By seven o’clock Friday evening, Daniel Kwelagobe’s mobile phone is still ringing. Life seems to have gotten a lot busier for the Botswana Democratic Party (BDP) Chairman since giving up a plum cabinet post to pursue a career as a party activist.
His decision has, however, irked the powerful titans of government enclave. President Lt Gen Ian Khama recently dismissed him as a power hungry, sick old man.
Party Secretary General and Minister of Education, Jacob Nkate, this week urged the party congress to reject Kwelagobe’s bid to remain chairman, portraying him as an agent provocateur who is motivated by his hatred for Vice President Lt Gen Mompati Merafhe.
We meet Kwelagobe at Mug N’ Bean Coffee shop where a clutch of young executives are enjoying their early dinner. It’s silent and tranquil, a world away from the political storm brewing within the BDP.
But the party strongman cannot seem to shake off the controversy that is tearing the party apart.
Botsalo Ntuane, who is sharing a cup of Rooibos tea with Kwelagobe, relates how they have been inundated with phone calls from concerned BDP members “asking how Kwelagobe was going to respond to the latest diatribe by Nkate carried on the front page and letter pages of the Friday edition of the Mmegi newspaper.”
For a man who is at the centre of the storm and supposed to be fighting for his political life, Kwelagobe does not exactly look the part. In fact, he is already thinking about life after the BDP congress, saying things like “I will not attack any BDP member in public. I have thus decided to turn the other cheek because, should I be re-elected to the party chairmanship, I want to be able to work peacefully with other members.”
He may not like the term, but Daniel Kwelagobe is “the great survivor”. The only current leader who was a member of the 1970s BDP cabinet and Central Committee. It is widely known that Kwelagobe was given his break by Botswana’s founding President. Word had reached Seretse Khama about the indefatigable young activist who rode shotgun for Englishman Kgabo.
After completing secondary education and just a few months into his first job at Radio Botswana, Kwelagobe found himself in front of the president, and told that instead of proceeding for further studies he was the party’s designated candidate for the Molepolole North constituency.
That was in 1969. From then onwards, Kwelagobe’s star rose as Seretse Khama’s prot├®g├®. Under the mentorship of the Founding President, he quickly rose to the position of deputy secretary general of the party. When Seretse Khama died in 1980, and Quett Masire ÔÇô who was then Secretary General ÔÇô assumed the presidency, Kwelagobe stepped into the breach. At the time of Seretse Khama’s death, Kwelagobe was Minister of State in the President’s Office.
With the demise of his mentor, Kwelagobe became the most powerful politician in the country after Masire due to his twin portfolios of Secretary General and Minister in the Presidency. It is believed that all along he remained close to the Khama family.
“Seretse taught us that we should do and say things that hold us together as a party and desist from saying or doing those that divide us,” he says in between sips of Rooibos tea. It is thus not surprising that while other party leaders are taking the low road to the Kanye congress, Kwelagobe has opted for the high road urging “party members to maintain a climate of civility and stability in the party in full knowledge that after democrats install a new management team we will all have to work together to advance the interest of the party”.
Kwelagobe’s demeanor belies the mood within the BDP only two weeks before the make or break congress in Kanye. Certainly, the party veteran feels a sense of urgency to hold the party together following unprecedented public bashings by members. But, in equal measure, he also retains a sense of self assuredness, the kind that comes with more than four decades in leadership.
Running on his stellar resume, grassroots appeal and “Champion of the Constitution” image, Kwelagobe has won over a lot of Batswana both within and without the BDP who are worried that the country is fast descending into a dictatorship.
Launching Kanye South candidates recently, for the 2009 general elections, Kwelagobe told party followers that, “as servants of the people, we cannot choose with whom to work. It is the people, who are the guardians and custodians of the party through its constitution, who determine which individual members should, as a collective, lead the organization”.
Kwelagobe never passes up an opportunity to explain that his decision to let go of the cabinet position with all its pomp and perks in favour of a party position was because he wanted to help rebuild the BDP.
“As I keep saying to anyone who will listen, I was merely exercising my rights under the constitution to offer myself to the service of the party I love and to which I have devoted my entire life since the age of 19. When presented with a choice between staying in cabinet and serving the party I chose the terrain to which I am most comfortable; the party. I am a man of humble means and certainly cannot thumb my nose at the benefits that accrue from a cabinet position. But when compelled to make a choice I had to listen to my conscience and exercise the courage of my conviction to take the step.”
It now remains to be seen if the party that Kwelagobe has sacrificed his life and cabinet post for will roll out the welcome mat to him in Kanye this President’s Day Holidays.