Sunday, October 17, 2021

Fako as UB boss is political patronage gone horribly wrong

When candidates were interviewed for the position of University of Botswana Vice Chancellor in 2010, Dr. Brian Mokopakgosi emerged as the front-runner. That detail was soon leaked to the press and became public information. However, when the official announcement was made a few days later, someone who had not even featured among the top three candidates, ascended the most senior position at the government’s premier and oldest tertiary education institution. How did that happen?

The answer lies not in what happened in the UB but Botswana Democratic Party (BDP) boardroom. A year earlier, the BDP had gone through a historically turbulent time as some members (including MPs) broke away to form the Botswana Movement for Democracy (BMD). Having ditched the BDP red, members of the new party adopted orange as their official colour. The coming into being of the BMD caused so much panic among BDP leaders that around that time, one female minister is said to have berated staff for decorating the high table at a high-profile event with orange flowers, accusing them of showing support for the party.

Amid this time of great uncertainty, BDP cobbled together a team of experts to craft a strategy to rebuild the party. It so happened that one of the most important members of this team was Professor Thabo Fako from UB. Very good sources say that the UB vice chancellorship was reward for Fako’s role in crafting this strategy. While the UB Council plays a crucial role in the selection process, the Minister of Education and Skills Development (as the position was then designated) has the final say in who becomes Vice Chancellor. At the time of this intrigue, the minister was Pelonomi Venson-Moitoi and against all reasonable expectations, took the fateful decision of making Fako UB Vice Chancellor. Naturally, she had to run this decision past her cabinet colleagues, notably President Ian Khama. Six years later however, the powers-that-be are said to collectively recognize that making Fako Vice Chancellor was not a stroke of genius. Ministry sources say that Venson-Moitoi herself came to that realization six months into Fako’s first term. Relations between minister and Vice Chancellor became strained but the latter found her hands tied: she was the one who had given him a vote of confidence and it would have been awkward for her to fire him because she didn’t have confidence in him as an academic leader. 

Whether she was motivated by guilt or by need to appease the man who should have been appointed Vice Chancellor in the first place, sources cannot say for sure but Venson-Moitoi decided to appoint Mokopakgosi as the Chief Executive Officer of the Botswana Examinations Council. In 2014, Fako ceased to be Venson-Moitoi’s problem when she was mysteriously dropped from cabinet and made coordinator of a programme within the ministry. While she was appointed Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation following the general election in that same year, Venson-Moitoi still bears primary responsibility for making Fako UB Vice Chancellor. Specially-elected MP, Unity Dow, was made Minister of Education. As Vice Chancellor, Fako has made and continues to make controversial decisions, notably dismantling what his immediate predecessor put in place.

Coming into office, Fako suspended UB’s Review of Academic Structure (ROAS) which had been put in place by his predecessor, Professor Bojosi Othogile. During the planning stage for the School of Medicine (SoM), the one aspect that was consistently identified as high-risk was the resignation of SoM staff. For that reason, retention of staff was viewed as a substantial priority for the school and guarded against through very generous pay. When ROAS was suspended, some disgruntled SoM staff ÔÇô including the founding dean, quit. Dr. Sheldon Weeks, an American educationist who worked at UB for more than two decades, described how bad the suspension of ROAS was when he wrote in a tertiary education publication called University World News. For the record, he got the detail about who appoints the Vice Chancellor wrong ÔÇô it is the minister in consultation with cabinet and not the president

“He [Fako] was appointed in 2011, not as the university council’s original choice but as the preferred candidate of the country’s president, who has the final say on who becomes vice-chancellor. During his current term, he has reversed many of the changes made in the university by his two predecessors, beginning in 1998. Most dramatic was a decision that no other member of staff employed by the university could earn more than the vice-chancellor. The consequence was that many foreign staff from Europe and North America, earning significantly more than the vice-chancellor, resigned,” wrote Weeks whose LinkedIn page says he is “now settled in the south east corner of the Green Mountain State in Vermont.” 

In what could be the ultimate irony ÔÇô the name of Fako’s immediate predecessor, Professor Othogile, has been mentioned for caretaker VC in the event Fako is suspended. The term Weeks is referring to is Fako’s first and how he got a second term is as controversial. In terms of UB regulations, office holders who want their contracts extended must so indicate six months before such contracts expire. Fako didn’t do so and it was expected that he would step down when his term expired last year. Minister Dow had herself publicly stated that Fako had indicated that he wouldn’t exercise his option to renew his contract. However, circumstances conspired to bring Fako back, much to the consternation of some staff members who had been anxiously looking forward to regime change. 

However, there was a complication. If Fako stepped down, a group of people completely new to executive management would have taken over. When UB re-opened last January this year, Professor Martin Mokgwathi replaced Professor Lydia Nyati-Saleshando as Deputy Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs. Already, Mendel Nlanda had been appointed Deputy Vice Chancellor of Finance and Administration, replacing Dawid Katzke who had taken up the same post at the Botswana International University of Science and Technology (BIUST). After serving for 10 years, the contracts of both Nyati-Saleshando and Katzke could not be renewed in line with UB regulations. While he was still in post, the Deputy Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs, Professor Otlogetswe Totolo, was said to have been shortlisted for the post of BIUST Vice Chancellor and was the favourite.  

With Totolo at BIUST, Fako out as VC, the new executive management would have been made up of entirely new faces, a situation that the ministry viewed as being far from ideal. This prompted the decision to renew Fako’s contract.

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