Thursday, September 24, 2020

The story of how Festus Mogae railroaded Ian Khama into politics

In his groundbreaking autobiography (The Magic of Perseverance) former minister David Ntsimele Magang gives an insider’s perspective of how all rules were bent and deliberately broken to usher the current President, Ian Khama into politics

BOTSWANA’s third president, Festus Gontebanye Mogae, was sworn in on April 1, 1998. He was 59 years old, making him the oldest of the three presidents at assuming office. But as the old age pointedly argues, age is just a number. President Mogae was the most educated of the three (though my profession’s spirit de corps impels me to venture that Seretse was the most learned) boasting a Master’s in Development Economics and the most experienced technically having worked full time as Planning Officer, Senior Planning Officer and Director of Economic Affairs in the Ministry of Finance and Development planning; Permanent Secretary in the same ministry; at once Permanent Secretary to the President and Secretary to Cabinet; Alternate Director of the International Monetary Fund and Governor of the Bank of Botswana; Minister of Finance and Development Planning; and at once Vice President and Minister of Finance and Development Planning. It goes without saying that by virtue of these glittering credentials more was expected of Festus Mogae than his predecessors.
Since the day Mogae stepped into the number two slot on March 9, 1992, few doubted that the ultimate crown was within his grasp. I was one of the many who extrapolated positively; the odds seemed overwhelmingly in his favour just as they had been at the time the vice presidency became vacant.

Mogae and Masire were not friends in a social sense, but it appeared Masire always had a favourable disposition towards Mogae which dated back to the early post-independence days when Mogae was among the Finance and Development Planning Ministry technocrats who helped drill him in the fundamentals of economics. But that Mogae rose, in the first place to the position of vice president and ultimately to president was due as much to fate as to his own pedigree.

On March 7, 1992, Mmusi and DK were forced to resign, following the flak of the Mogoditshane land deal scandal, and all of a sudden there were two vacancies in cabinet. I filled one ÔÇô the Ministry of Works, Transport and Communications portfolio ÔÇô after a mini reshuffle of the ministerial pack, and of course I relished the promotion, regarded by many as long overdue, from assistant minister in the Ministry of Finance and Development Planning to minister with full stripes. Mogae filled Mmusi’s position as Vice President, whilst at the same time retaining his portfolio as Minister of Finance and Development Planning.

What would have happened had Mmusi not lost his position as number two and lived, say five years longer than he did? We will never know for certain. That does not mean we cannot exercise conjectural licence. One school of thought opines that the most likely scenario is that Mmusi, immediately after taking the presidential oath on April 1, 1998, would have announced DK as his deputy. The two were close enough to have long concluded and sealed that kind of pact. The only problem with that theory is that Mmusi and DK were from the same district and worse still, the same tribe. Mmusi was certain to balk at fixing the current and future presidency firmly in the hands of Bakwena, a scenario the highly influential BaNgwato would not have stomached. But what I hear you say about the existing set up where the top two both hail from GammaNgwato? Well that is no conundrum at all. The status quo is hardly frowned upon simply because Vice President Kgosi Khama IV’s popularity is cosmopolitan as to many he evokes in his aura and bearing the memories of his iconic father, Seretse Khama who was loved in equal measure in all corners of the country. Thus Mmusi was bound to side-step DK and go for PHK, or make overtures, at the urging of the northern lobby to Kgosi Khama IV, exactly as Mogae did. People like Merafhe, Mogae and I would almost certainly never have crossed the mind of Mmusi; we were non-starters, virtual enemies whom he would even have moved to fire in due course, with me probably being replaced by Gus Matlhabaphiri, who was always gunning for my constituency till the year 2000 when he settled for Molepolole North. Mogae would probably have suffered less stringent reprisals, but the number two position would have eluded him. Again this is mere conjecture; no one can say with certainty what would have transpired as omniscience is exclusively an attribute of God.

When I was receiving the ministerial brief, President Masire asked me who I would recommend for the vice presidency. Obviously then I was not in the running, not that I could have bet a thebe on it anyway. Of the three possibilities I mentioned Mogae was the first. To me he was both a cinch and an investment. Not only did Masire dote on him, but he was a long standing friend of mine and sympathetic to my side of the factional divide even though he was not in the thick of the polemics. The alternatives were Mout Ngwako and Mompati Merafhe, but only on the presumption that the President found Festus wanting in one way or another – which I deemed improbable. The following day on March 9, 1992, the President announced that Festus Mogae was his new vice president.

