Sunday, June 16, 2024

Skelemani’s schoolboy-like gaffes turn Saleshando into an overnight hero

Running the current parliament was never going to be easy for Phandu Skelemani, who was unexpectedly chosen as Speaker of the National Assembly after the General Elections last year.

Those who rooted for Skelemani to get the job of Speaker must have had in mind the man’s legal background.

But being a Speaker is much more than just the reading of law. It is about flexibility and possessing a sense of fairness to all members.

It is about treating all Members of Parliament equally.

Less than a year in office Skelemani is already facing accusations of acting more like a ruling party fixer than an impartial head of the Legislature.

Nobody in government or parliament today has a more formidable institutional knowledge than Skelemani.

Yet going forward not many people expect things to get easy for him.

Things will get worse for the Speaker, not least because the current crop of opposition MPs is more organized,  more coordinated and like him more abrasive than was ever the case in the immediate past.

In the House, Skelemani’s difficulties are set to grow more on account of his personality than his ability.

By his nature, the man is abrasive, brooks little dissent and likes things done his way.

He’s not known to take prisoners.

And as member for Gaborone Central Tumisang Healey would attest, Skelemani does not suffer fools easily.

Skelemani’s life has always been made up of black and white.

Any shades are rejected as alien.

His universe revolves around a strange moral asymmetry that does not believe in diplomacy.

This as a principle makes him a moral absolutist who in practice invariably always goes for a maximalist approach. He is a student of winner-takes-all philosophy.

This is a guiding principle that is behind his embarrassing and ill-fated decision to suspend Leader of Opposition, Dumelang Saleshando.

For Skelemani, any midway path borne out of a compromise smacks of weakness and is thus inherently repulsive. His belief in an eye for an eye is almost evangelical. And turning another cheek is wimpish.

The moment Saleshando alleged corruption by President Mokgweetsi Masisi, the Speaker’s mind was made; this was a serious crime for which Saleshando had to pay a maximum price.

It never occurred to Skelemani that the easiest and cleanest way to catch Saleshando was to open his allegations to a broad scrutiny by subjecting them to a parliamentary debate.

By closing Saleshando’s big allegations from scrutiny, the Speaker was effectively letting the Leader of opposition off the hook.

Choosing to suspend Saleshando was like choosing to deploy a nuclear weapon – totally in line with Skelemani’s personality, but out of touch with due process. It was an easy pass that was handed to Saleshando, hence in a few days he was seen romping back into parliament to a hero’s welcome. Had parliament debated and interrogated Saleshando’s allegations, a different and certainly more useful conclusion could have been reached.

Now the nation is none the wiser about the whole fracas. All of it is Skelemani’s making.

The man is not known to ever seek consensus, much less popular approval. Popular views are less appealing to him, because in his worldview they are often wrong.

This is his same approach to law and its interpretation. He is what American constitutional lawyers call an originalist.

In court he was stiff and bombast – pushing his case to the end. As a reporter I covered a case of Bakwena chieftainship in which he led the government corner. He clearly relished the public attention on the case, and by his performance he did not disappoint.

This is the same man who as Foreign Minister he called the president of Madagascar who had just usurped power in a bloodless coup, a disco jockey.

In foreign affairs he became Botswana’s attack dog against the People’s Republic of China.

The first-time many people in Botswana heard of a place called South China Sea was from a statement by Skelemani denouncing China’s activities in that area.

Before then, as a sitting Attorney General, Skelemani took President Festus Mogae to court and forced Mogae into a humiliating out of court settlement. It was a high noon drama inside government.

In response to the defeat, Mogae roped in Sydney Pilane, another abrasive lawyer as his personal advisor so as to help keep Skelemani and his associates at bay.

This coincided with Botswana facing a near explosive tribal upheaval.

It was a moment of blood-curdling madness when two sub-cultural organisations; Pitso-Ya-Batswana and another one Society for the Promotion of Ikalanga Language (SPIL) literally went for each other’s throat in a tribal contest.

With rumours of a Constitutional Review gaining momentum, Botswana might be headed for Act II of that same era. 

Pitso Ya Batswana had Moutlakgola Ngwako as Spiritual Leader, assisted by Keetla Masogo while SPIL had Richard Mannathoko and Gobe Matenge – all men of strong-will and utter determination. As a senior civil servant Skelemani did not actively take part in the activities of SPIL, but still made it known he supported SPIL.

Few people would accuse Skelemani of inconsistency – except of course his SPIL co-founders who later accused him of betrayal after he became a minister.

“This is not the same Skelemani we have always known,” one prominent Kalanga nationalist told me with a deep of disappointment at the time.

Sometimes it is hard to say if Skelemani always attracts controversy or if controversy follows him.

He is simply averse even to self-restraint.

Addressing a political rally in the north, he once said all those who are fed up with peace and stability in Botswana should take the first bus to Zimbabwe.

No doubt he was referring to Samson Moyo Guma, then a BMD stalwart. Moyo Guma is a Motswana with Ndebele ancestry.

For a man steeped in tribal politics, Skelemani knew more than many that he was opening an old wound. That however did not matter to him.

He has always operated as a direct antithesis of what is today called populism.

And as Speaker, he will soon see that as more of a handicap than enabler.

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