Tuesday, September 29, 2020

From “Vice President” to April fool

OUTSA MOKONE and SPENCER MOGAPI see De Beers’s invisible hand in the wheeling and dealing that turned David Magang from Vice President- in-waiting to an April fool laughing stock, splitting the opposition Botswana National Front and changing the course of Botswana’s politics forever.

Monday, March 30th, 1998. David Magang wakes up, looks in the mirror and probably sees Botswana’s next vice president looking back at him. History has marked him out as the country’s next probable No.2. For a year, as a freshman at a British college, he shared a bedroom with Festus Mogae, the man who would be sworn in as president of Botswana in two days. For six years they shared a classroom, starting at Moeng College all the way to Form Six in England.

Even the numbers are humming along: All Botswana National Front (BNF) 13 members of parliament have joined ranks with 23 members of the Botswana Democratic Party (BDP) Big Five faction making him a clear favorite for the Vice Presidency.
A few hours later, Botswana Defence Force commander, Lt Gen Ian Khama, resigned from the army and announced that he would be joining politics. In the next 24 hours, Magang’s best-laid plans began to unravel.

Tuesday March 31st, 1998. The scene: A small cluttered office in the parliament building next to the members lounge. The lead characters: Festus Mogae, Kenneth Koma, Michael Dingake and Otlaadisa Koosaletse. The conversation: Election of Botswana’s next Vice President.

Enter the realm of Mogae, Koma, Dingake and Koosaletse ÔÇô four personalities whose friendship – given their positions, as leader of the ruling party, leader of opposition and members of a rival opposition faction ÔÇô seemed unlikely. On this day it looks like the most natural thing in the world. Mogae has already cleared his desk at the Ministry of Finance and Development Planning and is preparing to take up his new post as President of Botswana the following day. For sometime, Mogae is like a man in an earthquake straddling a fissure.

On one side is Botswana Democratic Party Chairman, Ponatshego Kedikilwe. Although Kedikilwe does not have the numbers in parliament, he has harnessed the whole party structure ÔÇô Central Committee, party youth league and women’s wing ÔÇô to his side. Even newspaper headline writers predict that pushing Kedikilwe overboard could destabilize the party and possibly the country. On the other hand is Magang, Mogae’s friend of long standing who could be counted on to cover the new president’s back. The two men have a long social and political history. At some stage they were both associated with the Big Five faction. The only difference in their politics is their attitude towards De Beers and their position on the beneficiation of the Botswana diamond industry.

Although Magang does not have the party structure behind him, he has the votes in parliament to his credit. The situation is, however, complicated by a clutch of papers in Mogae’s “Pending” tray: A consultancy report by Professor Lawrence Schlemmer, commissioned and paid for by De Beers. The report recommended that to heal the BDP rift and shore up the party’s fortunes in the next elections, Mogae would have to appoint someone with a strong character who has not been tainted by the BDP factionalism from outside the party structures. Besides, De Beers has a problem with Magang who has been fighting long and shrill pitched battles with the diamond mining giant over diamond beneficiation. There is also talk of a clutch of nocturnal meetings between Mogae, Debswana Managing Director Louis Nchindo and Botswana Defence Force commander, Lt Gen Ian Khama, at Nchindo’s place in the suburbs of Gaborone Central. For many years, Nchindo has been De Beers’ point man in Botswana with a safe pair of hands they had come to trust.

Khama, however, had not registered on the Vice Presidency campaign radar screen. That was until the previous day when he resigned from the army and announced that he would be going into politics.

It’s a period the then Chairperson of the BNF Parliamentary Caucus, Otlaadisa Koosaletse, remembers vividly to this day.
That morning, Mogae called him to a cluttered and cheerless office next to the members lounge in Parliament. Mogae was a worried man.

He could not count on his divided party to endorse his choice of Vice President and was thus lobbying the BNF parliamentary caucus for support. “Mogae told me not to listen to all the rumours swirling in the parliament corridors,” recalls Koosaletse. The president-in-waiting then asked Koosaletse to promise that the BNF parliamentary caucus would support his choice of Vice President. Koosaletse had no problem with the request. After all, he knew that Mogae’s choice was Magang. Koosaletse knew very well that Mogae and Magang had a long-standing personal friendship and he had no reason to suspect Mogae was about to betray his boyhood friend.

Next on Mogae’s lobby list was BNF Vice President Michael Dingake. As Dingake recalls, the president-in-waiting ranged through the lobby like a moving target. “He told me that ‘give every man thy ear but few thy voice’”. Dingake did not know what to make of the wisecrack from the pages of William Shakespeare’s classic “Hamlet.” Dingake made no commitment, but like Koosaletse, was sure that Mogae’s first choice for Vice President was Magang.

After the meeting with Dingake, Mogae then called in Koma, the BNF President. In the best tradition of Botswana’s Vice Presidential campaigns, the next phase of Mogae’s lobby remains obscure. The BNF’s best-laid plans to make Magang Vice President went off the rails. Both Dingake and Koosaletse say they do not know exactly what transpired between Koma and Mogae in the small office next to the parliament lounge. Somewhere in the fog, perhaps there was a double cross. Certainly there was a change in plans, and a new name officially entered the contest for the Vice Presidency.

Recalls Koosaletse: “When Koma emerged from the meeting, he told us that Mogae had proposed Ian Khama’s name for the Vice Presidency. We were shocked and we looked at each other. That was not what we had agreed at the BNF. We asked Koma what he told Mogae. Maitshwarelo Dabutha was particularly hard on Koma, demanding to know what concessions Koma made and what he expected in return. Koma told us that he promised to support Mogae’s choice because Mogae promised to agree to our proposal for the funding of opposition parties in return.”

