As the Botswana Democratic Party emerges out of its first elective Congress since the General Elections last year, it seems almost inevitable that its strategists will be trying to evaluate the true causes and costs of the party’s structural decline since 2008. Any attempts to evade apportioning blame will be an effort to divert attention from the many ills afflicting the party.
The surest result would be a failure to come up with appropriate remedies for the malaise. Right from the day he first arrived into politics, President Ian Khama has had a difficult relationship with the BDP. It has been a marriage made in hell, with now ruinous consequences. This much, the BDP strategists will find easy to establish. The President has often publicly despised a lot that the party stands for, famously calling his parliamentary colleagues vultures. The relationship has been hard and tempestuous ÔÇô and when he could, he kept away from the party, only occasionally coming in to crack the whip, read the riot act and instill his medieval-like code of political discipline.
Cabinet, where his word has always reigned supreme has always provided a kind of sanctuary that has made him to believe mistakenly that it is better to have a stronger government and a weaker party; another ideological defect that sits at the bottom of the BDP decline today and one which strategists should, going forward seek to undo. Not to be missed is the split that sired the Botswana Movement for Democracy; its causes, its net impact and how to avoid its repeat going forward.
There are many reasons for the BDP decline, but in all of them one name will stay constant: President Ian Khama. The BDP, much like the whole Botswana is a victim of Khama’s personality in whose image he sought to recreate both the party and the state. President Khama’s domineering instincts have asphyxiated the BDP. A party that relies on just one man for its lifeline is a party facing death. In the long term, this is not sustainable. And for a party in power this should be considered a political risk, which it really is. By his nature Khama dislikes debate and the dissonance that comes with it. This is a result of deep-seated personal insecurity which he likes to conceal by invoking false traits of bravado. It is not something that can be changed. It is an inherent weakness that is so much a part of his bloodstream makeup. It is made worse by his love for staying in charge ÔÇô whatever the cost. He sets his lieutenants against one another, the better to control them ÔÇô and this trick he uses even against his core inner circle.
This however is not to question much less underestimate his innate motives. The president’s belief in his causes is absolute. The trouble though is that he could be idealistic, obsessed with the self and impatient with challenge. He likes to be praised and takes unkindly to being told unvarnished truths. He brooks no dissent. And dissent, however mild and well-meaning is often misinterpreted for disloyalty. Relations with the media range from contempt dismay and disdain to open hostility. And invariably, he always depicts himself as the victim of a media that knows no ethics. Suspicion of outsiders and a tendency to cold-shoulder perceived enemies have ensured that his circle of true Khamarites has stayed very much the same like it was since his days in the army.
There is no question that Khama is by all measure a ruthless power player. But still the blame should not all be his. The BDP should have its share of the blame. As a party the BDP has often behaved like some spineless aquatic creature. How did an entire institution come to be cowed and awed by just one man? Instead of promoting policies, collective decision making and institutional checks and balances, the party allowed Khama a free reign ÔÇô often without him explicitly asking for it. This is not Khama’s fault ÔÇô it is BDP’s. The BDP has often behaved much like Zaire under Mobuto Sese Seko.
Government policies, especially those with social welfare connotations have been gleefully sold to the public not as an outcome of the collective but as the President’s personal handouts of charity, grace and goodwill. This is a sign of weakness from which the BDP should emerge and hope never to fall back into ever again. Party functionaries have shamelessly fought each other for the President’s his ear and attention. This has been done without any goading from the president. It is a sign of instinctive weakness from which party members should draw lessons.
Gossip, backbiting and outright lying between and across party activists have replaced inner party debate. Under a different leader, this might long have been discouraged. But the current leader has enjoyed and quietly condoned and even encouraged it because it helps to entrench his personality cult. These are all small things that would help lead to big advances of reforms.