Saturday, January 22, 2022

“Opposition cooperation is about equal partners”

The past weeks have witnessed an out-pouring of debates about the ongoing opposition talks, mainly on their pace and general progress. This is not surprising; there is only about 10 weeks remaining before the official round-off of the negotiations, while critical issues like constituency allocation and the presidency have yet to be agreed upon. Another reason for this apparent agitation is that, our people have a uniquely low tolerance for being kept in the dark on issues they consider vital to their lives. Motswana wants to be part of an unfolding story; to stay up to speed and be able to offer own views – a Maokaneng free to comment way.

What triggers this comment however, and from a purely personal standpoint, is the widely distributed article by Mr. Ndaba Gaolathe, who has expressed serious reservations about the BMD’s participation in the cooperation talks. For me in particular, it struck a painful cord. Like many people, I had thought that the entry of BMD into the Botswana political scene was a divine gift to the opposition. Here was a motley group of excited and exciting young men and women, who in their days with the BDP gave that party all the hallmark of market appeal- speed, glamour, verve and a covetable competitive edge.

Their joining the opposition talks was welcomed and taken as an assurance that they would hit the ground running, with no prospect of going back. The only question on everybody’s mind was how the BMD would be integrated into the opposition’s impressive figures of the 2009 general elections; to have them as true partners for the 2014 poll. But all were agreed that the BMD would undoubtedly spice up the opposition column with their brand new image, not to mention passion and vigour. Opposition energies were fuelled and hopes ran high!

But of recent, none other than the BMD chief of policy has, in a widely circulated statement, made it known that in his view, the BMD should not have joined the opposition talks, citing cultural differences between them and the other parties as a stumbling block. This is something most people have had a hard time appreciating, because it is indeed inconceivable that a one year old party like BMD would be so firmly steeped in its culture that it finds it hard to work with others. What exactly is that culture? One admits that every party has its own way of doing things, its own way of conducting internal business, but to the extent of being so stiffened and enslaved by habit as to be unable to work with others is puzzling. Someone needs to explain something!

Ndaba also raises the question of “a leading partner” who should lead the coalition for it to be viable. This is an ideal condition and I see one Mr. Dan Moabi elsewhere agrees. This model has worked well with the ANC, COSATU and the SACP in South Africa. However, if you uncritically apply this scenario to the Botswana political scene, you are likely to come out with surprising results. Over the years, the BNF has enjoyed an unchallenged lead amongst opposition parties, up until the 2009 elections when the BCP virtually caught up. But previous initiatives at unity have failed, primarily because smaller parties objected to BNF’s proposal to lead the coalition as a lead party.

There is evidently something distasteful about ‘Big Brother Mentality,’ as is commonly called here. Back in earlier days, the late Dr. Knight Maripe, objecting to Dr. Kenneth Koma’s position on this very issue of lead party once quipped, “Do not think this is a meeting of the Boss and the Boys, we are all equal here”. The BPP was no bigger than it is today. In 2003, the then BNF president, Otsweletse Moupo, invited the wrath of BAM, BCP, BPP with his now infamous words “Letlhaku le lesha le agelwa mo go le legologolo.” This statement, in large measure, contributed to the collapse of those talks.

Further, if we were to buy into the leading partner option, this project would have to be put on hold for the next 10 or so years. Right now, BCP, BNF and BMD consider themselves about equal in popular appeal. To wait for a lead party to finally emerge, as Ndaba suggests, is to say opposition parties should wait another decade. This is a hard contemplation, tantamount to saying of unity talks; ‘This is too hard, let’s put it aside until conditions turn favourable’. Perhaps, but then we could wait ad infinitum.

Ndaba further warns that Batswana may not be too happy with the idea of four parties self-appointing themselves to the role of deciding the shape and shade of a future opposition. He also doubts whether Batswana are ready for an opposition coalition in the suggested format, as against his preferred model of two parties at a time. These are possibly valid observations and parties need to find creative ways and means of engaging a broader audience. The private press is already doing a splendid job in this regard. Opposition parties, for their part, need to figure out how to rope in civil societies, Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) and prominent opinion makers.

But still, it is the parties themselves that should do the negotiations. By and large, public debate and extending consultation parameters should be done, but an unrestrained Bulela Ditswe , a kind of free for all, may not be the right way to go.

And, reflecting further on this matter, we all should be mindful of the thin line between condescension and genuine observation. Batswana are fully capable of making sound and mature choices on what they want their political future to look like. We should be careful not to patronize them. From what we know, we can guess what they really want, although that will still be mere conjecture, since no one really knows- no one has asked them. The general view, however, is that Batswana would like two contesting parties at the polls; the ruling party and a sound opposition. In 2008, two opposition parties, BAM and BCP, tried it. Their performance at that poll gave credence to this. Their results trebled at parliamentary level and, quadrupled at the councils. Equally, BNF, which was then seen as having walked away from the talks, faced massive losses, including losing constituencies they had routinely held in the past.

We can also assume that Batswana are yearning for opposition unity, just from the energies and passion they display during radio talk shows on this topic.

Ndaba’s concluding remarks give a brief sketch of what he calls the BMD Agenda, highlighting their policy priority areas, education, with a bias towards technical and hands-on skills, an efficient and decentralized public service delivery, accountability, restructuring of parastatals to make them more responsive, re-engineering agriculture, promoting individual freedoms as well as providing housing.

This is quite commendable although not new. A casual look through past BCP and BNF manifestoes and policy statements will give the reader a good glimpse of what these parties have been saying all along. And they have done so, so persistently and so eloquently that the ruling party, in its own clumsy way, has plagiarized and tried to implement some of these policies. But still, BMD has a major role here. For instance, they could bring in a sharper and more focused way of how to translate these policies into practical execution. In other words, share their own experiences of how the BDP, after talking about these policies for so long, ended up posting such a record of dismal mediocrity. This is, after all, what the united opposition aims to do; not to re-invent the wheel, as it were, but to do things better and faster- with a clearer focus on growing people driven by a broad programme of social transformation to give Botswana back to Batswana. Batswana should take control of their own lives.

One last note, it is perhaps regrettable that, in a rather oblique manner, we get a peep into the BMD’s policy think tank, two months before the talks are due to end. We note Ndaba’s disclaimer that these are personal views and not the BMD’s. This is all very well, but it is a hard call to expect Batswana, especially those at the negotiating table, not to associate his views with those of his organization. He is, after all, on the party policy driver’s seat.

As a nation, BMD included, we subscribe to the notion of Collective Responsibility. This is a sacred principle in any true democracy. The BMD policy chief must have been a key player in the decision to join other parties in unity talks. And it is rather odd to think that his current views are an after-thought. Opposition unity is a key policy decision. This is why it is taken at Annual Congress level.

Be that as it may, it is the next few weeks that will unfold the future. For now we can only appeal for calm and level headedness. The opposition road is an extremely harsh one! E batla motho a ikiteile sehuba.

Good luck, to all of us!

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