The ascendancy of Mogae to the number two position was, of course, angrily resented by the Kedikilwe-Kwelagobe faction as he was not one of their own. Thus from day one they set about seeing to it that everything possible under the sun was done to prevent his progression to the number one position. To succeed they would obviously not use the gun; their hope was s the Republican Constitution. According to section 35 of the Botswana Constitution at the time in the event that the Presidency became vacant in circumstances other than electoral defeat MPs would within seven days nominate new presidential candidates for parliament to vote on. The Kedikilwe-Kwelagobe faction hoped to make use of this provision to the hilt; they would campaign their lungs out as if it was a life and death affair, then on the day Masire hung up his gloves, field PHK as their presidential candidate. In the event that PHK triumphed he would then reshuffle cabinet, demote Mogae and elevate DK as his Vice President. The likes of Merafhe and I would also face the music, possibly by getting the chop on some trumped-up scandal or impropriety, or simply be relieved of our jobs.
Both Masire and Mogae were aware of PHK-DK intrigues, with Masire being particularly perturbed as he did not want his anointed heir to be sabotaged in this way. Thus on November 14, 1995, the BDP Central Committee plus a few other party faithful including me met to discuss the drafting of a new party constitution. At this meeting there was an unexpected turn of events. It was decided that the Botswana constitution too, should be amended in one aspect ÔÇô limiting the presidency to a maximum of ten years. President Masire readily acceded to this proposition; in addition he offered his own ÔÇô that a further amendment to the Republican Constitution be made for the Vice President automatically to succeed the president in the event of the latter vacating office for reasons other than a ballot based dismissal. Masire used the 1980 contest as the pretext for opting for automatic succession to the presidency. He also pointed to the counter productive air of uncertainty that gripped the nation as to who the next president of the country would be, as there were, so he said several candidates, including myself, which was patently not true.

Masire’s move was a masterstroke; for it meant that if he say retired at the end of 1996, Festus would be beyond the clutches of the Kedikilwe-Kwelagobe faction and the next time they wanted to contend with him he would be wielding the omnipotent powers and influence of a sitting president. Naturally the faction was irate as their hope of propelling PHK to the State House in the immediate term had been dealt a crashing blow; I could see them licking their wounds and muttering under their breaths as we trooped out of the meeting.

The Masire gambit, self-serving as it was, was arguably in the interest of the party. The BDP was basically two parties in one, each fervidly vying for power and cultivating its own constituency. Masire’s proposal therefore augured well for the party in that it imposed an undisputed successor to the president behind whom all would rally whether they liked it or not. At the same time the proposal was retrograde and undemocratic; it was a throw-back to pre-independence era of hereditary politics and disqualified parliament from having an input in vetting a possible future president. Its assumption of ceteris paribus scenario was also unfortunate; the BNF or any other opposition movement would be just too happy to invoke the same clause when they were the ones occupying the front bench.
I was one of those who recognized the flaws of Masire’s proposition right away. Nevertheless I opted to throw my weight behind it, wary of the fact that if I voiced exception to it, I would be panned as prompted purely by my own presidential ambitions. Such an action was not in character, but there are times when one has to defy one’s better judgment in accommodation of the collective will, and for strategic reasons. For me to be seen singing the same tune of the Kedikilwe-Kwelagobe faction would have antagonized my fellow faction members and possibly estranged me from Mogae, whose ascendancy to the presidency I was rooting for.

The Republican Constitution was accordingly amended in 1998. In fact its long winded process through parliament was the main reason Masire stepped down far later than most had anticipated. Masires’s announcement on November 9, 1997, of his retirement on March 31, 1998, was followed a week later by Kgosi Khama IV that he was leaving the army on March 31, 1998. At first, many people, including me did not read much into this development; it was thought the Kgosi wanted to devote himself to dynastic duties as Paramount Chief of the BaNgwato or he wanted to pursue entrepreneurial interests. The most striking development was that Mogae all of a sudden became rather aloof and self-effacing; he literally refrained from interacting even with those closest to him simply to avoid being drawn into a discussion of whom he had in mind as his potential number two. I remember at one time persuading Mout Ngwako to try and coax him into spilling the beans, but he returned as much in the dark as before.

