There’s always a tingle of anticipation when Pono Moatlhodi enters the stage, a sense that something shockingly out of the ordinary will happen.
The Tonota South Member of Parliament has a knack for disrupting the earnest protocols of office. Rolling on the ground in a suit to stress a point at a political rally or speaking his mind in Parliament when he is supposed to be singing his master’s voice: it has all been part of the burlesque repertoire of the man that Batswana have come to know – some in jest, some with admiration – as PP.
A meeting addressed by Botswana Democratic Party leaders in his constituency last week to explain why he had been dropped as party parliamentary candidate for the 2009 elections presented a further opportunity for outrage or – depending on your point of view – delight. The surprise was that for the first few minutes of the ceremony it seemed as if this was an opportunity he had resolved to pass up. He was on his best behaviour, nodding ponderously, lips pursed with almost comical solemnity, as members of his constituency took the part Secretary General, Jacob Nkate, and Chairman, Daniel Kwelagobe, to task.
Tonota residents held nothing back. They let it all hang. Moatlhodi shed tears for a good five minutes to the delight of photojournalists who had been waiting for a picture opportunity and possibly to the outrage of BDP leaders who were hoping for an easy ride against him.
Even after he was recalled by the BDP central committee for his no holds barred attack on the Khama administration’s militarization of the public service, Moatlhodi remains defiant. He maintains that he stands by his principles.
“I still maintain my stand that the policy of denying more deserving and long serving public servants opportunities to progress by imposing less deserving military personnel into positions that they are not acquainted to is wrong” said the outspoken MP last week after the heated BDP meeting in Tonota.
Buoyed by the overwhelming support from his constituents, Moatlhodi is as trigger happy as ever and continues to shoot salvos at BDP’s flawed policies.
This is one man who has put his constituency before the party; it is no wonder Tonota South constituents last week broke ranks with the BDP leadership’s decision. They unilaterally made it clear to central committee delegates that they will not endorse Moatlhodi’s recall.
The central committee delegation was forced to eat humble pie when the constituents raked them over hot coals for recalling Moatlhodi, saying that the party leadership has no powers to reverse a decision that was taken through the electoral vote, without first consulting the electorates. The maverick MP was thus saved from the wrath of the BDP politburo and the BDP envoys were sent back to Tsholetsa House with an unaccomplished mission.
The delegation, headed by Secretary General Jacob Nkate and Party Chairman Daniel Kwelagobe, had gone to Tonota with the mandate of relaying the central committee’s decision. But they were forcefully derailed from their mission as the constituents demanded that they be consulted before a final decision is made.
“We do not understand how you can reverse our democratic election without first consulting us. Go back to Gaborone and come back with a more consultative mission, not to deliver an ultimatum,” said one enraged old man.
The Wednesday meet came in the wake of an announcement by the BDP leadership that Moatlhodi had been recalled after he was found guilty of gross indiscipline, unbecoming behavior, and defying an agreement made by the party caucus. When addressing the Tonota South constituents, Nkate said that Moatlhodi had defied an agreement made by the BDP parliamentary caucus to curtail their comments to the President’s state of the nation address so that they can attend to more pertinent issues before the close of parliament. Moatlhodi is said to have resisted urges by the Vice President to comply with the time limit agreement saying that he would say whatever he needed to say on behalf of his constituency.
Moatlhodi is also said to have irked the central committee when he expressed concern at government’s continued militarization of the public service, specifically the recent decision to ignore serving officers and head hunt an army official to head Botswana Prisons Service. A subsequent central committee meeting, at which former army generals President Ian Khama and Vice President Mompati Merafhe were present, resolved to recall Moatlhodi and bar him from contesting the 2009 general elections. The central committee would later overturn Moatlhodi’s appeal and dispatch a delegation comprising Nkate, Kwelagobe and Executive Secretary Comma Serema to Tonota to deliver the news to the electorates.
Hundreds of BDP faithful and some opposition party members braved the drizzling rain and waited patiently for the arrival of the central committee representatives. Moatlhodi arrived in style, amid fanfare and ululations from his supporters. Hours before the BDP delegation arrived, Moatlhodi was making his rounds at the hall receiving accolades and assurances of support. At some point the theatrical MP broke into tears, earning more sympathy and support from his constituents who assured him that they would stand by him all the way.
Some irate members said publicly that they would defy the CC, and encouraged Moatlhodi to stand as an independent candidate should the BDP leadership refuse to reverse their earlier decision. The arrival of the delegates was greeted with a deafening silence, and almost all of them ignored the maverick MP when they shuffled to the top table. Even initial attempts to arouse the masses with the “Tsholetsa Domkrag!” slogan were not met with the usual pomp.
