Saturday, February 27, 2021

Moatlhodi’s third coming ÔÇô can the outspoken politician survive the hurly-burly of opposition politics?

Sometime before Boyce Sebetlela resigned from Parliament, the then legislator for Palapye had a humorous altercation with Pono Moatlhodi. The exchange had all to do with Moatlhodi’s academic qualifications. “I know the honourable member for Tonota likes to refer to himself as an accountant.

I think his proper title should be accounts clerk,” said Sebetlela in response to distractive heckling from Moatlhodi. By all accounts, Moatlhodi is a political punching bag, with a thick skin that allows him to absorb all sorts of criticisms, but for some reason anything perceived as a slight on his academic qualification is considered an ultimate insult. “Point of order, Mr Speaker,” Moatlhodi belted out in response. “ Can the hounourable member withdraw his demeaning comments about me. I went to Moeng College and I was an accountant at Sefalana for over twenty years.” It was all said in jest, with an objective to drive home a point nonetheless. The subtext of Moatlhodi’s message to Sebetlela, probably the finest and most consummate MP of the last decade was that “I am in your league.”

Rightly or wrongly, Moatlhodi fancies himself one of the best things to ever happen to Botswana Parliament. Officially, Moatlhodi has resigned from the ruling Botswana Democratic Party because he feels the BDP primary elections in Tonota were rigged. The underlying contention, however, which many people are yet to fully grasp is that from the bottom of his heart, Moatlhodi is wholly convinced that he much more qualified to represent that constituency in Parliament than the party’s preferred choice.

This is underscored by his leitmotif at the height of campaigns for the primaries which was that the current problems facing the nation need people with analytical minds like himself. “Otherwise the opposition will soon take over,” he repeatedly said. Thus for him to be asked to abdicate, especially under a cloud of primary elections he thinks neither fair nor free is for him a contradiction that is as unacceptable as it is unjust. He has thus decided to turn his back against political party for which he has been a member for the last 39 years. There is no doubt that this would have been a painful and painstaking decision.

Moatlhodi has always had a tempestuous relationship with the BDP. When political historians later try to mark a point at which relations between Ian Khama and Moatlhodi began to show cracks a consensus will emerge that it was after Khama then vice president unprecedentedly labeled Members of Parliament vultures after they had demanded a salary hike for themselves. Never to hold his views to himself, Moatlhodi famously reminded Khama that the reason why he did not want salary increases for Members Parliament was because that he [Khama] was comfortable enjoying inherited wealth from his father, the founding President of Botswana. This did not go down well with the overly sensitive Khama, who grounded in military discipline founded on deference by juniors would not abide what he saw as a clear-cut case of indiscipline by Moatlhodi. In response, Khama is said to have grinned almost aimlessly. But those who attended that parliamentary caucus meeting say he was visibly hurt. He had just left the army where he had spent all his professional life shouting and issuing orders.

Defiance, least of all from a junior was foreign to him. That somewhat innocuous exchange was the beginning of what turned out to be a long and frosty relationship. Moatlhodi’s characteristic candour, which some say is born from a tendency to speak first and think later was to later put him into yet another cross path with Khama after the latter had become State President. Speaking in parliament, Moatlhodi bemoaned what he called “militarization” of the public service. In all fairness, he was not the inventor of the word. Following Khama’s ascension the media and opposition had created a narrative that former soldiers were taking up all key positions of government, thus putting themselves through the paces for eventual takeover of state. It was a narrative that the BDP found painful and extremely difficult to dispel. The President was a former General as was his deputy. At least two senior cabinet ministers were also former military men. Almost all of the president’s key aides were former soldiers as was such strategic positions throughout such institutions like Prisons, Central Transport and the intelligence services.

This groundswell of military presence in positions traditionally viewed as civilian was unprecedented in Botswana’s history. The more uncharitable critics called dubbed it a military coup. Even old hands inside the BDP itself felt crowded out by the marauding former soldiers, who somehow felt it was finally their turn at both the trough and the top table. But the charge was altogether most damaging coming from a sitting BDP backbencher, especially on the eve of General Election. The response from the ruling party Secretary General was swift and bare-knuckled. Moatlhodi would be recalled, said Nkate with barely disguised glee. For the first time in his career, Moatlhodi had given the party a priceless opportunity to subject him to its disciplinary code. To the entire nation, Moatlhodi’s savage treatment by the BDP had all the hallmarks of a revenge attack by Khama who, it was believed had all the time kept his powder dry for such an opportunity. And there was more; an example had to be set to show others from a BDP faction to which Moatlhodi belonged that a new regime had arrived in town.

The BDP immediately made it known that they would be looking for somebody else to represent it at the approaching elections as Moatlhodi had been disqualified. In the end Moatlhodi however survived, with a reprimand. “I have seen my death with my eyes,” he was to later tell a friend after he was pardoned. He promised henceforth to behave himself. As a reward for promising to be a good boy he was raised to position of Deputy Speaker, an equivalent of assistant minister, which, for somebody whose sole ambition had always been to speak for his home village was a very generous promotion.

But members of Khama’s inner circle say Moatlhodi has not entirely lived up to his promise to be a good boy politician. The charge they have against him is that as Speaker of National Assembly he often uses his position foment trouble including by propping up opposition and even ridiculing government as way of demonstrating Khama’s excessive bent on making parliament subservient to cabinet. This week resigned from the BDP and immediately joined opposition Botswana National Front.

It is a field littered with landmines. And mistrust lingers on. It may be unfair to him, but memories are still fresh with an army of BDP followers that once joined opposition ranks only to later retrace their steps back as swiftly as they had arrived.

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