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!