Meanwhile speculation as to who would be the next vice president became the talk of the age. The topic had gained currency as early as 1996 in the Botswana press. For example in an August 30, 1996 edition of The Botswana Guardian four BDP heavyweights were tipped for the post ÔÇô Merafhe, DK, PHK and I ÔÇô and of these I was assessed as the most promising. On March 20, 1992, the United States Ambassador to Botswana David Passage had actually ventured whilst I was lunching at his house that Merafhe and I were considered the most fitting candidates for the presidency. In terms of the position at stake at the time however, those who thought I was the odds-on favorite for the presidency were Ephraim Setshwaelo, Michael Dingake, Uncle Pax Gaobakwe, Gobe Matenge, Lawrence Lekalake and Bahiti Temane. Even Merafhe himself suggested to me whilst we were on an official trip together in Mauritius that he could just not see how Mogae would bypass me for anybody else in the light of our close relationship over the yeas.

On January 4, 1998, Merafhe tipped me off that Kgosi Khama IV was entering politics and would contest either the Palapye or Serowe North parliamentary seat. The press got wind of this development too and soon were hushing that indications were that the Kgosi would be the next Vice President. Again the unlikelihood of such an eventuality was compelling. Firstly Kgosi Khama IV was a chief and therefore convention barred him from politics unless he of course he decided to abdicate, which I could not imagine him doing; secondly he had no experience in politics. He might come in as a minister, but to vault straight to the number two position was unlikely. My hunch, all the same was that he was entering parliament to learn the ABC’s of political discourse and gain the necessary experience to be eligible for a ministerial position. What I had forgotten, but had entered into my diary was that the late vice president Lenyeletse Seretse once told me that Kgosi Khama IV had indicated to him that he would only be persuaded to join politics if he was offered the vice presidency or, failing that a very senior cabinet position such as Minister of Presidential affairs and Public Administration.

I have mentioned that when Quett Masire took over as president in upon the death of Seretse Khama in 1980, he was regarded as little more than a caretaker who was obligated, in a moral sense, that is to give way to Kgosi Khama IV when the latter was ready to assume the reins. This belief was not only prevalent in Botswana, particularly in the north, it was just as widespread overseas. In fact, in places like United States Kgosi Khama IV’s ascendancy to the presidency was not only presumed upon it was anticipated.

In 1983, I travelled to the United States to present a paper entitled Democracy in African Tradition: A case for Botswana at the Aspen Institute in the state of Maryland. During a stopover in Washington, I was called to a meeting in the State Department. Among those present were former US Ambassador to Botswana, Horace Dawson, and officials from the State Department, the equivalent of our Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation. I was dumbstruck when the Chairman of the proceedings leaned over to me and said, “We hear Ian Khama is resigning from the army to take over as President of Botswana. The country must be agog with excitement, isn’t it?” I said this was much news to me as it was to them, unless a coup had been staged whilst I was in transit. The official went on to say that the white community in Botswana, particularly the De Beers top brass were known to be crooning for the Khama presidency and that in any case almost all Southern Africa national leaders were also chiefs, citing Lesotho, Swaziland and South African Bantustans of Ciskei and Bophuthatswana. Their reasoning was that as Seretse Khama was a chief it followed that his son Ian Khama would become President too.

In my response I put it to the same official that the cited cases were aberrations, that they were far from being the norm of the continent of Africa; the South African Bantustans were not even countries but native reserves created by the apartheid government whose claims to statehood were not recognized outside South Africa. Accession to the presidency was not a birthright in most of Africa and it was na├»ve to think that our Kgosi Khama IV was destined to inherit the presidency after his father’s death. We were as much a democracy as the United States where Ronald Prescott Reagan was certainly not the next automatic occupant of the White House after it was vacated by his father Ronald Wilson Reagan.

But the smoke that was pointed out to me in Washington was not entirely without a fire. Four days after my return from Maryland, the former Botswana Development Corporation Managing Director Ralph Stephens held a reception in my honour at his home, where a number of erstwhile Botswana Government expatriate officials were in attendance, including Landell-Mills and Mike Stephens. Quill Hermans was also present. The issue of Khama IV taking over the presidency featured prominently. He had attained 30 and that had certainly spurred the accession debate. The Botswana constitution allows a citizen aged 30 or above to contest the presidency.

Yet my skepticism remained undiminished despite the buzz that Kgosi Khama IV was Mogae’s Vice President in waiting reaching fever pitch. I just did not see the necessity, particularly since Mogae was not short of capable politicians to choose from. As it drew towards the end of March, Mogae peeped out of his cocoon and hinted to the press that he indeed had an interest in Kgosi Khama IV. Even then no one I talked to interpreted that to mean propelling the Kgosi to the number two position; the most he was postulated to be was that of minister. As far as expressly indicating who his vice president would be, Mogae remained tight-lipped right up to the day he was sworn in as Botswana’s third President on April 1, 1998.

