Saturday, July 13, 2024

In memory of Oom Ray, his hunting rifle, 3rd Schedule and  desperate measures on presidential nomination day!

Aspiring politicians have cottoned on what to do to rise to remunerative office. Generally the rules are unambiguous and even if not codified have become customized.  Firstly, you make yourself useful by securing a spot in one of the party structures and the more high profile the post the better. You then  knuckle down to  what  is  known as  working for the party  and this  manifests itself in  different ways. Some achieve prominence as  fire eaters at rallies. Others  acquit themselves as foot soldiers, plotters and strategists.

Then there is  a peculiar  category  that just hangs around doing nothing in particular. And one fine day that enigma called lady  luck walks uninvited into their lives to transform them forever.  But of our great offices of state, the speaker  of parliament still doesn’t have an established formula on how to get there.  It is an easy gig  which  involves  a bit of administrative work  but whose  main  functions are presiding over debates from a chair known as the  throne as well as spicing up the pomp and ceremony  of  state  functions. For this, honourable  speaker  is bedecked in flowing robes and a  horsehair wig  which  even  the court jesters  of England  who came up  with  the idea, have  long  discarded. Becoming speaker  can  be  an outcome of close proximity to  the powers that  be,  having a benevolent patron or  as a thank  you  gesture to  a national stalwart. But like all things political  it can  be a function of luck. Perhaps  the  individual  with the most agonizing  journey  to  the  speaker’s throne  was  the late  Ray Molomo. I  played  a  role  in the chain of  events that would determine  the fate of Oom Ray,  as he was  affectionately  known.  For some hours, I,  a  28  year old   upon whose shoulders had been  thrust the responsibility of running the  head office of the  ruling  party  held  Oom Ray’s   destiny  in my hands and  almost  blew it.  When the  party   prepares for general elections there is a whole checklist  of  things to  do  to ensure  it fields candidates  and  emerges with  the numbers to form government. This is  not the kind of stuff  one is taught  in   political   science class.  You learn  on the job  by immersion  from watching and listening to  old hands.

In honesty   besides my energetic  student  activism,  when  I  arrived at  BDP  head office  from varsity  I had no qualifications for the job. I was  clueless.  What I had in enthusiasm  could  not  compensate for  my inadequacies  for the task at hand.   Fortunately  in  such institutions  there are always  people  who have  been around forever  and know  the ins and outs of the  game. If you  behave and  show them sufficient deference they  will  reciprocate  with  goodwill  and teach you the ropes. In my case  we had a  lady  called Kagelelo Magapa, now deceased   who  knew everything there was to know about the organization. Mma Magapa  embodied the institution and  knew her  stuff. She took me under her wing  because I arrived some two  years ahead of the 1999  polls when the  processes   of  prepping the  party  was  already  underway.  Back then it was  not as challenging  as  now.  Our recurring problem was   communication  with  structures scattered in the hinterland. Something as  basic as   sending  notices or procedures to be   followed  for some activity  would  take time because  the  branch  secretary   to whom correspondence had to be  addressed  was at the cattle post. Even  if he were  in the village  he had no  phone. Or  no  postal  address.  But because he was considered a workhorse by  local activists  they would  still re-elect  him to the position irrespective.

Rudimentary as it was the machinery  functioned  and  delivered the needful. Once we dispensed with primary  elections,  then limited to  an electoral college  which in the biggest constituencies did not exceed 200 delegates and not the  thousands  of today, we got ready  for general elections.  Then  came  the call.  I was instructed  by   my boss, then Secretary General  DK Kwelagobe  to  contact  Oom Ray  and inform  him  of his deployment as coordinator for the  presidential  nomination exercise.  Up  to this day  I don’t  know if  there was a pre- arrangement  between the two men.  But  the  new coordinator  took to his  duties  with  gusto.  With him supervising and Mma Magapa and myself  dealing with the administrative work we set about  getting President  FG Mogae  to fulfil all  requirements  for what would  be his  first  general election, having  assumed  office  through automatic succession a  year  earlier when Quett Masire  retired.  Detached from the nitty gritty of party politics and more focused on  government  the president relied on Kwelagobe who in turn delegated  responsibilities  to his secretariat.  In terms of  the law governing  the presidential election there  is a fair amount of documents to which the   candidate must  append  their signature.

