Saturday, February 27, 2021

BPF meets in Gaborone to curb creeping factionalism

Just one year after it was formed, the Botswana Patriotic Front can also finally boast about being a fully-fledged Botswana political party – it has its own factions. The headline from a November 2 Central Committee meeting was that this factionalism is so vicious and so well-pronounced that party patron and founder, General Ian Khama, had to order a ceasefire. Taking stock of the situation, Khama, who founded the BPF last year after resigning from the Botswana Democratic Party, caused immediate arrangements to be made for a retreat that took place yesterday (Saturday) at Sanitas Restaurant in Gaborone.

 The tale of the tape pits two Central Committee members against each other: party president, Reverend Biggie Butale and the secretary general, Roseline Panzirah-Matshome. It is unclear what happened down the road but the two are said to have started off very well as office holders. When they started fighting, party members began aligning themselves with either side – then BPF’s factionalism was born. As a direct result of this factionalism, the Central Committee can’t agree on issues that are as basic as office accommodation for the party secretariat.

Following its formation in May last year, BPF opened a national office on the top floor of a multi-storeyed building in African Mall, Gaborone. However, the rent (P15 000 a month) was adjudged to be a bit too steep for a new party. One other concern that party members visiting the office had expressed was that with a perpetually defective lift, reaching the third floor and going down was too heavy on the knees because all too often they had to use the stairs. What at first looked like a viable solution to both these problems came in the form of what a party source describes as “a nice house” in Bontleng that would have served very well as a replacement.

The problem with the nice house though was that it belonged to Butale’s wife and some in the Panzirah-Matshome camp objected to the party office moving there. They raised a conflict-of-interest issue (which seemed genuine) but the motivation for their objection was naturally deeper than that. Ultimately, high rent forced BPF secretariat to move out of African Mall, the party has not had proper office accommodation since and office staff now work from home. Naturally, this factionalism has brought administrative dysfunction to a party that has been in existence for a little over a year. In order to prevent fraud and as a matter of established practice, Botswana’s political parties print membership cards in-house. A source, who estimates membership to be around 300 000 and counting, laments the fact that the party still doesn’t have a machine that prints these cards.

Across the board, membership cards are a coveted item of political belonging and at a Serowe meeting where Khama announced plans to leave BDP and form a new party, some members ceremonially discarded their BDP membership cards to indicate that they had cut ties with the party. One too many BPF members, especially those in Serowe where the party has the greatest numerical strength, are said to be greatly displeased that BPF has yet to buy a machine and issue them these cards. The cards issue is the responsibility of the secretary general but in fairness to her, the Central Committee has not made any definite pronouncements on this issue. Central Committee meetings themselves miss a very important member. In limiting her interaction with her nemesis, Panzirah-Matshome has not been attending Central Committee meetings and so far has missed a total of six.

The problem that creates for everybody else is that as secretary general, she is supposed to take minutes and in her absence, there arises an issue of who should assume that role in her stead. One faction suggested a party office worker, the other disagreed, instead suggesting a party member who was not a member of the Central Committee. A source says that this was one of the issues that caused tempers to boil at the November 2 meeting. Upon witnessing this level of acrimony within a movement he hopes to use to bring down his own nemesis (President Mokgweetsi Masisi), Khama initiated a process to set relations back to their factory settings: a retreat at Sanitas, which is located on the outskirts of Gaborone.

It can’t be too difficult to discern why Khama would be anxious about BPF experiencing factional rivalry that might cripple it. Long unwelcome in a coalition project that has so far brought together three political parties (Botswana National Front, Botswana Congress Party and Botswana Peoples Party), BPF has only just established formal working relations with the Umbrella for Democratic Change. Alongside the Alliance for Progressives, BPF will contest upcoming bye-elections with UDC and through a memorandum of understanding, all three entities have pledged to deepen this cooperation. Based on results of the 2024 general election, BPF is still a provincial party with its most electorally significant support limited to Serowe, the tribal headquarters of a cultural group (Bangwato) that Khama is traditional leader of. A faction-riven provincial party would not be attractive to the UDC – which believes that BPF needs it more than it needs BPF.

The other equally important dynamic is that while it may not be apparent for now, the MoU signals a reconfiguration of UDC’s power structure. The star of UDC and BNF’s president, Duma Boko, is fast fading and some of his staunchest supporters don’t want to see BCP’s president, Dumelang Saleshando, replace him. AP’s Ndaba Gaolathe commands respect but with just one parliamentary seat, doesn’t have nearly enough political clout. BPP is a washed-out provincial party and its importance in the UDC project is only symbolic of opposition unity.

Khama is in a class all his own. With his political and royal pedigree as well as financial muscle, he could well emerge as the most powerful figure within the new opposition collective. UDC leaders will themselves help put him on that pedestal: one group will be of MPs that he propelled to victory in the 2019 general election (he literally gave them power) and the other will be of those (like Boko) who have publicly stated that Khama should be given a second chance and that the wrongs he committed during his BDP past should be forgiven. On the other side of the political divide will be Masisi whose re-election prospects have effectively been eliminated by COVID-19. To that you can add his own mis-steps.

If this is not over-reading the tea leaves and barring any deviation from the plan that the MoU lays out, Khama will emerge as the most powerful political figure ahead of the 2024 general election. For that reason, he needs to keep a vehicle that will carry him to that glorious moment (BPF) in good working order.

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