The new cabinet was sworn in on April 2, 1998 and it included Kgosi Khama IV, who provisionally took the Ministry of Presidential Affairs and Public Administration; the appointment was subject to the due process of the law taking its course as he was not yet a member of parliament. I was sent back to the Ministry of Works Transport and Communications after haunting De Beers for the greater part of the four at the Ministry of Minerals, Energy and water Affairs; I could hear the likes of Peter Gush, Ogilvy-Thompson and Louis Nchindo saying hood riddance.

The appointments that bamboozled me were those of PHK and DK. They were given the equally plum posts of Ministry of Finance and Development Planning and Ministry of Local Government and Lands respectively. I thought it was injudicious to grace the leading lights of a rival faction with such highly visible, clout-carrying posts which would make them an everyday feature in the public psyche. May be it was one way of extending the olive branch to them, which I doubted would placate them in the slightest, unless one of them was given the number two post, which was extremely unlikely. Mogae however remained silent about his vice president, the waiting game was not over yet.

The next day, April 3, 1998 Mogae announced before a BDP parliamentary caucus that Kgosi Khama IV, who, incidentally was his chief was his choice for Vice President. He would not assume office forthwith; he would have to wait endorsement by parliament. Meanwhile Roy Blackbeard the incumbent for Serowe North would step aside to make way for a by-election in which Kgosi Khama IV would contest candidates from the opposition. Once the election was done with and assuming that the Kgosi emerged victorious, Mogae would then formally present him to parliament in accordance with the Republican Constitution.

The reasons Khama was preferred over senior politicians like myself were two fold. He was young, only 45 years of age and being a new comer to the party ÔÇô he had registered as a member of the BDP only two days before ÔÇô was untainted by the perennial infighting and was, therefore, best placed to help unify the faction-ridden, strife-torn party. I found the age factor intriguing as in alluding to it Mogae implied that people like myself who were nudging 60 when he took office would be too old to be vice president or to rule when he stepped down 10 years later. If that was indeed what Mogae intended to convey, it was a preposterous argument. Nelson Mandela was 76 years old when he became president and ruled with distinction. Ronald Reagan was 69 when he took office and he completed two four-year terms with spectacular success. As far as I was concerned therefore the argument of age held no water. In any case the vice presidency does not necessarily confer certain accession to the presidency as anything can happen such as a cabinet reshuffle, dismissal from cabinet or loss of elections by the party. When it was my turn to comment on this point however I elected to keep my thoughts to myself.

Would Kgosi Khama IV succeed in putting out the factional fires? I did not think he would manage and made myself forthrightly voluble on this point. I said to Mogae that both he and Masire had failed dismally to rein in the factions which began and thrived under their collective leadership. If the two of them had failed to inspire discipline in the party I did not see how Kgosi Khama IV would make a positive impact single-handedly. In other words the familiar culture of tolerance and impunity would be expected as much under the leadership of Mogae as it was under Masire, and Kgosi Khama IV would in whatever way he tried to mend the fences be regarded as essentially intrusive.

And since he was directly recruited by Mogae he was certain to be held as covertly partial, furthering the interests of the president’s side of the factional fault line as opposed to treading a neutral path.
Was it proper for a chief to be admitted into mainstream politics? There had been no mention, either elsewhere or in the address by Festus that Kgosi Khama IV had stepped down as Paramount Chief of the BaNgwato, which meant he would be vice president while retaining his chiefly post.
Finally I put it to Mogae in unequivocal terms that I was disappointed that I had been bypassed for the vice presidency when I believed I had what it took to merit the position.

There was one or two others I am sure who thought they too had been shortchanged, but unlike me chose to keep quiet; unfortunately, I could not speak on their behalf. Be that as it may, I would go along with the president’s choice, as everybody else in the caucus had expressed support and democratic rectitude demanded that I rally along with them; this I also asserted loud and clear.
The insincerity of some of my colleagues defied belief. They spoke glowingly, even obsequiously of the president’s choice, when only the day before some of them had expressively intimated to me that if the rumours they hearing were true ÔÇô of Mogae appointing Kgosi Khama IV as his vice president ÔÇô they would not hide their displeasure in an ad hoc BDP parliamentary caucus. Of course I did not expect them to condemn the move; but I would rather they had only and objectively engaged with the issue instead of simply airing sycophantic but forked tongued praises. As it was, I was the only one who spoke my mind and for that I ended up being seen in an avidly anti-Khama light. Such superficial thinking could not have been more wrong; such a serious matter as this which had long term ramifications required an honest expression of opinion.

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