to the BMD to replace Hon. Ndaba Gaolatlhe as the President of the Movement. This allegation, it would seem, is being made to spirit Hon. Gaolatlhe into denouncing Segokgo’s Committee. And the tactic seems to be working, and is precipitating a crisis within the BMD. I write only to correct the record. I am not a member of the BMD, having resigned a few years ago, largely because the then Youth League Committee was forced to leave the BMD for the BDP on account of accusations that they supported me. I was never told in what, for we had just come from Kgale where I had been decisively defeated. In my letter of resignation, I expressed the hope that with me gone, the Movement would stop haemorrhaging in favour of the BDP, and that there would be no reason for anyone to be accused of supporting me. The accusations have returned. It would seem that some, by no means all, those who lost, for whatever reason, have found in me a ready scapegoat”, he stated.
The BMD money trail however suggests that Pilane is the power behind the scenes who directed thousands of Pula to favoured party members, the puppet master who pulled the strings of party activists in key places, the power broker who is building a parallel power base inside the BMD. He is the central figure in what threatens to be a major melt-down of the BMD.
BMD Mochudi West Member of Parliament, Gilbert Mangole who is part of the group that is backing Pilane confirmed to the media that Pilane spend money from his pocket to finance BMD national, youth and women’s wing congresses. This has bought him influence among a section of the party and stacked the deck against Gaolatlhe which may come in handy as he allegedly plots to take over the presidency of the party. While a sizeable number, mostly National Executive Committee (NEC) members seem drawn to his moxie and his money Pilane is still a hate figure among BMD grassroots supporters.
The struggle between Pilane and Gaolatlhe is a test for the BMD as a groundbreaking political and constitutional experiment. Following the arbitrariness with which former BMD President, Gomolemo Motswaledi was suspended from the BDP by President Lt Gen Ian Khama, the breakaway BMD at its inaugural conference in 2011adopted a liberal constitution which vests more powers on the party’s National Executive Committee (NEC). The idea was to take away the power from the president and give it back to the people.
As it turns out, two intertwined power struggles are being fought in the BMD, one over the leadership of the party and the other over how the party should make collective decisions. Gaolatlhe feels major party decisions like Pilane’s membership should be decided by the congress, while the NEC insists they are the repositories of power. This has exposed a major flaw in the party constitution: One strong man can still usurp the power of the people by holding the NEC hostage.
While the BMD NEC is believed to have mortgaged its authority to Pilane, Gaolatlhe comes across as a people’s hero whose authority comes from public esteem. The soft spoken leader commands hysterical devotion from the party rank and file. This is becoming more pronounced in his everyday grind of trying to ward off his detractors who are snapping hard at his heels. A while ago Ndaba’s retreat to his farm was disrupted by a hysterical phone call. The voice on the other end wanted to establish if Gaolatlhe had given Pilane’s supporters the go ahead to address Chobe constituency party members. BMD work-horse and former Chobe MP, Vista Moruti also wanted to find out if the regional committee should host the visiting team. Gaolathe, a stickler for the liberal BMD Constitution told Moruti that the decision had to be made by the constituency, and whatever decision they took, he would support. The constituency sent Pilane’s team fleeing. This was not an isolated incident, members of the Pilane group received a similar reception during a recent Tswapong adventure. Pilane’s supporters seem unaware of the febrile nature of rank and file party opinion, and are widely blamed as instigators
It is not clear if Gaolathe and Pilane would ever be able to work together, but indications are that there is going to be a lot of tears and blood before bed time. Few events show the underlying machinery of Botswana’s political culture better than national congresses which inevitably throw up backstabbing, legal wrangles, last-minute defections and backroom deals as politicians jostle to end up with winning tickets. A series of congresses running up to the BMD national congress in 2017 are taking the usual tempestuous air a few notches up with deep seated divisions, private security outfits and flashes of political violence suggesting that the party will be going to war rather than to a congress to elect a new leadership. A group of BMD women associated with the Pilane faction has been deploying its own private security to provide them with escort at women conferences held in a number of constituencies and each conference brings fresh evidence of how high the stakes are in a party that is strongly tipped to be part of the next government. Four weeks ago a BMD women’s league congress in Tsogang Primary School, Gaborone North Constituency was disrupted after the group that is rooting for Pilane called in their private security to remove area Member of Parliament Haskins Nkaigwa and Chairman of the Branch committee Maano Thukwi both linked to the group backing Gaolatlhe. The congress descended into chaos and Broadhurst police had to be brought in to quell the tension. Curiously, Director of Intelligence and Security Services (DISS), Isaac Kgosi was not far from the crime scene. The ink on witness statements from the crime scene had hardly dried when Kgosi showed up at the Broadhurst Police Station, disappeared into the back office and letter emerged with a sheaf of papers. Unconfirmed reports from witnesses who were at the Broadhurst Police Station claim the bundle of papers Kgosi left with were copies of BMD witness statements. This has stoked fears by some BMD insiders that the private security may be part of a third force that is exploiting existing strains on the BMD political campaign trail. The BMD women’s group showed up three weeks ago in Molepolole with their private security on tow, for a women’s league congress that also ended up at the Molepolole Police Station after Pilane allegedly assaulted former councillor, Botshelo Kgatitswe who is associated with the Gaolatlhe group. There are fears that the police are conspiring to sweep the alleged assault case against Pilane under the carpet. Kgatitswe last week engaged JJ Matomela of JJ Matomela Attorneys to try and force the police hand. In a letter to Molepolole Station Commander, Kgatitswe’s lawyers charged: “Client is disturbed that the Molepolole police Station, contrary to common practice where cases of assaults are expeditiously registered with the courts of law, is yet to bring charges against the alleged accused persons….
“We need not remind you that alleged accused person must be brought to court, firstly to establish whether they are guilty as accused, and secondly so as to protect public interest in ensuring that the public is protected from individuals who are a danger to members of the society. “We in the circumstances, demand as follows: That you inform us as to whether you intend to institute criminal proceedings against the said Pilane, and if so when will the matter be registered. We hold instructions to seek, in the circumstances where you have decided not to proceed with the case, that you provide the necessary certificate indicating such a decision so that we institute private prosecution of the alleged offender. Take notice that if we do not hear from you within a period of 14 days, and no action is taken in the matter, we shall interpret such as an indication that you have no intentions of prosecuting the said Sidney Pilane and we shall seek legal recourse at the courts of law without further engagement with you.
A BMD insider has described what is happening inside the party as a “true battle between good and evil”. As Botswana’s politics become debased, corrupt and filled with empty rhetoric, Gaolatlhe who is widely perceived as principled and upright has become a reference point of hope for a generation sickened by the turn the country’s politics has taken. “He cannot be bought, he has the support of the people and so the only way to deal with him would be to assassinate him” said the insider.