Friday, June 21, 2024

Butale TKOs Khama, addresses ‘victory’ rally in Serowe

The Botswana Patriotic Front president, Reverend Biggie Butale, appears to have outsmarted former president Ian Khama and his younger brother, Tshekedi Khama. The elder Khama is BPF’s founder, patron and chief financier while Tshekedi is the party’s secretary general.

Not only has Butale gained full control of the BPF, he has, at least for now, either thwarted or stalled plans to form a breakaway party that was to be launched this weekend in Selebi Phikwe. So emboldened is Butale that at press time on Friday, he was scheduled to address a political rally in Khama’s backyard – Serowe.

For a while, Khama appeared to have the upper hand as preparations to form a breakaway party went ahead. There is understanding that Khama, who is the Bangwato paramount chief, embodies BPF. He formed the party to execute a personal revenge scheme against President Mokgweetsi Masisi, the membership comprises of his tribal subjects and he is the party’s chief financier. It was thus widely expected that if he joined the new party, almost everybody else would follow him. That is not happening with one very important group of party members – elected officials.

On May 9, 2023, Butale notified party structures through a letter that those who wanted to contest in the primary elections ahead of the 2024 general election should express their interest in writing and pay an application fee – P1000 for a parliamentary seat and P500 for a council seat. The deadline was May 30, 2023 at close of business. All three BPF MPs (Leepetswe Lesedi, Mephato Reatile and Baratiwa Mathoothe) and 25 of 27 councillors had submitted their expression-of-interest letters before the deadline.

Khama is said to have been “shocked” at this particular development because his expectation was that the MPs and councillors would follow him to the new party. While these elected officials would not have resigned from BPF because they would have lost their seats as a result, their presence at the Selebi Phikwe launch would have been the biggest morale booster for the new party. Taking stock of the situation, Khama’s faction (which calls itself “Concerned Group”) put plans for the new party on hold and has opened talks with Butale’s faction. On Thursday, BPF Vice President Hon Mephato Reatile led a delegation of National Executive Committee (NEC) members and MPs to a meeting with Khama in South Africa.

“This is yet another attempt by the Concerned Group to give NEC an opportunity to find a lasting solution to the party challenges. The meeting is held at this time to pave fruitful discussions for the NEC meeting to be held on Monday 5th June 2023. Given these developments, the Selibe Phikwe meeting of the concerned BPF members is put on hold. Members will be informed of the way forward following the outcome of the NEC meeting,” reads a statement that Khama’s faction put out ahead of the Thursday meeting.

The main purpose of the meeting was to dissuade the Khama brothers from peeling away to form a new party and the reasoning is that such development would not be in the interest of either party. As their overwhelming response to the expression of interest shows, MPs and councillors themselves are against forming a new party because they believe that BPF is a better electoral bet. One major outcome from the South African meeting is that, in line with the wishes of most of his subjects-party members, Khama agreed to not contest for the party presidency.

Not everybody may be onboard with the new party but there is also realisation that Khama remains a huge factor in BPF’s fortunes. While he may not have been able to persuade MPs and councillors to follow him to the new party, he can still hive off a substantial enough number of party members to render BPF electorally impotent. On that basis, Butale’s faction itself realises that it can’t do without Khama. The latter explains why Butale rescinded the suspension of Tshekedi – who participated in the Thursday meeting as BPF Secretary General.

The Thursday meeting comes after President Masisi announced the date (July 8) for the upcoming Serowe West by-election which has been necessitated by Tshekedi’s disqualification as MP. Having lived in South Africa (and thus having absented himself from parliament) for a year, Tshekedi ran afoul of parliamentary rules. Resultantly, Parliament Speaker, Phandu Skelemani, declared the Serowe West seat vacant. For as long as it remains a unified political force and notwithstanding its factional rivalry, it is in BPF’s interest to recapture the Serowe West seat. Resultantly, both factions are invested in ensuring that the Botswana Democratic Party doesn’t reclaim the seat it lost in 2019 – then again that was because Tshekedi was still a member of the BDP.

Amid the factional push-and-pull, Butale has felt confident enough to literally venture into territory where Khama enjoys his greatest support. At press time of Friday, he addressed a constituency meeting in Serowe West and was scheduled to address a political rally the following day. Serowe is where Khama is revered not just as the son of the founding president, Sir Seretse Khama and as former army commander but also as paramount chief. For that reason, going to Serowe could be a risky gamble. 

While Butale may have the upper hand for now, in no way is he home free. Khama’s faction is said to be quietly recruiting Butale’s supporters in the NEC with a view to building adequate numerical strength to oust Butale as president. If this operation succeeds, Butale, who was suspended in 2021 for alleged dalliance with a female university student, could once more find himself out in the cold.

The other complication comes in the form of the Umbrella for Democratic Change souring on the BPF. As everybody else, UDC understands that BPF is Khama and if Khama peels away, then the party would go into a coma, if not keel over and die. At its special congress last month, BPF resolved to formally join UDC as a member but for now, the latter is stiff-arming BPF because there is no certainty of where Khama stands.

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