Tuesday, September 29, 2020

What’s next for the Keeper of the Flame?

Not since Ian Khama rose to the helm of the ruling party has the venerated organization experienced the drama of last weekend. In the wake of the most contentious National Council gathering in years, the main talking point is the standoff between President Ian Khama and long time stalwart Daniel Kwelagobe. The denouement of the stand-off is set for this coming week when Khama is expected to strip Kwelagobe of his cabinet post for the uncompromising stance he has adopted.

In tracking the genesis of the issue, it appears that in the months leading up to his ascendancy to the leadership of the country, Khama mapped out a strategy to address the Kwelagobe and Mompati Merafhe bitter feud for control of the party. Having been chairman since the bloody contest against then incumbent Ponatshego Kedikilwe in Gantsi in 2003, the incoming president was alive to the factional dynamics at play in the ruling party. Though he had vanquished Kedikilwe, Khama knew that followers of the cause represented by Kedikilwe were still many in the ranks of the party.

In his bid for the chairmanship, Khama had enjoyed the active backing of the faction spawned by Merafhe, who had failed in numerous attempts to wrest control of the party from the grip of the Kedikilwe-Kwelagobe alliance. When he announced his bid for the chair, Khama was the only man strong enough to defeat the alliance. The entry of Khama into the race also split the once formidable alliance as some followers, attracted by his heritage, bolted from the camp and took up the cudgels on his behalf.

It did not escape close observers of the contest that, unlike in the past when Kedikilwe and Kwelagobe had fought together as comrades in arms, this time around Kwelagobe was absent from Kedikilwe’s corner. As Kedikilwe waged a valiant but ultimately futile battle against a rival flush with resources, family name and the backing of then state president Festus Mogae, the only thing he could count on was a gaggle of committed activists and his courage of conviction that his was a worthy cause.

The Gantsi congress not only moved Khama a step towards complete control of the party, but also resulted in his backers sailing into Central Committee positions on his coattails. After years in the wilderness, Merafhe and his group were finally in the pound seats. Of the erstwhile Kedikilwe-Kwelagobe alliance, the only survivor of the routing was the latter in his position as secretary general. The fact that he returned unopposed was instructive. To Kedikilwe’s hardcore base, the only explanation was that Kwelagobe had an understanding with Khama. This theory is made all the more plausible by an examination of Kwelagobe’s political origins.

It is widely known that Kwelagobe was given his break by Botswana’s founding president. Word had reached Seretse Khama about the indefatigable young activist who rode shotgun for Englishman Kgabo.

After completing secondary education and just a few months into his first job at Radio Botswana, Kwelagobe found himself in front of the president, and told that instead of proceeding for further studies he was the party’s designated candidate for the Molepolole North constituency.

That was in 1969. From then onwards, Kwelagobe’s star rose as Seretse Khama’s prot├®g├®. Under the mentorship of the president, he quickly rose to the position of deputy secretary general of the party. When Seretse Khama died in 1980, and Quett Masire ÔÇô who was then secretary general ÔÇô assumed the presidency, Kwelagobe stepped into the breach. At the time of Seretse Khama’s death, Kwelagobe was minister in the president’s office.

With the demise of his mentor, Kwelagobe became the most powerful politician in the country after Masire due to his twin portfolios of secretary general and minister in the presidency. It is believed that all along he remained close to the Khama family. When, in 1998, the heir to Seretse’s legacy finally departed the army, it is believed Kwelagobe was instrumental in his decision to join politics. The keeper of the flame of the Khama political dynasty had done his duty. That is why, when forced into a choice between his old comrade Kedikilwe and the progeny of his mentor, Kwelagobe had gone with the latter. Throughout the time Khama paid his dues as vice president to Mogae, Kwelagobe was considered a key family retainer and the two men enjoyed a special relationship cultivated through years of mutual loyalty and a common purpose to sustain the Khama political heritage.

In the last party congress before Khama became head of state, Kwelagobe chose his home village of Molepolole to pass on the mantle to another talented and driven young man called Jacob Nkate. However, it would appear that behind the scenes, the two men had been plotting to secure Kwelagobe’s position as party chairman to replace Khama. In that way, Kwelagobe would retire from the demanding post of secretary general but not leave frontline party politics. In acknowledgment of his years of sacrifice to the party and loyalty to the Khamas, he would stay on in the less involving role of chairman.
Seeking to achieve consensus for his plan, Khama lobbied Merafhe and Nkate to support the proposal. Everything went seamlessly, and 27 years after first occupying the position of secretary general for which the party gave a gift of 27 goats as a token of appreciation, Kwelagobe was secure in his new role.

