Otsweletse Moupo talks to OUTSA MOKONE and SPENCER MOGAPI about how he nearly stepped down as BNF president, the trauma of losing sleep, watching his blood pressure fly off the handle and life after the failed coup attempt
The cheerlessly furnished office displays none of the usual photographs of politicians shaking hands with famous people.
This is not the office of a politician or lawyer who likes to flaunt his achievements. There are no framed certificates on the wall, no plaques and no insignias. Other than the government standard issue poster of parliamentarians’ mug shots, there are no mementos, nothing, just Karl Marx, Leon Trotsky, Lenin and other like minds in the sliding glass door bookshelf on the corner.
In this office, Otsweeletse Moupo dec
ked up in a floral golf T-shirt and aspiring grey hair leans back in his high backed chair; the only trapping of luxury in the office, and flashes his trademark smile.
“One has to be more cautious when dealing with people you regard as comrades”… then aah!
The ahh! is because his tongue has slipped and he wants to correct himself: “Sorry, don’t write comrades, say friends. I don’t want to be misunderstood. Some of these things are very sensitive,” he says genially.
Moupo is dead right, his words far from being the rantings of a stuck up politician. The Botswana National Front President has just emerged from the winning end of a bruising political dust up and faces the huge task of picking up the BNF pieces. His every word carries a lot of weight in the party. If Moupo ever crossed his wires, the effects would reverberate across the whole party. However, it is unlike Moupo to slip on his tongue.
He is a policy wonk. This is not someone who dabbles in policy and politics. He has a nuanced sense of issues and reads widely. When he needs advice on policy, he consults his comrades. But when he wants advice on his political future, it is his wife he consults.
A few years ago, a group of BNF leaders approached him to challenge Dr Kenneth Koma for the BNF Presidency. He would not give them an answer until he had consulted with his wife.
Political supporters and rivals alike used to describe him as steady, decent and honest. That was until the Law Society of Botswana threatened to strike him off the roll of practicing lawyers for failing to account for his firm’s trust funds. The event became a perfect political storm for his rivals in the party to nudge him out. Ironically, the bulk of those who wanted him out are those that, against his will, convinced him to stand against Koma’s preferred heir in the succession race as the old BNF patriarch bowed out.
A BNF insider relates an incident during one of the meetings when Moupo, dithering like an animal caught in the floodlights, told the party central committee that he had decided to step down as party president. He asked for time to consult the party structures about his decision. The BNF leader had hardly started consulting the party structures when his longtime comrades started turning against him.
One Friday morning, at the height of the party leadership struggle, The Sunday Standard Deputy Editor, Spencer Mogapi, received a phone call from Moupo’s longtime bosom buddy.
Dr Baatlhodi “Bucks” Molatlhegi wanted to add his two pence worth in support of the argument that Moupo should step down as BNF president. Days before Dr Molatlhegi went public about his calls for Moupo to step down The Sunday Standard editorial team had been receiving a lot of such calls. With news that the BNF executive Committee wanted Moupo to clear his desk and vacate the party high office, his friends were deserting him in droves and most were scrambling to put their spin on the story and garner support for a coup. The weaker amongst them chose to keep quiet and bid their time, unsure of the ultimate outcome.
Dr Molatlhegi, for example, argued that: “I was in principle opposed to the candidature of Robert Masitara. On the same principles, I am uncomfortable with the continued stay of Moupo as the head of the BNF as well as leader of the official opposition. Moupo is my closest comrade and longtime friend. It pains me to go public on this.
But I cannot say with a clear conscience that it is ethically right for Moupo to remain BNF president and leader of opposition. It is harming the BNF and our country’s evolving democracy. How can the leader of the official opposition call up his clients to remain calm when the firm in charge of their affairs does not have a practice certificate? How on earth can I say such an issue is a private affair? What is private about a lawmaker’s failure to timeously comply with the laws passed by the very parliament in which he sits?”
We have come to Moupo’s Constituency Office to interview him on his recent troubles with the Law Society of Botswana and life after the coup attempt.
On the day, word leaked that a section of the BNF high command wanted him to step down, Moupo’s mobile phone number became the hottest eight digits in town.
In the blur of clicking at his cell phone “answer” button and picking up his fixed line phone receiver, the BNF President found himself speaking to an unlikely sympathizer on the other end of the line. President Festus Mogae had called to advise Moupo against resigning because “it is silly.”
BNF structures phoned and issued press statements to pledge their support. Among those who phoned en masse where friends and party foot soldiers who offered their support and wished him good luck. Many of them were people Moupo had never personally met.
As it turned out, good luck and Moupo’s never say die spirit paid off. “It was quite painful. A lesser person would have broken down,” reflected Moupo, rocking on his high backed chair.
“For three weeks running, both the private and public media never let up on “the story”. It was during these difficult times that I got to realize that I am actually a very strong person.”
By “the story” Moupo was referring to media reports that he faced being struck off the roll of practicing lawyers because he could not account for his law firm’s trust funds. With each hostile headline, he watched as his family took a beating only to wait for the printing press to deliver another blow.
‘This was absolutely the most traumatic time for my family. They asked me if it was worth the sacrifice.”
There were days when his first born daughter, a lawyer at the Attorney General’s chambers, would come home almost in tears and confide in her mother that the whole thing was getting to her. The whole saga had become unbearable for the young woman.
