Tuesday, September 22, 2020

General in the line of fire

In Botswana Democratic Party (BDP) circles he is just known as General.

Vice President Lt Gen Mompati Merafhe’s name is not exactly synonymous with BDP peace and unity, but he was loyal to the president and liked by the A-team faction of the BDP.

Last week, about two months after the rival Barata-Phathi faction of the BDP broke away to form the Botswana Movement for Democracy (BMD), the General seemed to be running out of friends and lieutenants.

With the BDP split raising any number of ticklish questions, the blame game has began and much of the criticism is being deflected away from the president to his second in command.

This has opened a duel for the Vice Presidency, with most A-team members backing Merafhe and some A-team members teaming up with Barata Phathi members who are rooting for Minister Ponatshego Kedikilwe.

In his bid for the BDP chairmanship against Kedikilwe in 2003, Khama had enjoyed the active backing of the A-Team faction spawned by Merafhe, who had failed in numerous attempts to wrest control of the party from the grip of the Kedikilwe-Kwelagobe alliance.

When he announced his bid for the chair, Khama was the only man strong enough to defeat the alliance. The entry of Khama into the race also split the once formidable alliance as some followers, attracted by his heritage, bolted from the camp and took up the cudgels on his behalf.
The Gantsi Congress not only moved Khama a step towards complete control of the party, but also resulted in his backers sailing into Central Committee positions on his coattails. After years in the wilderness, Merafhe and his group were finally in the pound seats.

It is argued that knowing that his imminent rise to the presidency had already triggered jostling for the post of deputy, Khama had devised a plan to keep the lid on any acrimony that could arise. The two serious contenders were Kwelagobe and Merafhe. Knowing their history of rivalry, a delicate balancing act was required. Kwelagobe was made party chairman while Merafhe was appointed Vice president. Both men enjoyed a position of status though Kwelagobe’s was without the material benefits and pomp that went with the vice presidency. Imperfect as it were, the balancing act by Khama had gone some way to appease the long term rivals and their backers.

It is understood that Khama had been looking for a way to extricate himself and the party from the Merafhe and Kwelagobe rivalry. In his view, the two men had always taken centre-stage during the mid-term of the Masire era and for the entire duration of Mogae’s presidency. Khama was not prepared for the same. Those close to the inner circle allege that Merafhe was to serve as VP for only one term and Kwelagobe was to be pushed out of the party inner circle around the same time if not earlier.

This, however, only pushed Kwelagobe into the embrace of vanquished followers of the cause represented by Kedikilwe, who later resurfaced as Barata-Phathi faction. Merafhe on the other hand continued fighting in the same corner with the president. A good number of Barata-Phathi members have since thrown out their red Vote BDP T-shirts for the orange “BMD rocks” T-shirts.

With more BDP members bolting to join the breakaway BMD, President Lt Gen Ian Khama is expected to start work on reinforcing the creaking stable door. Merafhe’s future has become a knotty problem that is likely to test Khama’s political skills.

Although he had initially indicated that Merafhe would serve only one term, indications are that with the BDP in crisis, Khama is reluctant to rock the boat by dropping Merafhe. Most of Khama’s confidantes, however, are lobbying that Lt. Gen. Mompati Merafhe should be made the fall guy and Kedikilwe brought in as Vice President. They hope that this would appease Barata-Phathi members and dissuade them from defecting to BMD.

Merafhe on the other hand is understood to be hedging his bets. The Vice President is understood to be canvassing for the chairmanship of the BDP at the next party congress. With most Barata- Phathi members making a beeline for the BMD, A-Team candidates are expected to be a shoo-in for central committee positions.

Once party chairman and Vice president, it is unlikely that Khama can pluck enough courage to drop Merafhe.

RELATED STORIES

Read this week's paper

The Telegraph September 23

Digital edition of The Telegraph, September 23, 2020.