One  of them is Third Schedule notice which must stipulate the colour and symbol. So I spent half  the afternoon in the president’s office getting the different forms signed. Feeling important I  returned  to  secretariat  and  to this day I vividly remember   depositing Third Schedule notice, of which two were signed, one as backup  in  the top right hand drawer of my desk.  In a few weeks we were due to present  our candidate’s papers to  the returning officer who was Chief Justice Julian Nganunu.  Spending more time at the office Oom Ray went through  everything  with  a fine toothcomb. Once an academic  in  his  varied  past life,  he  made sure  every   document  was in compliance with  constitutional requirements. Kwelagobe would occasionally  drop in  to check  if things were in order.  With hindsight   he was clearly  in  communication   with Oom Ray out of my earshot.  But even  as  we  were preparing  for  nomination day  campaign  work  was in full swing and the secretary general   would often take Oom Ray  along to  some rallies with  me riding along. I started  picking  snippets that  there was more to  this pair than  just mere processing of the nomination. 

As a  young man driving hundreds of kilometres  on a regular  basis  with   much older  men, you  hear a lot  but   pretend  to be tone  deaf. They discuss  all kinds of  matters and reminisce  about  yarns of  yesteryear. A gregarious character and raconteur  of note belying  his six foot  plus  sturdy  frame, Oom Ray’s  amusing stories  were  something out of this world.  It was becoming  obvious to me that  the  unfolding plan was  for him  to be made speaker  after the  elections. On one trip  there was an evaluation of potential rivals. What emerged was that if a certain number of parliamentary candidates  won, Oom Ray would be sitting pretty.  This  was at  the height  of Kwelagobe’s  power  when he was the heartbeat of the party. Evidently he  was  reeling in the votes  for his pal. What I couldn’t quite  figure  out   was what did secretary general expect in return?  Was this a quid pro quo  or  just a case of him  playing enabler for  a suitable candidate?

The week leading up to the Saturday of nominations was dedicated  to the minutiae of housekeeping matters. To stand for president a nominee  also needs  the  endorsement  of one thousand registered  voters. But in BDP  it is easier said than done. Every activist wants to be among the privileged cohort. I concluded many  believed   the president  himself got  to see the list of his endorsers which in itself would be an honour.  And who knows  the big lion might show his appreciation someday and toss them  a rewarding position.  Unbeknown to many this is  purely  a job  for  the secretariat. So  what  we  would do  is send 150 forms to each constituency and  ask them  to hold  general meetings for endorsement  purposes. Invariably  it would be  the aspirants for office,  plotters, newly arrived defectors and  local grandees  whose  names  would   make up  the  bulk of the list. It never satisfied everyone and delegations would make their way to secretariat complaining  they   had been denied the  opportunity  to  nominate the president.  No worries for us.  We  would receive thousands of forms from the then 40 constituencies. But  for fairness   when  we sorted  out the 998  we  made  sure every  constituency  was  represented in the main  batch.

As noted only a  thousand affirmations were required  but  we reserved  two slots, of proposer and seconder  for the vice president and the secretary general. Politics is about  massaging egos and  making every voter feel  valued. So an illusion was created that all 6000 endorsers stood an equal chance  of making  the privileged 998. In the end it worked out nicely  for everyone. On the eve of  departure for Lobatse, Oom Ray  strode around the  office  barking out instructions. We  were  good to  go and as per his command and  the team travelling to High Court should   be at  office  by 8 am   for an early start. He emphasized  that as the ruling party  we had  to make sure to   file  first at  exactly 10 am   to show  our seriousness. So  on that  near fateful Saturday  morning we  reported  on time. For logistics It was resolved that the  main batch   will  be transported  in Oom Ray’s  vintage Range Rover. Another vehicle  would   follow  him and I would  carry  the  reserve batch  in my party  vehicle as number three in the convoy   with  yet another vehicle  behind me as escort. It was  like a mini combat  operation  and Oom Ray  scenting  the speakership,  was  marshalling everyone  like  a true field  commander. As  the convoy was about to depart he revealed a surprise  in the form of  a hunting rifle.  Concealed  in its protective zip  bag  he  said   the rifle  was for defensive reasons  in case some miscreants got up  to mischief  and   attempted to hijack   the  nomination forms.

Reputedly an accomplished  hunter Oom Ray  was certain   with his rifle  he  was ready  to take on  all comers should the  need arise. Even the  driving speed  to Lobatse was regulated  by our field marshall and  we arrived  at High Court in good time without  incident.   But I am certain Oom Ray  maintained a state of high vigilance all the  way,   ready  to reach out  for his high caliber  rifle which looked like it could fell a  buffalo.  Formalities  commenced on the dot as Chief Justice  and IEC staff got  down to the tedious work of  checking all  the paperwork and if  signatories  were  voters  in good standing. Throughout Oom Ray was in jovial mood, chatting to  other party representatives  and  even expressed surprise at seeing Themba Joina of the  briefcase outfit MELS.  The  whole thing was   conducted in an open  hall and  just  when   we were about done Chief Justice  asked for Third Schedule notice.  Despite our meticulous preparations, the form could not be found. In any case  it was supposed to be in my sole custody having not shown it to anyone  when  I returned from president’s office. Our team turned to me. I think my trembling like someone about to have a seizure was palpable to everyone.  This was developing onto a  constitutional debacle for  us. My mind then cleared up  and i  remembered  the form  was in my  desk drawer. 

