Thursday, May 23, 2024

For now, Chitube was eyeing Boko’s seat

The Zambian master spy who infiltrated the Botswana Democratic Party had grand ambitions that soared much higher than the position of chairperson of the BDP Youth League, writes BASHI LETSIDIDI
The call from Tsholetsa House, the Botswana Democratic Party headquarters in Gaborone, alerted John Mokandla to another call that he would get later that day from a certain Jerry Chitube.
Three months after the fact, Mokandla reprises the lady caller’s words as: “Please give him all the assistance he requires.”
During the course of this conversation, he learnt that earlier that day, Chitube had called at Tsholetsa House and asked two female staffers there to recommend a party member who could galvanise his bid for the chairmanship of the party’s youth wing. Having worked at Tsholetsa House himself for 15 years and having served a full term as a Gaborone City Council councillor, Mokandla is suitably anchored in the party and has a network of associates across the country. Naturally, his name was at the top of the list. Mokandla’s immediate impression was that Chitube’s candidacy was a bad idea all the way round because it simply can’t be the case that an unknown political greenhorn comes out of nowhere and runs for a top position within the party. He also felt that there was remarkably little that could be done to give Chitube a fighting chance because a perilous deadline was looming with a tiny window of opportunity as the only saving grace. Nonetheless, he was willing to hear him out.
From the name of the man who wanted to see him, Mokandla would probably have been expecting the man’s Setswana to be accented. That is because he makes the point that a little later, he did indeed receive a call from someone who speaks fluent, unaccented Setswana. The caller requested an urgent meeting and two men agreed to meet at Cappuccino, a high-end restaurant at the Airport Junction mall that is popular with the city’s deep-pocketed and cologned. The meeting was set for 10 in the morning but when Mokandla was already at the restaurant, Chitube called to say that he was running late and that while Mokandla waited he could order coffee on him. A little over two hours later, the man who so desperately wanted to see Mokandla had still not showed up and in his second call told the latter to “order anything you want.” This was problematic: Mokandla already had an outstanding bill for coffee and buns and was being asked to run up that tab by someone he didn’t even know and was not sure would show up for the meeting. It so happened that when he relayed this concern to his waitress and happened to mention the name of the person he was waiting for, the waitress’ eyes lit up with recognition and she told him: “If it’s Chitube you can indeed order anything you want and leave without paying if he doesn’t show up. We know him very well; he is a regular customer.”
The regular customer showed up during lunchtime and past the apology for the late-coming and during the ice-breaking phase, told Mokandla that his face looked familiar. It would have been because in addition to his BDP activism, Mokandla is a part-time actor who has appeared in a number of Btv dramas and corporate adverts. He can currently be seen on Botshelo Jo which airs on Wednesday evenings.
Mokandla’s first impression of Chitube was that he was an unassuming man who packed all his humanness into his demeanour and tone of his voice.
“I found him to be an unfailingly respectful and dignified man. His tone of voice conveyed his deep respect for people. To me he came across as a sweet konyana,” Mokandla says, using a Tswanglish colloquialism that describes the mild-mannered cool, calm and collected.
The two men then proceeded to the main agenda item. Chitube told Mokandla that he was a long-time member of the BDP and was now running for the chairmanship of the party youth wing. Members don’t just come out of the blue and seek elective office. Naturally, Mokandla asked Chitube where he had been all along. In response, the would-be candidate said that he had been too busy running his business ventures. When Mokandla remarked that the cost of the campaign would be astronomical, Chitube is supposed to have quipped casually, self-assuredly: “Don’t worry about money.”
He went on to reveal that he had a network of international associates, one of whom was a Dubai-based fashion designer of international renown. It was these associates, the latter said, who were sponsoring his electoral campaign. With his experience of politics and knowledge of the BDP, Mokandla didn’t think that the unknown and untested Chitube had a snowball’s chance in hell of winning and he communicated that in unambiguous terms. He suggested that he run for an ordinary member position but Chitube’s answer was simple and definitive enough: “No, I want to run for chairman.”