But things were not as straightforward as they appeared. It is argued that knowing that his imminent rise to the presidency had already triggered jostling for the post of deputy, Khama had devised a plan to keep the lid on any acrimony that could arise. The two serious contenders were Kwelagobe and Merafhe. Knowing their history of rivalry, a delicate balancing act was required. Unbeknownst to Kwelagobe, by lobbying for the chairmanship, he was smoothing up things for Khama to appoint Merafhe as his vice. Whilst some of Kwelagobe’s supporters were celebrating his stage-managed occupancy of the chairmanship scenting the vice presidency, Khama had other ideas. By the time he unveiled Merafhe as the chosen one, the die was cast. Both men enjoyed a position of status though Kwelagobe’s was without the material benefits and pomp that went with the vice presidency. Imperfect as it were, the balancing act by Khama had gone some way to appease the long term rivals and their backers.

It is precisely this nerve-wracking attempt at a balancing act that is attributed to the dramatic events of this week. Those who profess to have the ear and counsel of the president say he has been looking for a way to extricate himself and the party from the Merafhe and Kwelagobe rivalry. In his view, the two men had always taken centre-stage during the mid-term of the Masire era and for the entire duration of Mogae’s presidency. Khama is not prepared for the same.

Ever the tactician, his opportunity came earlier this year when both men expressed interest to contest the position of party chair at the forthcoming congress in July. Though Merafhe already had the vice presidency, his bid was a tactical move to shore up his position. On the other hand, for Kwelagobe it was a move meant to keep him in the leadership of the organization which he considered his umbilical cord. With the bids declared, Khama revealed his masterstroke. He asked the two men not to contest. His argument was that any contestation would let the genie of factionalism out of the bottle in an election year when he would be seeking his first mandate from the electorate. Fully aware of the lobby lists that would rally behind the two men, Khama also moved on them. The forthcoming congress would be the stage for a return bout between Nkate and the mesmeric challenger he had narrowly defeated two years ago. Demonstrating how well thought-out his strategy was, the president ventured that another grudge encounter between the two would affect their fortunes in the general elections. His argument was that Nkate’s first priority should be his Ngami constituency where he is under siege from a coalition of BAM and BCP.

On the other hand, Gomolemo Motswaledi should channel his energies to the opposition-held Gaborone Central. The same logic was applied to other significant actors vying for deputy secretary general. In Kanye North, Kentse Rammidi had to focus on taking the constituency from the opposition, and in Francistown South, Wynter Mmolotsi had to defend the area from the opposition. It is known that in the past few weeks, the president had been selling his formula to key actors. At a recent meeting of the Central Committee, a section of the party comprising Merafhe, Nkate and Rammidi conceded to the president’s overtures.

Kwelagobe refused. He invoked his constitutional right to contest and the principle to allow party members to choose their leaders. Not being members of the party high command, emissaries were sent to sell the idea to Motswaledi and Mmolotsi. Both men balked at the idea and, invoking the party constitution, declared that they would not retreat from the coming contest. The president would not give up. On the eve of the National Council, he convened a meeting of the Central Committee and the Parliamentary Caucus at which the plan was presented. It is at that meeting where Khama reportedly revealed another ace. Anyone who contested the executive positions of chairman, secretary general, treasurer and their deputies would not be considered for a cabinet post. According to the president, holding dual positions was too much work for a single individual.

Read differently, it was a carrot and onion tactic. Because there is no remuneration attached to party office, the logic was those who rejected his proposal and opted for party office would starve. Those who heeded him and opted for cabinet would eat. It is reliably learnt that between the times Kwelagobe was first approached on the subject, immense pressure was brought to bear on him using his traditional allies, including business wheeler dealer and party treasurer Satar Dada. As he remained steadfast, representations were also made to Kwelagobe’s family. The refrain was consistent; if Kwelagobe gives up his bid for chairman he would eat and if not, he would starve. All types of inducement were dangled before him, but he refused to bite. It is said that despite being presented with the ultimatum of party or cabinet on National Council eve, Kwelagobe astonished those in attendance by revealing that he had already conveyed word to the president not to be considered for cabinet after the October polls in order to devote his time to the party. When Khama responded that making a choice between party and cabinet could not wait for October and had to be made soon, Kwelagobe followed his political instinct and settled to remain with the party. The result was a stalemate between the keeper of the flame and its embodiment.