Themba Joina  the butt  of jokes because  he was in attendance as presidential candidate  but without a hope in hell of raising  a thousand supporters, overheard our strained exchanges. It  was his turn for some fun. He quickly  informed  his more opposition counterparts  that  BDP  had failed to file all the required documents. Word soon spread  to people  waiting  outside. Though not as ubiquitous as  in later years, the cellphone had made its debut the year before and  everyone who owned the chunky device was on it, surrounded by curious and excitable  non- owners listening in. Word was out and  its every telling  generated  a buzz  within  opposition ranks. BDP  had  not submitted Third Schedule notice and that meant  it had no presidential  candidate.  It certainly looked like FG Mogae was out of the race  for state house because  I, the custodian  had made a hash of things.  To draw  attention away from  us, Oom Ray took charge  and  led the  team  to  a  corner where we went into a huddle,  brainstorming on what to do. I owned up that  it was my fault  for not bringing  the  form  along. We  had  some staff members  left behind  at secretariat. But although he didn’t work at secretariat the first person I  called was my  buddy  Odirile Motlhale  and in frantic tone  asked him to  go  to my office,  retrieve the  form and immediately get it  to Lobatse. It was just past lunchtime and  deadline  was still far off at 5  pm.  We waited anxiously  for Motlhale’s  call  and when it came it  heaped  heartbreak  on top of misery. The form and its backup were nowhere to be found.  In fact  he had  proceeded  to    get  staff members  to  turn the office  upside down  in his search,  but  to no avail. 

Third Schedule notice had grown legs  and  walked into  the unknown  on the day  it was most needed. We  now had a constitutional crisis of tsunamic proportions  on  our hands. Oom Ray  tried to call Kwelagobe  who was unavailable, canvassing somewhere  upcountry outside  network  range. It was decided we all return to Gaborone  and possibly I might just have a brain wave and locate the  form. As soon as we  arrived Oom Ray got in touch with  Vice President  Ian Khama and explained the situation  to him.  Yes, we had other blank  forms  which  the president  could  sign  in  time to catch  the deadline. But as fate would have it he was away addressing villagers at kgotla  in Mmadinare constituency  villages some 400 kilometres in north east. Faced with salvaging a desperate situation Khama proposed a somewhat  audacious  plan. Someone at the  office should fetch a blank  form and drive  to the airport.  The presidential  jet OK 1  will scramble  and touch down in Phikwe within twenty five minutes. A helicopter would  be ready  to take off   with  the courier  to Tobane village which was just  short hop and secure  the   president’s signature to enable  a  seamless dash back. Upon  arrival  at  the   airport  in Gaborone  another  helicopter would be on hand to whisk the courier to  Otse  to avoid causing a spectacle in Lobatse. Team members should be ready to receive the courier and drive to  High Court. The whole operation  could  be  completed within two hours and with fortune on our side we could  make the deadline. At secretariat  the place was literally stripped apart and searched in places  where   no one  knew  places  existed before. In our panic stricken state, the  vice president’s plan sounded  plausible.

After all  what could be worse  than not  having a  presidential  candidate?  But Oom  Ray, trying to remain calm and focused  around a gathering firestorm  spoke truth to the vice president that he  wasn’t  comfortable with the idea because  of its wider implications. In any case  he  had  read  through  the  relevant statutes  and  although the notice was required, it was not mandatory because BDP had already registered its colours and symbols with IEC. After  assuring the vice president he would take up   the issue afresh  with  Justice Nganunu and there was no need to worry, Oom Ray, an academic, literary scholar, minister  and  free thinker in his  storied life  pored over the  fine print once  again. Then he  picked the  receiver and dialed Chief Justice. It would  appear the two men  were acquainted with  each other  because Oom Ray  addressed him  simply as Julian. Providing his own  interpretation with conviction he informed  the  voice on  the other  end of the  line that  Third Schedule notice of  voting colour and symbol, as outlined in Presidential Elections(Supplementary Provisions) Act under section 12 was just superfluous and unnecessary. No harm would be visited  on  our  candidate  if he  did not submit the  document. Confidently, Oom Ray explained we were giving ourselves the benefit of doubt because in any case all  our 40 legislative candidates  had in terms of the law declared support for  FG  Mogae. This was over and above  the 998  individuals who had signed to support nomination  of the  same candidate. Together with the proposer  who was Khama and the seconder being Kwelagobe  the  total  number  arrived at one thousand valid supporters of the candidate. For his part  Chief Justice seemed to  concur  but stated his position that  the notice was a requirement and if concerned parties lodged objections then due process  would  accordingly kick in. This was now a battle of  legal semantics  way beyond  the comprehension of   some of us. 