When the conversation turned to the campaign itself, Mokandla says that he told Chitube that with only two weeks left before the national elective congress, it was way too late in the day. In response, Chitube said that wouldn’t be a problem because he had mobilised support in constituencies like Mabutsane and Kgalagadi.
“But how do we convince the youth that you are the right candidate?” Mokandla asked.
“I have several youth projects lined up,” Chitube replied, then went on to enumerate some.
He was planning to buy a herd of 500 goats to donate to BDP youth and the destitute he would acquire some prohibitively expensive wonder machine that would be used in a horticultural project and had already ordered four tractors from South Africa. From Mokandla’s description, the machine in question supposedly enables vertical planting of crops on a riveted structure and would at once mitigate Botswana’s land and water shortage problems while guaranteeing a bountiful harvest.
“He said that he had spoken to De Graaf about this technology, with a view to getting the government to invest in it,” says Mokandla, referring to the then Minister of Agriculture, Christian De Graaf whose name (as that of the Southern District Council chairman, Reggie Reatile) keeps cropping up in Chitube’s colourful story.
Kgalagadi, a very dry district where Chitube seems to have made serious inroads, was to benefit immensely from this technology. Additionally, in the not-too-distant future, Chitube’s international business associates were to conduct an entrepreneurship seminar that targeted the youth. The assistance he sought from Mokandla was for him to mobilise support at grassroots level. For the upcoming congress, Chitube said he had made arrangements for seven buses and four Sprinter minibuses from South Africa to ferry his supporters to and from Masunga where the congress was to be held. After the congress, the buses would not go back to South Africa but would be donated to Gaborone, Kgalagadi and Gantsi constituencies. When Mokandla raised concern about the cost element, Chitube circled back to his earlier statement about money being no object.
Indeed money didn’t seem to be an object. The strategy meetings alternated between Cappuccino and Rhapsody, another exclusive restaurant in Airport Junction that is just a hop and a skip from the former. Three days before the congress, Mokandla says that attended by a special waiter, Chitube and his team burnt the midnight oil at Phakalane Golf Estate Hotel Resort, an even classier hospitality establishment in the country’s premier stockbroker belt. The purpose of this meeting was to draw up a budget for petrol, food, cellphone airtime and a cow that was to be slaughtered in Masunga. The result of this exercise was an astronomical sum that Mokandla would not disclose.
This was the high point of the campaign because thereafter everything started going downhill at breakneck speed. Accompanied by a youth wing member from the Gaborone Bonnington North constituency, Chitube went to the Tlokweng border post where the buses from South Africa were scheduled to arrive that day. The buses never came because some customs formalities had not been taken care of. Plan B was to hire two local buses that transported delegates from Kgalagadi and the Gaborone Bonnington North delegates ended up sharing a bus with Gaborone Central’s. Mokandla himself had to use his own car, refuelling it from his own pocket with Chitube (who bummed a ride with a party member) promising to reimburse him later. That never happened.
When the two men met up again in Masunga, Chitube told Mokandla that he had sent someone to Francistown to withdraw money from the bank. Unknown to both, it was the last conversation they would have. Much later, Mokandla himself drove to Francistown to run a personal errand and upon his return, learnt from other delegates that Chitube had been picked up by agents of the Directorate on Intelligence Services (DIS) “about 15 or 20 minutes ago.” When he enquired as to the reason, the answer was that Chitube had lied about who he was and his nationality. He is alleged to have had two national identity cards, both forged. He is also alleged to have been knee-deep in a diamond smuggling operation.
It turns out that Chitube had set his sights even higher than chairperson of the BDP youth wing. Mokandla reveals that he planned to run for the Gaborone Bonnington North parliamentary seat in 2019. The current MP for the constituency is Botswana National Front and Umbrella for Democratic Change president, Duma Boko. As Mokandla, puts it, for Chitube, “the sky was the limit.” In the context of electoral politics, the presidency is the sky and disquieting though it is to even think about it, a Chitube presidency was a real possibility. Numerically, youth have been become the most important voter constituency in Botswana and a youth leader with Machiavellian cunning, eloquence, international connections, a heart of gold, silver, diamonds, goat farm, fleet of campaign buses and a magical youth empowerment formula, the sky of electoral office would indeed be the limit.


Read this week's paper