While the introduction of the branch and central committee members was greeted with polite handclaps, Moatlhodi’s introduction was greeted with a five-minute-long standing ovation as the masses made it clear from the onset that they intended to rally behind their MP. Attempts to evict non BDP members were quashed as the masses maintained that the leadership cannot regard the matter as internal since they have already aired the party’s dirty laundry in public and publicly crucified Moatlhodi when they leaked news of his expulsion even before they informed him. Francistown region chairperson, Botho Ntirang, who was chairing the proceedings, finally allowed the meeting to continue.
After Nkate’s presentation, the BDP faithful made it clear that they did not see anything wrong with Moatlhodi’s utterances. They said that the central committee had erred when making a decision to recall Moatlhodi without consulting the electorates. They told the delegates that the masses wielded more power than the central committee and it was up to the people to decide who should represent them in 2009. Various speakers told the delegates to their face that they do not endorse the CC’s decision. The Tonota South constituents also said that the decision to recall Moatlhodi was a result of his long standing acrimonious relationship with the branch committee. They said it is unfair for the CC to make a decision without giving Moatlhodi a fair hearing.
The BDP CC is still to announce their decision after the Tonota debacle, and theories are flying thick and fast as to what they will decide. But the underlying fact is that an ordinary BDP backbencher took the party leadership to the cleaners, subjecting them to a humiliating defeat, not at the courts of law but at the court of public opinion. The defeat is even made worse by the fact that Moatlhodi’s vitriolic attack on the militarization of the civil service is widely perceived to be a direct attack on the all too powerful President Ian Khama, with whom he has had a previous showdown during the “vultures vs. boswa” debacle.
Some political pundits have said that Moatlhodi has signed his death warrant by taking the President and the party leadership head on. Those who claim to know the president have professed that he is a man with the memory of an elephant. They also say that the BDP leadership has been cornered and forced to flex its muscle and show would be dissenters that they will not tolerate any truancy, lest they set a very bad precedent. These two factors, they say, will work against Moatlhodi as the leadership would want to use him to send a message to BDP would be dissenters.
On the other hand, some say that the BDP leadership cannot afford to make a decision that is against the wishes of the masses. It is a major milestone that the BDP faithful have disregarded the decision of the party leadership and rallied behind their MP. But then again Moatlhodi’s support came from the fact that many feel that there is absolutely nothing wrong with what he said and did. The decisions of the party caucus are widely considered not binding and Moatlhodi’s assertions about the militarization of the civil service are in sync with public sentiment.
Tonota residents have vowed to stand by Moatlhodi even if the BDP leadership refuses to reverse the decision to recall him. They even told the BDP delegates that “you must forget about BDP in Tonota if you disregard our wishes”. Though he has not said it out, it is clear that while Moatlhodi abhors the idea of standing as an independent, he will definitely consider it if the BDP remains defiant. “I do not have a plan B. I sincerely hope that the leadership will listen to the people.
But at the end of the day I am just a servant of the constituents and I will go with what they say” he told The Sunday Standard after the meeting. If he goes solo, Moatlhodi will most probably walk away with a win especially because the opposition has not made inroads into his constituency. BNF’s Michael Mzwinila is there, but he does not really pose a tangible threat.
The BDP grapevine has also insinuated that Moatlhodi’s recall was a deliberate plot to push him aside and pave way for retired BDC Managing Director Ken Mathambo. The BDP is well known for sacrificing back benchers for candidates who are considered to be cabinet material, and Mathambo fits right into the fold. But so far these rumours have not been substantiated and the BDP remains mum.
At the same time, there are some BDP members within the constituency who still fancy their chances of wrestling Moatlhodi out. It must be noted that the MP has always had a very acrimonies relationship with his branch committee, which culminated in him being vetted out of the primaries earlier this year. One of his councilors even wrote a letter to the central committee complaining that Moatlhodi is abusive and uncooperative. When the dust settled, the MP was allowed to stand for the elections albeit with a strongly worded final warning letter, as Nkate said at the Tonota meeting.
Names that are being bandied around to replace Moatlhodi as BDP parliamentary candidate include his primary election nemesis Obusitse Ntsima, Comma Serema, Thapelo Olopeng and Mac Donald Peloetletse. They all might fancy their chances but indications are that even as an independent candidate Moatlhodi would command more support than any of them. To the masses Moatlhodi is a victim of the BDP’s political maneuvers, and he is loved even more because unlike other “syncopaths” he has stood for what he believes is right.
Moatlhodi definitely won the first round. But it goes without saying while the battle has been won the war still rages on. In the end, the masses wait with baited breath to see who will emerge the winner in the David versus Goliath standoff.