Having drawn a line on the issue  and with  nothing  more to be  done Oom Ray proposed  to  me  and Motlhale  that we repair to Gaborone Club to get away from the deathly atmosphere in the office. It  was the longest afternoon of our lives. Alarm bells were ringing all over the country  and calls flooded  in from worried party members shell shocked  the party had failed to  nominate  the president.  There we sat, the three of us, nursing our drinks, forlorn, lost in  thought. For me  I was as good as sacked and could as well  resign ‘there and there’  as they say in colloquialism. But  as Africans we don’t resign easily. Resign and go where? To the village?  A well read and highly educated man, Oom Ray  tried to make light of the   gloom  by  regaling us with  colourful anecdotes  of his early  life and how originally he  had  planned to study medicine at varsity  but  had to  shift  to  mathematics; pronouncing  the academic disciplines in a quaint  English accent. It was also the first time  I heard  that he was approached to be BNF president at  its founding in 1965. But I  think somewhere  in his mind he could see the speakership slipping away. Motlhale was  there in solidarity  but also bearing sad witness to  two well meaning individuals  sinking in the  quicksand of eternal shame and ignominy.  Our ordeal was to drag on. Kwelagobe   was  due back  the following day  as was the  president. A lifetime later, on a Sunday afternoon  with the secretary general chaperoning us we nervously  tip toed into state house   to brief President Mogae. Surprisingly the big man was   relaxed, put us at ease and offered  some beverages.

Regarding Oom Ray’s  interpretation of the law he concurred it was correct. It would seem he had  also  checked with  others and his place as  BDP candidate was not in doubt.  But he  added  the footnote that  what we were dealing  with  was  not  a constitutional  matter but rather a public relations  headache.  Whereas every candidate had  filed, how do we explain our omission to the  nation given that we were the  governing party. Public relations was  big subject in those elections because  some weeks prior  the president was compelled to declare  the country’s first ever state of emergency  to recall a dissolved parliament  to amend the electoral act after it was discovered IEC had omitted 67 000 voters from  the supplementary roll. My bungling was  therefore not  helpful under the circumstances.  Conspiracy theories abounded and were a dime a dozen. At a time of  factional  fissures in the  party  some suspected  a much bigger plot  to  deny President Mogae a fresh mandate. It was rumoured  I had been paid  handsomely to  ‘disappear’   the form. As a young  person with no previous work experience, naysayers  found vindication  that   this  boy  was always too young for such  a weighty  job. I was thoroughly put  through the ringer. What eluded many  was that Chief Justice at  the completion of nominations  had admitted FG Mogae together  with Lepetu Setshwalo(Botswana Alliance Movement), Dr KK Koma( Botswana National Front) and Michael Dingake( Botswana Congress Party) as candidates. He was transparent about the whole drama and in a statement Justice Nganunu made  public that Oom Ray had called to tell  him the  form  was  unnecessary. As the polls scheduled  for 16 October drew nearer, some  gossiper would whisper that Oom Ray  was  frequently sighted  at state  house breaking kola nut with  the president. 

For the announcement of results  we set up  a temporary  headquarters  in marquees  close to  the  presidential residence  where  celebrants could  join us  and  follow  the  returns on  radio. Late  at  night   as  we were chilling assured of victory, some  private  sedans rolled up.   From one side  emerged President Mogae   and from the  other  door who else but Oom  Ray, looking dutiful like a man  suddenly seized with  grave matters of state craft. The president had  driven by  to check on us  and  thank  the  staff. Third Schedule notice was still nowhere to be found  and  up to this day  it is  still  roaming  the world. I remain  puzzled by  what  could have  happened.   Days later  the 1999  election results  were  published. 33 seats went to BDP, 6 to BNF and BCP got the remaining solitary  seat. Inauguration of the  president   came and went. Still in my job against all odds, I  was instructed to  convene the   new  parliamentary caucus. On the agenda were two key items;  nominations for the positions of  vice president  and  speaker, respectively. The  former  went off  as expected  with Khama  returned as  second in charge. But for speaker,  some legislators  proposed  other names which brought  the number to about five hopefuls.  A  vote had to take place and Oom Ray’s numbers  came through for him. 

Before caucus ended I was directed to call  the presumptive speaker and request him to drive  from his Mochudi hilltop home because he  was due to be sworn in the same afternoon. Lo and behold,  Oom Ray answered  his  cellphone  and informed  me  he was  within the precincts  of  the national assembly. As debate and voting was  taking place in caucus room, Oom Ray  had all along been lurking around. Already besuited but this time without his hunting rifle he was  waiting for the  call that almost never came  had the  saga of Third Schedule notice turned out  unfavourably. Farewell Oom  Ray  it was some adventure!


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