Saturday, December 9, 2023

The heir who had to keep justifying his legitimacy to the throne

A story is told of a backbencher who loved to play the clairvoyant. One particular prediction was that Number One would not last the distance, and Number Two was the man to back.

Speculation about Festus Mogae’s real intentions was a predominant feature of the early days of his presidency. Never before had Botswana’s chief executive had to pledge utmost dedication, other than the constitutional oath of office, to the job at a party forum. But then, never before had the country been landed with a head steward like Mogae, who appeared to be a lame duck president from day one.

Unlike his two predecessors, Mogae had the misfortune to be thrust into the leadership without any constituency in the party. Seretse Khama had the benefit of a united party behind him, adoring crowds in front of him, and, on the side, a feeble opposition that was nothing more than a welcome irritant.

Ketumile Masire would never quite command Khama’s reverence, but he had been the right hand man from the beginning. When he ascended to the presidency, he had been the only secretary general the ruling party had ever known. In many respects, the man had paid his dues ÔÇô and his body bore the scars of grueling party mobilization work. Not so for Mogae. He might have been Masire’s chosen heir, but to many of his colleagues in the party he would forever be the illegitimate son that snatched the birthright from his more deserving brothers.

Mogae’s weak standing within the party had heavily loaded the dice against him, and it would be a phantom that would visit him repeatedly. It was this delicate position that led Mogae to appoint a domineering personality as his VP. Not until either of the men breaks the silence, we might never know what transactions, if any, were agreed in exchange for Ian Khama stepping down from command of the army to become the prop that kept Mogae’s presidency afloat. It is not farfetched speculation to suggest that Khama had specific conditions and demands, as all who are headhunted are wont to. And in all certainty, it was bigger than just permission to continue to fly BDF aircraft. Whatever Khama’s ace was, it allowed the number two to appear like the master, and the number one a hapless puppet. Such was the president’s sorry position that he had to grant his deputy an embarrassing sabbatical leave when the two men reportedly disagreed on important appointments in the public service.

The skewed power relations between the president and his deputy provided fodder for incessant speculation, and so the story goes that one day, the melodramatic MP rocked up at Tsholetsa House with a strange revelation that he claimed to have on good authority: the president would soon take up a job with a multilateral financial organisation.

Those old enough to remember the 1980 transition must have had a spooky feeling that they were reliving a moment from the past. History has recorded that among certain of Seretse Khama’s Bangwato subjects, Masire was viewed as a caretaker president who only held the fort for Ian until he had self-actualized in the army. The difference was that while Masire had made deliberate efforts to assert himself as the president, Mogae sometimes appeared to be gripped by self-doubt. Even members of his cabinet occasionally confided outside their circles that they were working for a man who was not showing much energy, and often appeared not too keen on the job he held. He was too laidback to lead, almost like when he was still in Masire’s shadow.

An indifferent leader whose mind is read to be in permanent wander often has a hard time maintaining cohesion among the ranks, and that became evident among Mogae’s troops. Against the growing body of opinion that the president might not finish his term, rivalry heated up between supporters of the two likely successors, Ian Khama and Ponatshego Kedikilwe, the party chairman.

If the president had never intimated to anybody that he would exit early, why did the conjecture persist? It stands to reason that the speculation could only be the work of elements that stood to benefit from Mogae’s premature departure. The first beneficiary would be Ian, whom the constitution assured of automatic succession. A coterie had begun taking shape in his realm, and it saw itself as the powerbrokers of Ian’s presidency. How much Ian knew about the campaign to install him now, and to what extent he shared that sentiment is not known. What is known is that around this time, some people began to alert Mogae that if he didn’t rein in his team, he ran the risk of losing control of not only the party ÔÇô but the country as well. An observation is made that the BDP factions were probably not at their most intense at the time, but they were very close to that.

Big business interests were uncomfortable with the uncertainty. If there was to be a sooner-than-expected transition, it had to be indicated that it would be smooth. Most importantly, in certain sections, there were doubts about Khama from people who felt he needed more experience to develop a steady hand. For these people, in the interest of continued stability it was important for Mogae not to quit.

In July 2000, Mogae went on a working visit to West Africa, and he would be back well into that month’s long weekend. July is the month that the nation honours its chief executive through a holiday that is named for the leader ÔÇô President’s Day, which falls on the third Monday of the month. It is always a period of heightened activity in the country’s political calendar, for it is the time when parties meet in one formation or the other. That year, the BDP Youth Wing congress met in Tonota, and as is custom, the party leader was billed as a keynote speaker. Within the party, word had gone out that the president would use the occasion to make a landmark statement, but nobody knew exactly what that was going to be. There were frantic phone calls throughout the night to people who just might have caught a glimpse of the speech. He arrived from West Africa to a country governed by a party in great anticipation.

When Mogae stepped to the podium, for once in a looong time, the party was united ÔÇô in suspense.

“It is imperative…to dispel the perpetuation of more speculation in the interest of leadership stability,” he said at the end of the speech. “I do hereby pronounce my intent to serve out my two terms as prescribed by the constitution.”

The irony was profound. Instantly, the party’s fractured past played out in the hall. The rapturous, wild celebration of Mogae’s backers stood in sharp contrast to the stunned silence of the posse that was building around Khama.

The Tonota speech is significant in many respects. Here was Mogae as he was rarely seen ÔÇô fighting back and standing up to the compound bullies. For a fleeting minute, he was talking to multiple audiences: business, the nation, his party, and his number two ÔÇô in reverse order. It’s ironic that the punch that determined the fight’s outcome came when the man was on the ropes. It would be recalled that the Tonota youth congress came at a time when the president had few supporters.

The few allies he had at the time were mostly the MPs who had earlier had a running battle with Khama over their pay package. This crowd could be safely said to have dreaded the prospect of Khama becoming president so soon after the bloody duel. The man had no regard for them, even metaphorically likening them to vultures. While Ian’s supporters had increasingly become emboldened, Mogae’s own people had been disillusioned by his inability ÔÇô or unwillingness ÔÇô to put Ian in his place. Mogae’s supporters were worried that the president was undermining his legacy and losing control through his seeming deference to Khama.

Did the speech have the desired effect? To answer this question, we need to go back to the MP whose antics form the opening paragraph of this article. He arrived at Tsholetsa House one day with a strange proposition. He wanted to invite the president to be the chief guest at his constituency’s victory celebrations. But that was not all. On invitation cards and T-shirts, he wanted his picture nicely superimposed next to the president’s ÔÇô with the words, “Mogae for two terms”.

What are we to make of the MP’s two-step dancing? Village buffoonery? No, political opportunism borne out of the reality spelt out in Mogae’s firm stand. This time the psychic had read the tealeaves correctly. The man who had allowed an image of him to form as a reluctant president and thereby lost control, had reasserted himself ÔÇô and the open rebellion somewhat subsided. The speech is widely credited with leading to a reduction of tensions and speculation. What remained was the president’s laidback character.

A little unconventional, somewhat unsure of himself, and not given to pomp and ceremony, even Mogae’s close aides admit that their boss took time to get accustomed to the office. Not surprising for a man who was not born great, desired not political greatness, but had it thrust upon him. Most importantly, he weathered the storm of his rocky start, and kept his word ÔÇôto serve two terms.
Four months to Botswana’s third presidential transition, perhaps we should invite the clairvoyant MP for the honours, for indeed Number Two is about to become Number One.


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