According to Koosaletse and Dingake, an altercation ensued and Koma ducked out by calling his guide, Tilman Pilane, to take him home so that he could take his medication. At the time, the BNF was going through its own entirely different crisis. Dingake and ten other BNF parliamentarians were in one faction while Koma and Kebadire Kalake were in the other faction. The impasse was never resolved but called on the BNF to support different personalities for the Vice Presidency, adding to the Front’s tension.

“Khama’s name came as a complete shock to us. So we called in the Attorney General, Phandu Skelemani, to explain if that was possible,” recalls Koosaletse. Skelemami was convinced Dingake and Koosaletse had gone off their rocker. He just looked at them and said, “Ian Khama! Vice President! Muno penga (Ian Khama! Vice President! You guys are crazy.),” replied the flambuoyant government chief lawyer in Kalanga. Skelemani clearly did not take the BNF fears that Khama could become Vice President seriously.

About the same time, Magang got wind of the change in plans. But still he kept his faith in Festus Mogae, with whom he had come afar and believed he would make it in the end.

Wednesday April 1st, 1998. Magang woke up, donned his suit in preparation for Mogae’s inauguration. This time, when he looked into the mirror he probably saw an April fool subject looking back at him.

Koosaletse remembers seeing Khama walking into the National assembly with a swagger, decked up in a check suit, sport jacked and black flannel pants and he thought to himself, “That’s it!” He probably felt like another April fool character.

An effervescent crowd of about 2000 Batswana thronged the National Assembly grounds for the inauguration of President Mogae. There were no chauffeur-driven black Mercedes Benz cars. Pensive parliamentarians, who had just been stripped of their cabinet posts, arrived in private cars.

There was no presidential escort for the outgoing president, Sir Ketumile Masire, no Mercedes Benz with coat of arms plates and no police salutes.
The late Lady Khama, former first lady, worked up the crowd to a thunderous applause with her super star style wave, before taking a seat on the red carpet. A few minutes later, the crowd broke into a cheer and ululations when Lt Gen Khama decked out and in check sport jacket disembarked from his private car.

“ I looked at Makgekgenene and other MPs who were seated next to me, because I could not believe that this was happening,” the Botswana Gazette quoted one MP who was moved by the rousing welcome Ian Khama and his mother received.
When the crowd dispersed, it was time for Mogae to knuckle down to presidential business. The first thing he did was to move Magang from the Ministry of Mineral Resources and Water Affairs, where his relationship with De Beers had hit an all time low. Magang had been trying to sell diamond beneficiation to cabinet, but there were no buyers. “I became the butt of cabinet jokes when discussions turned to diamonds. Mogae used to laugh saying that, at least, I had been consistent for years in my beneficiation campaign,” remembers Magang.

Magang was almost broken. One day, in a fit of frustration, he walked into De Beers’s offices in Johannesburg and started railing about how De Beers had deliberately designed to keep Batswana ignorant about the diamond industry.

Besides the appointment of Khama as Minister of Presidential Affairs, the only change Mogae made to Masire’s cabinet was the moving of Magang to the Ministry of Local Government Lands and Housing and redeploying the then Minister of Lands, Margaret Nasha, to the Ministry of Mineral resources.

Nasha, a close friend of Debswana longtime chief, Louis Nchindo, immediately joined the De Beers parrot cry that beneficiation would not work in Botswana.

Magang says he saw it all coming. He, however, would not discuss details because they make the meat of his memoirs, due to be published early next year.

But still he is prepared to shed glimpses. “There was a time in the run up to his inauguration when Mogae was avoiding us.” Magang knew something was cooking.

“I later heard of the midnight meetings.”
Then there was the backstabbing inside his camp. Almost everyone wanted to be Vice President. The issue was like a big elephant in the living room that no one wanted to talk about. Magang recalls one incident when the issue of Vice President came up during one of their meetings and was quickly brushed aside. Even outspoken personalities like Mompati Merafhe would not entertain the subject.
Thursday April 2. President Festus Mogae convened the Botswana Democratic Party parliamentary caucus. All party members have now accepted Khama as the Vice President-elect. “I was the only one who raised an objection,” remembers Magang.

Every one had spoken in self-praise at how they had recruited Khama out of the army and into the BDP.

Even Ponatshego Kedikilwe, who had entertained hopes of being Mogae’s Vice President, spoke highly of Khama.

After his speech, where he accepted the party’s nomination of Khama as Vice President with a big “but”, Magang went straight home and jotted down what he had told the caucus in his diary “for posterity.”

Friday April 3. Khama’s name is presented to parliament. All MPs, except 11 of 13 Botswana National Front parliamentarians, voted for Khama. The mystery over the two BNF parliamentarians who voted with the BDP would haunt the party already badly torn apart.

Eight days later, the BNF split in Palapye with chairs flying into the walls, tomahawks drawn and blood flowing. The Palapye Hospital was turned into a war casualty ward. An ambulance and a number of private cars shuttled between Palapye Community Hall and the hospital to ferry casualties as two BNF warring factions fought pitched battles.

In the meantime, De Beers through their resident man, Louis Nchindo, and the use of Professor Lawrence Schlemmer of the University of Natal had won the day.

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Digital edition of The Telegraph, September 30, 2020.