Sunday, September 27, 2020

Once, can BDP faithful place Botswana first?

“Thank you for your kind introduction. I am the fifth president of Botswana since independence, and indeed a beneficiary of the ‘succession plan’ entrenched in the country’s Constitution. But come October 2019 when the nation goes to the general elections ÔÇô I will be on my own as they say. They will choose their leader whoever that will be and I will abide by the dictates of the Constitution of the land. No one can superimpose himself on the people when they express their will. There is no permanency in being the president ÔÇô you serve and when your time is up, you leave with your dignity intact,” President Mokgweetsi Eric Keabetswe Masisi told Michelle D. Garvin of the Council on Foreign Relations in his recent visit to New York.

There is a clear awareness that he might carry the ruling party as its popularly endorsed leader to the general elections of 2019 and that if they pull the majority seats in Parliament, he would extend his grip on power for another five years, but that if the opposition were to become the ruling elite, he would join the rank and file of the party as an ordinary member; in fact, the most humiliated leader in its history. Also seeming clear from this expression is that the party may not give him the nod to take it to the general elections. Either way, Masisi sounds mature to psyche himself for an eventuality that won’t distort his citizenship status. This awareness that anything is possible and that he has no claim of a birth right to leadership sets Masisi worlds apart from his predecessor who in his retirement, boldly proclaims that he remains the leader of the party. But could there have been deals that were made between Masisi and Khama that we need to show sympathy for the retired president on pressing to have his way? The answer lies in the undying love for partisan politics rather than nationalistic sentiments, a pervasive syndrome that has corroded the continent of Africa.  The ruling class is often arrogant to listen, let alone embrace the counsel of those seasoned politicians from the other side of the aisle.

To preface an adequate answer to the question of whether Masisi owes Khama anything, this paper demonstrates that like the President captured the essence aptly to an American research fellow during the roundtable discussion on African politics, he is nothing short of a beneficiary of a system that has profited former president Festus Mogae when he took over the reins of power from Sir Ketumile Masire in 1998, and the same advantage that accrued to former president Ian Khama when receiving the baton in 2008 strictly as per the amended Constitution.

 Why was the Constitution amended?

When Seretse died in 1980 before the Constitution was amended to its present form, it prescribed that at the demise of the head of state, within seven days, the speaker of the national assembly should preside over a session, whereupon members of the house elect among them a successor. While mourning, members immediately started lobbying for their chosen leader and the majority of the backbenchers gave Masire thumbs-up.

He had worked with Khama for the previous 15 years and knew the party and government pretty well. So he was a good sell and Batswana would receive him more graciously than any other person. There were some Cabinet ministers who felt they had what it took to fill in the shoes of Sir Seretse, though.

Masire was overwhelmingly endorsed as President, save for one or two members of the ruling party.

“One of the members I remember clearly was Goareng Mosinyi from Serowe. He was adamant about why he did not prefer Masire. But some of us were relatively new and unfamiliar with the power struggles inside the party. I was barely ten months old in Parliament,” a retired Parliamentarian recalls the events.

By the 1990’s the Titanic ship that is the BDP had encountered some icebergs, resulting in two power camps ripping apart the once stable political organisation. The war of the north versus the south that began soon after Sir Ketumile succeeded Sir Seretse in 1980 over the control of the party, had festered and fermented, and if nothing was being done, the ship was headed for rock-bottom with all its passengers aboard. The founding president of the republic, who automatically doubled up as the president of the party was from the north. His vice, Sir Ketumile came from the south ÔÇô so it was those in Masire’s Cabinet from both directions that badly wanted the control of the party so much if no cure was found, the defects were debilitating. Masire plucked a technocrat who served in a sterling manner at the IMF before he was the Governor of the Central Bank ÔÇô Festus Gontebanye Mogae to be his deputy in 1992. Masire did not stop there, he made sure a constitutional provision allowed the vice president to automatically succeed the incumbent, and so it was when on his own volition, he stepped down from being the head of state and passed the baton into the safe hands of Mogae in 1998.

This practice is known as the ‘Succession Plan’ and was a creation of the BDP looking out for its political mileage. It upset the opposition members whose minority numbers in parliament did not help to block it from being the law, despite harping on it every now and then as undemocratic for a nation that holds itself out as a shining example in the region. They were dismissed as naysayers often, but they did not relent to warn that the practice would one day bite excruciatingly. The internal rivalry has always been a part of the game in the ruling party, but they always unleashed their resources to defend the organization and where it mattered to sacrifice the whole nation, the BDP faithful couldn’t be bothered to place their brand ahead of Botswana. Liberal-minded foot soldiers who eventually bolted out to form the Botswana Movement for Democracy (BMD) always said a clear delineation between the ruling party and the public service should be drawn because the government is for all citizens and appointments should be based on merit and not affiliation or persuasion of some ideological conviction.

The BDP of the late 1990’s was by then seriously polarized and the camps were consistently at each other’s throat for the possible carcass that could be feasted upon, if the contender for power was not strong to withstand the pressures of cheap politicking. Meanwhile, the bickering was eating at the fabric of the party and wearing it off steadily. Being well-resourced from state budget including De Beers and other undisclosed sources that the ruling party controlled as it held out to be the government ÔÇô they once again engaged the same South African-based political expert Professor Lawrence Schlemmer, whose recommendation for Masire was to bring Mogae into the world of politics. However, this time around, Schlemmer was not as pointed as back in 1992 in whom Mogae must bring in to heal the rift in the ruling party.

