Tuesday, April 7, 2020

Boko had six ex-commando bodyguards on Election Day

It is something that the Directorate of Intelligence and Security Services (DISS) was certainly not too happy about but on October 23 last year, the Umbrella for Democratic Change presidential candidate, Duma Boko, began an elaborate dress rehearsal for a future that he hoped would begin in the late afternoon of the following day.

As the Gaborone Bonnington North parliamentary candidate left his palatial house in Tlokweng for Masa Primary School polling station, his black, vanity-number-plated Mercedes-Benz SUV was sandwiched between two canopied, white Toyota Hilux trucks. In security language, this is called a “two-car drill.” At the wheel of Boko’s own car, was a former commando in the Botswana Defence Force with extensive training in both defensive and offensive driving. Likewise, both the lead and back-up cars were in hands as capable. All told, Boko was under the protection of four former BDF commandoes and two were on stand-by.

On its Facebook page, Duma FM has a 13-minute video clip that shows the sartorially elegant Boko (suit, tie and pocket square) arriving at the Masa polling station with the four bodyguards. They escort him as he first goes in the wrong direction, then on being alerted about this, changes course with a 90-degrees turn to saunter towards the classroom being used as a voting room for that day. Meanwhile, a scramble of press photographers, cellphone paparazzi and curious members of the public begins to form around him. Hands open-palmed, a man who, on account of physical proximity to Boko appears to be the lead bodyguard, makes a top-down chopping motion with outstretched arms as a signal to the flash mob to make a hole for the UDC president and his detail to pass through. Soon afterwards, the bodyguard uses his arm to keep journalists a safe distance away.

Apparently presidential candidates don’t queue up as everybody else because Boko cuts right to the head of the queue. After presenting his national identity card and being checked out, he is given a ballot paper for parliamentary candidates. The bodyguards stand a little way off but remain close and vigilant enough to perform close-protection magic should any threat pop up.  By now, the press gaggle has grown larger, almost swallowing Boko. The hawk-eyed bodyguards embed themselves within the gaggle whom they clearly don’t see as a threat. Seconds later, Boko gets breathing space as he stands at the sacrosanct space of a low, lectern-like voting booth. After voting, he folds the ballot paper and pads across the room to stuff it into the ballot box. There is a scramble around the box as each photographer in the gaggle angles to capture award-winning shots of Boko actually casting his vote. The scramble provokes a strident voice (of an observer it would turn out) to complain repeatedly: “Ga re bone!” meaning “You are blocking our view.” Another voice appeals for the intervention of the presiding officer, who hustles the gaggle out of the way in order to enhance the observers’ sightline. He does the same when Boko casts his vote for the council seat – after which the cameraperson rushes outside to frame a shot of Boko coming out.   

At this point, the doorway is jammed with foot traffic and one of the things visible in the frame is a hand holding an SABC-labelled microphone. A sequence of arm movements akin to those of a freestyle swimmer show that same hand discourteously pushing aside people coming out of the voting room one by one to clear the way. Then, a male voice pleads in Sotho-tinged Setswana that is spoken in South Africa: “O tsile go ema mo tlase; a re mo fe chance. Please guys. Aikona!” The latter (an informal South African word that expresses strong negative emotion) marks creeping annoyance and as such annoyance swells, the speaker makes – in an exasperated voice and in two-and-half languages, a never completed thought front end-loaded with unmistakable but unexpressed snark that unfavourably compares the professionalism of Botswana and South African journalism: “Eish! The way e le spanang ka teng…” The latter means “The way you guys work …” and the languages in question are Tsotsitaal (“Eish”, “spanang”), English (“The way”) and Setswana (“e le”, “ka teng”).

Before Boko steps out, two bodyguards come forward to position themselves just outside the doorway and when he does, a female SABC journalist asks him a soft ball question about his voting experience. Fully conscious of the profound significance of this moment in history, he speaks in a presidential, low-register tone of voice as the two bodyguards stand behind him. In a matter of split seconds, a shrubbery of microphones and electrical extension cords has mushroomed all around him like rainy-season weeds. In the middle of generally adamant assertions about a new era that is dawning, Boko enthuses about the “re-writing a totally different script” for Botswana. A little later, one of the bodyguards walks away while another remains rooted to his position.

When he detaches himself from the gaggle, Boko shakes hands with a few people queuing up to vote and then with three delighted school-age children as his bodyguards shepherd him towards the parking area, one walking in front of him. This being Gaborone and the digital era, he is forced to break his stride to (not too briefly) pose for selfies with a multi-cast fan parade that begins with woman in a translucent, red neck wrap and ends with a lanky, arms-baring young man in a white replica Michael Jordan (No.23) jersey. The bodyguards stay back but remain alert.

The man of the hour resumes the short journey to his car and before getting in, takes off his jacket, which finds a pair of hands more than eager to stow it away. Mere seconds after he takes the passenger seat, two bodyguards walk to the lead car, running part of the way, as Boko’s car remains stationary. When the lead car gives the greenlight by pulling out, Boko’s follows suit and where the back-up car should have immediately followed, there instead appears a grey car that the former almost rams into. Evidently making all the necessary calculations about one very possible post-election scenario, the driver of the grey car cooperates, allowing the back-up car to speed up and catch up with the two vehicles ahead.

The “totally different script” came not in the form of armed agents from the DISS VIP protection unit taking over from the six bodyguards but a completely redrawn electoral map that didn’t favour the UDC. While the rhyme scheme in “after receiving a hiding, Boko went into hiding” would imbue this narration with some basic poetry, the fact of the matter is that it lacks factual integrity. The usually gregarious opposition leader chose to stay indoors as President Mokgweetsi Masisi took a victory lap. He would re-emerge days later to claim that the election had been rigged and that he had been assembling evidence for a case he was taking to court. He did but didn’t succeed.

Sunday Standard learns that the bodyguards provided round-the-clock close protection for Boko for six more days after the election. We have also learnt that UDC had a back-of-the-napkin plan to recalibrate membership of cabinet and had also drafted Boko’s victory speech. Following in the lead of the United States, these kind of plans – especially the latter, are becoming a global standard in electoral politics. However, what is odd in the UDC case is that there was no draft concession speech that anticipated a negative outcome – which is also standard practice among American politicians.

Make no mistake, DISS knew where Boko was all the time that everybody else was asking about his whereabouts. The special protection service he was getting at the hands of highly trained soldiers on the day of and following a fiercely contested election is said to have made some in the security agency very uneasy.

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