Wednesday, September 23, 2020

Opposition: Alive or obsolete

The recent events at the opposition ÔÇô the failure to negotiate in good faith for a joint approach to the 2014 general election – raise questions about the viability of the opposition in Botswana’s democracy. More pointedly, the question arises: Is not the opposition obsolete?

There was some advocacy in the 1960s for the one-party state. Multi-party democracy mimicked western democracy. It was wasteful in that it required the adversaries to raise large amounts of money to campaign.

Some of the Africans argued that the one-party state, like the Kgotla, permitted difference of opinion inside its own ranks. Such opposition would be of good quality because it was not persuaded by sectarian party allegiances but by an open contest about the efficacy of the ideas at play. It was cheaper.

In any case, it was akin to the model of chieftaincy with which the Africans were familiar. At Kgotla, all members of the community – with the possible exception of women and children ÔÇô were allowed to participate and each ones would be recognised.

What was needed then, was the modernisation of that which the Africans were already familiar with; rule by Kgotla. ‘Democracy’ was not the question. It had always been there at Kgotla.
This argument gained credibility on account of the leanness of the African economies of the time, but also on account of the prevalent anti-colonialist struggles of that age.

Generally, the liberation movements aspired to a unified approach to the waging of the nationalist struggle. On that account, one movement emerged far ahead of the others in achieving the downfall of the colonial power in place.

Such a movement would, by force of its contribution to the ‘liberation struggle’, or in many cases the ‘armed struggle’ earn the right to rule as soon as the colonial power collapsed. Once entrenched as the victorious liberation movement, it would command the discretion to decide on its chosen form of democracy.

More often than not, the party that won independence ÔÇô especially if it was through armed struggle – occupied the seat of government without limit.

There have been variations to the theme. The voluntary resignation of Nelson from the presidency after his first term as president made it difficult for Sam Nujoma to manipulate the constitution to stay for longer than two terms. That event also compelled Botswana’s Ketumile Masire to accede to inner party demands that he should quit after 18 years in power, not without a handsome exit package.

These variations on the theme did nothing to shake the ANc’s grip on power. They did little to weaken the grip of the Botswana Democratic Party and the South West Africa People’s Organisation on political power. It would not be stretching the point too far to suggest that those acts in fact strengthened the hold of these parties on government.

Only in Zambia was Patrick Chiluba able to oust Kenneth Kaunda with the backing of the trade unions. Zambia stands out among the countries that have practiced change of government which, in any case stands out as the ultimate affirmation of a functional political democracy.

All things being equal, in most of SADC, and indeed in the better part of the African continent, it has been a case of ‘first come first serve’ and the earliest worm catches the fattest worm, for good.

If only by default, the argument for one-party democracy gained some legitimacy, if not in theory, certainly in practice. Only Malawi and Zambia emerge as examples of democracies whose efficacy has been demonstrated in the change of government at the ballot box.

These African constituencies are the exception to the rule rather than the norm, in spite of the manner in which independence was procured.

If excuses should be made for the failures of the opposition in Africa, and particularly in southern Africa, it shall be said that the very fact of their presence has deterred the worst of the excesses of the ruling parties. But that, unfortunately, is not the ultimate measure of the usefulness of the opposition. The ultimate measure of the usefulness of the opposition lies in its seizure of political power.

Only that enables the opposition to put into practice its own programme which will be judged against the achievements or failures of the past ruling party.

(Let it be admitted that there have been a variety of other models of change of power, the better part of which do not follow the traditionally accepted constitutional models. The Seychelles are one such example. Ghana, Tanzania and a handful of others provide models of electoral democracy that go by the constitutional path. They are exceptions to the rule).

The north African experience makes the other point, that a people desperate for change will not wait for lazy opposition political parties to do it for them. The pervasive trend across northern Africa breaks all the traditional rules, that a people seeking to rebel require a predetermined ideology, a leadership that will announce it on their behalf and money to finance the rebellion.
Judged against previous experience, the resistance to authoritarianism that sweeps the northern African countries and the East might be judged to be anarchist, falling short of the established rules of making revolution.

The fact of the matter is that these are ‘people’ actions, and that is the source of their legitimacy. Perhaps there are new lessons to be learnt there, one of them being that the opposition political party is becoming increasingly obsolete in the struggle for the political and economic emancipation of the greatest majority of the Africans.

That possibility becomes that much more reasonable in light of the recent floundering of the opposition which understands quiet clearly the arithmetic of democracy; what they call ‘a game of numbers’.

The leaders of the opposition appear to regret what has been described in the press as the ‘collapse’ of the opposition unity talks. There seems however, to be no concerted effort on the part of the party leaders to reclaim the talks as the top-most priority of the opposition, not for its own sake, but for a properly functional democracy.

The opposition party leaders have the option of reclaiming the talks, lending them the dignity they deserve, or getting out of the way of the voters who demand viable competition between the ruling party and others who might want to contend for power.

That should give some indication about whether the opposition still has a purpose to serve, or whether it has become obsolete.


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The Telegraph September 23

Digital edition of The Telegraph, September 23, 2020.