But the Domkrag needed more than it wanted to tighten grip over power particularly as all indications from the previous general elections were that the opposition could cause a major upset at the next polls. Whoever was to be deployed to stabilize the wobbling stable must be someone that the party faithful feared, honored and deferred with reverence almost reserved exclusively for a supreme deity, or picking just a commoner might stoke the stakes of a burning inferno even greater, leading to a total collapse of the institution. Looking in all directions within the party and in the public service ÔÇô there ought to have been none that could beat the son of the founding president and patriarch of the party ÔÇô whose magical wand of the family name could do the trick. Lt. General Ian Khama was thus plucked from the barracks’ headquarters in the outskirts of the ever-expanding city limits.

In fact, one among highly respected mothers of Domkrag remembers with precision, the repulsion by members of the ruling party when Mogae announced at the Palapye meeting that he had chosen Ian Khama as his successor. The hall was dead silent. But should they have been shocked when partisan politics were held in greater importance over national priorities to dish out the vice presidency on a silver platter?

“The late Uncle Parks (Ophaketse Gaobatwe) vehemently opposed this choice and said, ‘it would be a total annihilation of the nation,’” recalls the party elder.

It was not because he had any political qualifications, or experience that surpassed stalwarts including Daniel Kwelagobe, who was anointed and coached into grassroots politics at a young age of twenty-five by Sir Seretse Khama himself, neither did the young Khama outshine David Magang, Bahithi Temane, Chapson Butale, Ponatshego Kedikilwe, nor Mompati Merafhe, who had galvanized experience by that time as seasoned politicians. The highest premium was on the name ÔÇô Khama ÔÇô and from that, all would defer and honor him to not rock the boat. If there is any deal, this was it ÔÇô he was the Messiah who would return the party to calm waters. As long he was around, they would remember Seretse and Domkrag being branded ‘phathi ya ga Seretse’ (Seretse’s party), they believed Ian was the panacea. But that deal was with Mogae, and certainly not with Masisi. He is right that he owes no one anything, thanks to the succession plan.

However, already there are murmurings that next year ÔÇô for the very time in its history, there could be a number of sponsored motions that would make it impossible for Masisi to retain power as the leader of the party. News reports reveal that there could be a decisive meeting to separate the vice president of the land from being the chairman of the party. It has been the practice of Domkrag way before. Kedikilwe was the chairman. Then it was Kwelagobe. And even as recent as the Maun congress where Samson Guma Moyo dressed down Pelonomi Venson-Moitoi. But because of the deference to the Messiah and always doing things that were unprecedented, it was the Gantsi congress where former president Mogae endorsed his already vice president of the land to take wrestle the chairmanship from PHK, where the VP of Botswana and Chairman of the party were brought together. When he inherited the presidency, DK contested and was favourably voted the chairman of the party yet, he was not the vice president of the country. Because Domkrag has always allowed Seretse’s son to have his way, he rose up one morning to decree that there be a clear separation between offices of party and government, which was an obvious target of DK who held on to the ministerial portfolio as well as the chairmanship. Mokwena (DK) surprised many when he gave up all the perks that are associated with being a cabinet minister and held firmly to the party as its chairman.

Now, if whatever motion being widely reported was to be passed next year, this would not amend the Constitution of the party in any form, but just one measly attempt at giving Ian Khama the freebies he is so ever used to, while others work hard to earn their stripes. Domkrag faithful could not have forgotten all these historical milestones that with the exception of him alone, all other chairmen were popularly elected on the congress floor. But the same Khama benefited from such a dispensation that was aligned to the land’s Constitution to anticipate the vice president being the president of the land through the succession plan, and therefore, automatically becoming the president of the party. Reading closely the party Constitution, one is persuaded to see that the legal hawks anticipated a situation in which the BDP stayed in power eternally and exploiting the proviso that was introduced during Sir Ketumile’s tenure that automatically makes the vice president the successor of the presidency. The Constitution of a country or organisation is not touched at every whim when an individual feels it does not work for his gain ÔÇô if that becomes the norm, the Constitution becomes a sham as and when conditions change. The BDP members should not be hoodwinked into seeing radical changes in their Constitution as a solution to the pressing problems ÔÇô rather, they should become alive to the reality that they are called Batswana first before they are maDomkrag and that is because if they allow their internal wrangle plunge this nation into a crisis ÔÇô they too, will suffer the same consequences as the rest of us. “Fatshe (Botswana) leno la rona, ke Mpho ya Modimo, ke Boswa jwa boRraetsho, a le nne ka Kagiso.”

The stalwarts generally believe that the problems of today can be traced back to Sir Ketumile for overlooking shrewd and tested politicians around him at the time he was contemplating retirement and opting to neutralize them by bringing in a technocrat.

“For example during our time, one of the disadvantages that Festus had was that he never had a constituency within the party. He was thrown right in the middle of power-hungry politicians, so he never penetrated the circle and he was swimming against the tide for a while. Festus just like Quill Herman and Landle Mills belong to the generation that taught Rra Gaone economics during weekends and he was a fantastic learner, so that is where they met, way back before Mogae even became the permanent secretary in the ministry of finance and development planning. So, even though Festus was the President, he never won the party. In fact, because of the factional conflicts, the party remained with the two factions (Magang/Merafhe) versus (Kwelagobe/Kedikilwe). That is why De Beers and others won him over and recommended that in choosing his deputy, he should overlook any of us who were tainted by the wrangles, and pull the army general,” the veteran politician explains.


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Sunday Standard September 27 – 3 October

Digital copy of Sunday Standard issue of September 27 - 3 October, 2020.