A crushing and dispiriting result at the polls and a costly fishing expedition at the courts make for grim future for the opposition coalition. Soon after the Court of Appeal read out it verdict on the electoral petitions launched by the Umbrella for Democratic Change (UDC), the campaign mantra ‘decent jobs, decent lives’ and ‘B4B’ faded from memory. The excitement around the possibility for a living wage of P3000.00 per month evaporated as quickly as it has built up.
The UDC now finds itself at a political crossroads. Instead of being on the offensive and shooting at the ruling Botswana Democratic Party (BDP) from a vintage point, they are now forced to react to events and defend their decisions most of the time. They are back to their usual self in terms of squabbling among themselves for the coveted prize of bragging rights for being natural leaders in opposition politics.
Between now and the next general election in 2024, the coalition is going to face a rocky ride, that is, if it survives a violent break up. The coalition actually faces a difficult choice to rebuild or disband so that member parties get to focus on finding their grass roots in order to build strong support base rather than is the case at the moment with the UDC building its support around its president who is also the president of the Botswana National Front (BNF). Telling events have started to unfold.
Delivering a Mass-BNF Public Lecture titled ‘The Political life and contribution of Dr Kenneth Koma’, BNF and UDC president is reported to have stated that the UDC remain multi-organizational united front and the BNF is its natural leader and must remain so. That was a daring, flamboyant and bossy sucker punch that reminded other member parties of the UDC that in a coalition, small parties always get smashed and bossed around.
Traditionally, the BNF has always acted as a father figure and arbiter of opposition politics in Botswana. Other opposition parties have always tended to go along with this line of thought by allowing the BNF to lead not purely on merit but mainly to preserve peace that is necessary for joint operations.
As much as the BNF has been offered an opportunity to lead opposition parties and take opposition politics to the next level, its strategy to battle the ruling BDP has always been incoherent mainly because it has tended to rely on its leader’s charisma rather than identify and exploit a distinctive political niche.
From Dr Kenneth Koma (MHSRIP) through to its present president Advocate Duma Boko, the BNF has always been overshadowed by its leaders; always been unpredictable and survived on firm control by the party leader and the use of smart bully boys. That firm control of BNF party members is now being transposed into the coalition wherein the BNF President who is also UDC President uses Machiavellian shrewdness to take credit for nothing.
The opposition collective has now lost at the general elections as many times as the BNF has been permitted to act as the head and heart of the coalition. Whereas the BNF, through its president, do deserve credit for uniting opposition under the banner of UDC, it has equally become a symbol of failure. Alongside thorny issues of ruined trust and lack of credibility in addition to humbling loses at the past 2 general elections, the image of the UDC has been degraded and it will take many years to restore.
In the run up to the 23rd October 2019 polls and after the polls, critics within and outside of the UDC have lamented that the coalition would never effect regime change until it addresses its battered leadership credentials. That sounded ungrateful given the sacrifices that that BNF and its president has made in efforts to unite opposition parties and unseat the ruling BDP.
Yet, it has to be accepted that the BNF foolproof rhetoric and passionate following will never be enough to lead the coalition to victory. A familiar refrain in opposition politics in Botswana is that the BNF is an established brand, a household name and a trademark for perseverance, endurance and fortitude in a political environment greased with mouthwatering bribes and scented with intimidation and harassment. This cannot be discounted.
Indeed the BNF has a distinctive frame, tenacity and fervor that have allowed it to survive African-styled combustible politics where the ruling party uses state resources to enfeeble competitors and crush revolutionary dogma. Nothing said or done would take away this heroic feat from the BNF.
However, we cannot retain the status quo and give the leadership of the UDC to the BNF merely to allow comrades to experience and celebrate the passage to eternal bliss deriving from fame and commendation.
Indeed leadership seems sweeter than honey but it must be earned through legitimate and reputable deeds. The leadership of the UDC must be premised on a conviction to create a more robust and progressive coalition rather than use it as a sweetener to pacify worried gangsters.
The UDC leadership shouldn’t be anyone’s entitlement whether by virtue of longevity in opposition politics and/or a nod of recognition based on stale and corrupted history.
Since the BNF and its president find it opportune and self-serving to claim credit for the formation of the UDC and since they strongly believe that the BNF should be the natural leader of any coalition of opposition parties in Botswana, other constituents of the UDC are going to find it impossible to convince the BNF that the leadership of the UDC should be determined by a vote of individual persons who affiliate with UDC member parties.
Any attempts by any member party, however noble, to propose a way out of this confrontation and chaotic abyss of despair engulfing the UDC as a result of a crisis of and for leadership would be met with unprecedented resistance, intimidation and harassment including threat of physical harm.
We know the history of the BNF and we know why some of its foot soldiers go by the epithet ‘fearfokol’ – they are believed to be fearless and perhaps uncouth. They and the BNF are unshakable and unmovable in what they want. That being the case, the leadership of the UDC appears out of reach for other member parties and is probably not negotiable.
This means that the present coalition would be retained on condition that it is led by the BNF. Other member parties must accept this arrangement which basically affirms their minority status in the partnership. If they cannot accept the status quo, they will have to pack and go. This arrangement makes for an unstable coalition and confirms that coalitions are only fair-weather realities or sand castles.
There is overwhelming precedent for this arrangement from the old UDC (UDC prior to BCP’s affiliation) where it was expressly agreed that the BNF would assume the presidency of the UDC while the Botswana Movement for Democracy assumed the vice-presidency. Thus, the BNF has always had its way and will continue to do so because other opposition parties rejoice in their subordination.
In consequence, the tendency has been to build UDC support around the BNF and its president in particular. This approach has not helped the UDC to grow and consolidates its electoral gains because support fashioned in an individual’s image soon dies away when the individual gets in trouble.
This must change for the good of opposition politics even if it means breaking up the UDC in order to build an inclusive coalition from a strong foundation. Any attempts to reform the UDC in its present form and shape will be met with violent and messy resistance from those enjoying privileged status.
Yet, the loss of trust, the failings of leadership and the recent insensitive and misguided presentation of the position of the BNF in the coalition is proof that the opposition faces a mammoth rebuilding process to restore public trust and rediscover their purpose. They face a huge task to re-establish themselves as a credible alternative and the BNF president shouldn’t have made it harder than it already is by presenting a rigid, self-serving and potentially catastrophic position on the leadership of the UDC.
All said and done, the UDC must be honest with themselves particularly by recognizing that the coalition is shaky and on life support machine. Thus, constituent members must be worried by these developments and a sense of self-preservation ought to caution them to consider it prudent to quit in order that they find themselves and recalibrate.
Member parties may have to go it alone for a while to find themselves, rebuild party structures and re-align their messages and programs to the need of a inclusive coalition founded on equity and equality. Voluntary departures would be save the UDC from violent disintegration that would make reconciliation and collaboration close to impossible.