Moupo remembers his fourteen year old son returning home from school one day, all sulky and tear tracks because other kids had been teasing him that his father was stranded in London with no money to return home.
Moupo was devastated. And as he put it, he needed friends, and there were very few coming along.
“My family was so traumatized, they even asked me to resign. They felt it was not worth it,” he said.
He is aware of the allegations that he went to London with a companion.
“The companion story was complete rubbish. I would have long confessed that to my wife given the kind of support she lent me. When the chips are down there is no other option.”
For sometime, Moupo was like a man in an earthquake and straddling a fissure: On one side he had friends, supporters and well wishers who encouraged him to hang tough, on the other side he had the newly organized and outraged group of BNF academics who wanted him out. Add the excitable and incessant media onslaught to the bargain.
This was one of those moments in politicians’ lives when an unpleasant bit of reality intrudes upon the happy routine of riding at the back seat of the black Mercedes Benz. It was a moment when the unique burden of the office of the leader of opposition began to weigh. It was also the time he got to realize that being a BNF leader is a serious business because people take very seriously whatever one does, he said.
It was then that he decided to take a break.
“I decided to go on a short sabbatical leave, firstly, as a way to protect the party from this continuous adverse publicity, and secondly, to give myself a breather from the bombardment by the media.”
For weeks, the troubled BNF president could hardly sleep a wink. His blood pressure started playing up.
“When sleeping at night, all these things would recur, almost like a film,” he recalled.
When his insomnia and blood pressure finally flew off the handle, he decided to go and see a physician who advised him to take it easy.
He traces his high blood pressure to the days that the BNF split into two to give birth to the Botswana Congress Party.
During one of those brooding nights, Moupo decided “enough is enough, I am quitting as BNF President. On second thought I felt that by resigning I would be vindicating my detractors. I knew I had committed errors but I had not committed any criminal offence. I never took a check book and wrote a check drawing money from the trust account. Some comrades went public to denounce me, as a leader you don’t go public, but I am human,” he said as a matter of fact.
“I never stole any money,” he said.
Moupo’s accounts, however, were in a mess. His law firm had lost three accountants in one year. Some ledger cards were overdrawn and some clients overpaid. There were shortages.
The bank then started transferring money from the company trust account to the business account and the firm’s books of accounts were not in a position to be audited. That is when Moupo decided to take leave of absence from the BNF office to sort out his problems, a decision he said was “the correct strategy.”
When he returned from leave, Moupo’s presidency seemed to have caught a second wind. A good indication of the kind of popularity Moupo has achieved among the BNF rank and file came at a recent political rally in Old Naledi on the eve of the ward’s by-elections. Together with the leadership forum in Mahalapye that preceded his sabbatical, the by-elections offered him an opportunity to feel the pulse of the party.
It was a hard core crowd ÔÇô young women with an assortment of hairdos, men with working class wretched faces and grey haired women sporting yellow T-shirts with Moupo’s portrait.
Somewhere in the heat of the moment, an actual shriek went up ÔÇô the sort of girl squeal you associate with footage of rock bands. A group of young women in BNF T-Shirts were responsible for the high notes, but lots of others joined in. Moupo was on song, working up the crowd with witty lines about how the media and the academia lost the plot during the BNF coup attempt.
This afternoon, the BNF president is still buoyant and his star is rising. “I have regularized and there are no queries. I have paid the money for the Fidelity Fund and at the latest Monday I should be having my practicing certificate.”
Still, he wants to revisit the issue of the problems that almost cost him his BNF position.
“The London trip was partly private and partly BNF. I cannot disclose the purpose now until the fruits of the visit come to bear. As a leader, you do not necessarily tell everything as some things can jeorpadise the organization.”
After the London trip and as if he has not made his point strong enough he labours yet again on the problems surrounding his law firm: “The context of my problem is not unique. Our parties are poor. As a leader, you are expected to sacrifice both your time and resources. The end result is that I made very little money at the company as I was always away on party business.”
Moupo’s “In” tray suggests that he is raring to go.
He is expected to table two motions in the next sitting of parliament. “One is on decentralization of power from the central government to councils and the other will ask government to give the informal sector more institutional support,” he says with an incessant smile which does not seem to fit with the long run of trauma, disappointments and setbacks he recently suffered. If, however, there is one event that changed him in recent times ÔÇô if not dampening his cheer, then hardening his attitude ÔÇô it was the betrayal from friends. He has learnt that “one has to be more cautious when dealing with people you regard as friends.”
This is expected to strengthen his hand. There was a sense in the party rank and file that the office of the BNF’s president had become an academia prison, hemmed in by powerful party academics.
He remembers how, against his will, he was forced to become a BNF President. He also remembers how, against his will, he was forced to relocate from Selibe Phikwe to come and contest the Gaborone West North by-election following Paul Rantao’s death.
He would not give in to pressures to resign especially after some of his friends started leaking information that he received money from Khama.
“Let me point out that I never received money from Khama. I have been in the BNF for 27 years. Just because I had problems does not mean my commitment to the BNF was ever in doubt.”
That said he will also not disclose where he sourced his finances to regularize his law firm.
“It’s a misconception that just because I am a public figure I should account for every thebe I make.”