Monday, June 5, 2023

The Colossus of BDP faces his Ides of March

Why, man, he doth bestride the narrow world. Like a Colossus; and we petty men
Walk under his huge legs, and peep about
To find ourselves dishonourable graves.
Men at some time are masters of their fates: The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,But in ourselves, that we are underlings. ÔÇô Cassius to Brutus, Julius Caesar

The Botswana Democratic Party has known no other leader who has straddled the party’s centre-stage as long as Daniel Kwelagobe. Like the Colossus erected to the god Helios on the ancient Greek island of Rhodes, he has loomed large, his finger on the pulse of even the remotest party structure in the furthest corner of the country.
In the strange world of politics, this giant now faces the most testing moment of his career. It’s a replay of a scene from a previous chapter.

Rewind to 1992 when he was forced out of government and the party position of Secretary General when he insisted on going to court to clear his name after a presidential commission had implicated him in wrongful transactions involving tribal land. He would defy odds, and make a resounding comeback as SG at the 1993 congress in Kanye.
Back to the present, and once again he’s fallen out of favour with the party leadership. And yet again, he’s looking to the party faithful who will be meeting in congress in July to adjudicate in his favour ÔÇô and be retained as party chairman.

Since he left cabinet (he says he opted out; his detractors say he was fired) on the back of President Ian Khama’s ultimatum that those who choose party positions cannot hold ministerial positions, there’s heightened interest and speculation on whether we are finally seeing the end of Kwelagobe’s long influence in the BDP.

When asked why he chose to sacrifice the status and material benefit of a ministerial portfolio, he gives a narration of how he believes the BDP should function as a governing party.
“I come from a long way with the party; not just as an ordinary member, but as an activist of the party,” he says. “I have passion for the party. You would recall that when I spoke at the Molepolole Congress (in 2007) I was very emotional. When I stepped down as Secretary General, I said if the party wanted to give me any other assignment, I would gladly do it. I couldn’t see myself as a retired MoDomkrag. I worry very much about the party; about its state of readiness to fight elections and sell itself….I find that the party has been weakened. We need to revitalise the cells, wards, branches ÔÇô and make sure they function. Currently, these organs come to life only during times of major events such as when we go to general elections; or when we go to congress so that we can raise the required number of delegates. That shouldn’t be the life of the party. The party should be alive at all times. We should be able to call cell committees at anytime, and find that they are functioning and doing and carrying out their mandate.”

He relates how his decision has astonished even some close associates. One even quipped that “you’re going to be disadvantaged financially. O ne o kgweediwa ke bakgweetsi ba puso; o sa reke peterole; o nna mo tlung e e duelelwang ke puso”. His response is that to him, politics and public service were never about the seduction of material trappings, but national service. He talks of his passion for the party, and unwavering commitment to certain principles as the values that informed his decision.

“You can’t sacrifice a principle. What made Botswana what it is was our principled stand. Botswana, under the leadership of Seretse Khama, had certain principles that we held dearly and fearlessly…I learnt a lot from my former presidents; that principle has to come first, and your reward will come afterwards. I am sure I will reap a lot, and I’m not talking about personal gain, but the desire to see the organisation that was formed to develop and serve Batswana working according to what it was meant to be. To me that is more important than money.

“I have been criticised; some people have even called me dishonest, but I had to maintain my stand, even in the face of people who clearly don’t understand my position,” Kwelagobe says.
His position is that the constitution allows bona fide party members to vote and be voted for at congress ÔÇô and this includes him. Ministerial appointments, on the other hand, are the sole prerogative of the president ÔÇô and he has no qualms with that. In fact, he accepts that the president can put conditions on such appointments, as Khama is apparently setting out to do in his latest move.

There’s a slight hitch, though. It has not escaped attention that Khama seems to apply his rule selectively. Health minister Lesego Motsumi, who is standing for secretary general, has neither been asked to step down nor fired. It is an issue which Kwelagobe chooses to sidestep by quoting the other President Khama, who used to warn party members against divisive tendencies.

“In the spirit of what Seretse used to teach us, I don’t want to get into the Mma-Motsumi affair,” he says.
He is equally scornful of the suggestion that he is being defiant of President Khama. “I am not being defiant at all,” Kwelagobe explains. “When you exercise your constitutionally guaranteed rights, you can’t be said to be defiant. I am just a humble and honest BDP member.”

Honest? Indeed? Well, Kwelagobe’s challenger for the chair, Tebelelo Seretse, is on record as questioning the man’s character. Her view, according to an interview published in the Botswana Guardian, is that Kwelagobe has gone back on an undertaking he made at the last congress to step down from active party politics.

“My statement at the Molepolole congress was very clear and unambiguous. I said that I was stepping down as secretary general, but if members wanted to give me another assignment, I would do it. I am merely fulfilling what I said in congress. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with this,” he says.

Wouldn’t it be to the greater good of the organisation he so dearly loves if a polarising figure such as Kwelagobe, who has been at the centre of all factional feuds in the party, were to step aside from contest?

“When you go for elections, if delegates feel strongly that you are a destructive element, they can make you step aside by not voting for you. Nobody can deny that we have a history of factions. But I have been touring the country and my message is premised on support for the president, the government, the party and unity in the party. I support the president; I support the initiatives that he has come up with because I believe he is in the right direction.

“If I were hell-bent on factionalism, I wouldn’t be going about talking about unity in the party. Even at the height of factions, I had told those whose faction I had joined that I am a constitutionalist. This constitution doesn’t serve the interests of a faction; it serves the interests of the BDP. I aligned with them on the basis that we were on the side of the constitution. I can never allow myself to be dislodged from the constitution. It’s the key, and the unifying factor. Fortunately, they shared my view that the constitution had to be followed,” he says.

For the record, I ask if indeed there’s a grand plan to eventually remove Khama from the presidency once Kwelagobe’s allies take full control of the party, as they are widely expected to in July. He has heard the rumour, and he dismisses it as the creation of “mischief-makers”.

“If I didn’t support the president, I would have said, ‘don’t put his picture in my campaign posters because the special congress [that elects the party’s presidential candidate] has not taken place’. If I didn’t support him, I would have said, ‘let us fulfill this constitutional requirement first’. The truth is that I will support him (at the special congress). My region is going to nominate him. I am going to write in my nomination forms that I support him as the BDP’s presidential candidate. In any case, we don’t have a system of recall in BDP, or in Botswana. The position of the constitution is that after electing the president, it’s done. The law wouldn’t allow it. We don’t have the power to recall. If I had a hidden agenda, I wouldn’t be making these statements,” Kwelagobe says.

When everything has been said, do party members have reason to worry about the direction the party is taking?

He ponders his answer for a while, and then comes the response: “They have the right to be concerned. For example, the way we handled primary elections attracted a lot of criticism. Some people felt we didn’t do what we ought to have done. People are concerned about the high level of independent candidates. These people have chosen to stand as independents because they are disgruntled about what they felt was unfair treatment. People had to be concerned. People felt certain cases could have been handled in a better way. Those things raise concerns. It is left with us to try to assure party members that things will improve.”

As the clock ticks towards the congress, will he snap at the knees and fall, like the Colossus of Rhodes which was hit by an earthquake, or will his political end, like Julius Caesar, come through the plot hatched by once-trusted comrades? To be precise, will July be his ides of March?


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