Thursday, February 25, 2021

Has the ‘Lepako Magic’ really worked wonders for the BDP?

The campaigns for the just ended elections by various political parties were full of drama as has become a tradition in this country.

For instance, on some occasions the Botswana Democratic Party (BDP) numero-uno and the country’s president, Lt General Ian Khama Seretse, who is also King Khama IV of the Bangwato, branded himself ‘Lepako’. Perhaps we should remember that the title Kgosi Khama IV was bestowed upon him in 1979 by his father and president of the republic Sir Seretse Khama. The ceremony took place at the Bangwato’s main kgotla in Serowe where Ian Khama was wearing his military army attire. By then he was in his mid twenties, and it is often said that he was the youngest brigadier in the world. The Bangwato as is well known are the most dominant and critical aspect of Botswana politics but most importantly in the BDP.

The government owned Kutlwano magazine of this period has a photo of Ian Khama clad in military tunic and bringing firewood to the kgotla. Though this sounds fairly insignificant it is however a highly symbolic activity in the Setswana culture. The term ‘lepako’ in Setswana literally means a strong and tough un-breakable log. It is used at the kgotla for fire which is more or less permanently on as a symbol of life in the village. This is also very symbolic in terms of political authority in a traditional society.

The target the BDP had set for itself in the elections was to win 70% share of the popular vote which had been declining badly over the decades. For instance, during the 2004 elections the party obtained a paltry 52% of the popular vote. Although the 70% was an over-ambitious target it was a helpful propaganda tool because with Ian Khama playing the role of the BDP’s ‘chief campaigner’ in the elections it became clear that the party was realising impressive and enthusiastic following at freedom squares. All that the party needed to do was to parade King Khama IV at its political rallies and allow his majesty to carry out his usual ‘celebrity walks’ around the different wards and villages, causing our poor grannies to ululate and dance endlessly with the young and old climbing tall trees to have a glimpse of their celebrity politician. He became an ‘Obamanyana’ of some sort. His majesty’s visits usually ended up with night fire vigils held with the village elders in order to cement his total onslaught. Even then, the party did poorly given the fact that it could only register 53.7% of the popular vote. Furthermore, the numbers show that had the opposition Botswana National Front (BNF) and the Botswana Congress Party (BCP) joined hands in a number of constituencies the BDP’s victory margin could have been significantly reduced even with the ‘lepako magic’ flaunted around.

BDP chief election strategists had noticed without doubt that President Khama had taken to trading on his celebrity status using his built-in-name recognition in society as paramount chief of the Bangwato, the most populous ethnic group in the country to assert influence both in the party and society. The timing was right and they needed to put to test the ‘Khama magic’. It therefore, did come as a surprise for them to set up an ambitious milestone target of 70%.

However the target was not to be as the party managed to get only 53.7% which was way too short of its 70% projection. Thus representing 1.73% of the additional seats that the party netted in the 16 October election. By winning 45 of the 57 elected seats in Parliament, the BDP has achieved very little when one considers that it went into election race with 44 seats. With this marginal improvement, I doubt if at all the ‘lepako magic’ could have even done wonders with a conservative target of 60%. Despite this stagnation BDP enjoyed excess use of government resources to help drive its election campaigns, including the use of state run media, government bureaucratic machinery and the use of state helicopters by President Khama and his vice President General Mompati Merafhe. This was a massive advantage which the BDP’s competitors or opposition parties are vehemently denied access to or is given little and token access with very little impact on the voters.

Although the honeymoon period has just begun and there is too much hype and excitement about the BDP election victory which was concluded by a grand finale truck dancing in Old Naledi, BDP chief election strategists have a mammoth task going forward. The ‘lepako brand’ has failed to perform the magic. BDP is in a state of stagnation. The figures are testifying. Its popular vote is nothing to write home about, especially by a party that has ruled Botswana for an un-interrupted 43 years. Naturally, a party in power for so long loses appeal with the voter, the problem is that in Botswana the alternatives, which are the opposition parties, are fragmented and compete against one another.

By contrast a friend of mine, who is a management student by training and now a successful advertising businessman, maintains that the ‘lepako magic’ has performed wonders for BDP and that indeed President Khama is a brand that sells. He says the BDP has managed to claim four out of five constituencies in Gaborone, swept Francistown, won Letlhakeng East and West, to name but a few.

The fact of the matter is that the latest elections centred more on the differences with the parties with the BNF experiencing several expulsions and fielding candidates just a few weeks before the election date. As elections approached the High Court was working overtime, inundated with litigations concerning internal party disputes, especially candidates contesting results of party primary elections.

This development in the end cost the BNF dearly since it got away with six parliamentary seats to last elections twelve. The sinking of the BNF helped keep the BDP afloat by giving away constituencies that have eluded them for so many years on a silver platter.

Otsweletse Moupo, the embattled BNF President and now former leader of the opposition in Parliament, made sure that the BNF performed dismally in a deliberate bid to ensure that he does not go down alone. It all started with ‘Comrade’ Moupo’s London debacle and since then the BNF has never been at peace with itself. It is interesting to note that despite the BNF having undergone baptism of fire in the elections, Moupo refuses to take responsibility and resign from the presidency of the party. The divine intervention of the Nigerian prophet Joshua did not help the Comrade either.

Instead things got worse which reminds me of the Clint Eastwood movie ‘the Good, the Bad and the Ugly’. The Moupo-led BNF misery led to Khama showcasing his hitherto unknown dancing skills in Old Naledi. So excited was Khama that he introduced his fifth D on the spot. According to the crowd the BDP victory was not a result of Khama’s ‘lepako magic’ but Moupo’s calculations or miscalculations. The placards held high by some in the crowd read ‘Thank you Moupo’.

In his joyous celebration mood President Khama stated that the fifth D stands for delivery. He summed it up by saying ‘I am going to ensure that your leadership deliver, ke tsile go ba kgorometsa jaanoong…ke tsile go ba kgorometsa go re ba baakanye (I am going to push the public service and the party leadership to serve you diligently)’

President Khama must without doubt be applauded for undertaking all these new initiatives. However, a trip down memory lane gives a completely different picture of Khama the born again.

This is the man who has held parliament in contempt, failing to regularly attend its sittings as well as abusing government property by flying BDF helicopters despite repeated calls from the public and Ombudsman not to do so. However, credit must be extended to the then labelled ‘reluctant president’ (Botswana Gazette 8 September 1999:2), former President Mogae for he did not have the Ds road map that would have ensured that he pushed Khama to deliver. Ironically he was also granted sabbatical leave.

Lastly it is worth noting that the Lepako magic failed to perform wonders to the electorates in Ngami, Kgalagadi North and South, and Selebi Phikwe West constituencies, despite the celebrity walks, handshakes and the hovering over people’s heads with a helicopter. A closer look at the election results shows that BDP is stagnant; BNF is sinking and BCP’s growing. There is however, still no alternative government as the BDP continues to exploit the first-past-the post system and the state resources to its advantage. However, cooperation between the BNF and BCP is likely to render Khama’s ‘lepako magic’ a ‘termite-ravaged lepako’ in the next general elections.

Seleke Thabo Lucas Wa ga Seleke is a lecturer of public policy in the Department of Political and Administrative Studies at the University of Botswana. He writes here in his personal capacity.


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