The National Council held over the past weekend is reported to have discharged little business as delegates were embroiled in the Kwelagobe question. There were those who supported the president and others who backed the right of any party member to contest office at the July congress. Mainly, they were Kwelagobe supporters, amongst whom are the aggrieved and wounded. Resolutions coming from the meeting reveal that Khama presented his proposals, including the ultimatum to choose between party and cabinet. The week following the National Council started with the issue still on the table. It was reported that Kwelagobe had been offered to stand down from the chair in exchange for the position of National Assembly’s Speaker. To this, he has reportedly said his posture is driven by principle and nothing else.

If any such consideration for Speaker is on the table, it can only happen after the general elections when the post becomes vacant. In the interim, he has a right to run for chair in July after which the situation will unravel itself. What has left many baffled, though, is the extent to which Khama is prepared to ram his formula through despite Kwelagobe, like others, having made his choice. Initially convinced that the plan would succeed, Khama moved to avert a vacuum that would arise when the main candidates stepped aside. Illustrating just how those who underestimate his political acumen do so at their own risk, Khama played the female card and actively encouraged a team led by Botlogile Tshireletso to fill the void left that would be created by Kwelagobe’s exit. As secretary general to replace Nkate, he tapped Lesego Motsumi, who lost her seat in the party primary elections, a setback which did not stop Khama from appointing her leader of government business in Parliament earlier this year to replace Kwelagobe. Before the National Council, this new lobby group apparently enjoyed unfettered access to the president. Enjoying his patronage, they considered themselves home and dry. Now in the aftermath of the dramatic weekend, Tshireletso has abruptly pulled out, citing a heavy workload and hostility from those who accuse her of being used against Kwelagobe. To show that they still have the support of the president, the lobby has been searching for a replacement. One of those tapped is Margaret Nasha, who has declined so as to pursue her ambition to replace Patrick Balopi as Speaker of the National Assembly.

Kwelagobe’s supporters accuse the president of double standards. While Motsumi is contesting for secretary general, she has not been given an ultimatum to step aside despite holding a cabinet portfolio. Neither, it is learnt, would Nasha have been compelled to relinquish her cabinet post had she agreed to run against Kwelagobe. With answers to these questions not forthcoming, many party members regard Kwelagobe as a victim of the machinations of a president who wants absolute control and does not countenance anyone standing up to him. However, others say there is more to Khama’s hardline stance.

With Tshireletso and Nasha out of the race and just when everybody thought Kwelagobe would exercise his right at congress unopposed, a new twist has emerged. Impeccable sources indicate that Tshekedi Khama has been approached to take on Kwelagobe. A new-comer to both party and national politics, one of the president’s younger twin brothers apparently agreed to inherit his older sibling’s constituency reluctantly and after some arm-twisting because of an aversion to politics. To those sympathetic to Kwelagobe, the entry of Tshekedi shows the desperate lengths to which the president will go to remove the incumbent chairman.

Explicitly sacked from cabinet and in a classical military tactic of attrition Kwelagobe is allowed no respite.
If Tshekedi indeed enters the race, his contest against Kwelagobe would carry all the hallmarks of a Shakespearean tragedy; the Khama brothers ganging up against a loyal family retainer of many years’ standing.

But in more contemporary terms, it would reveal a secret only those in the tight Khama inner circle have allegedly been privy to. By becoming a reluctant politician, Tshekedi is part of a grand succession plan to eventually become president. What remains unclear is why Khama would risk Tshekedi so soon by pitting him against Kwelagobe. Barely a year in politics, his candidature would galvanise those BDP supporters opposed to a dynastical succession and who detect a privatization of the party and the State, into a strong force of internal opposition. Afterall, the easier option would be for Khama to entrust Kwelagobe with holding the fort pending activation of the succession plan. In another time and era, Khama would have relied on Kwelagobe to do exactly that. Not any more. Because of Kwelagobe’s insistence on his constitutional right, the special relationship appears over.

In a move revealing icy calculation, by asking them to step aside, Khama has, in one swoop, ended the careers of loyalists like Nkate and Rammidi in frontline party politics. Their ambitions stymied and the message sent that they are expendable, the two rising stars are unhappy and wounded. Another prospective rising star in the form of Motswaledi has been nursing a festering wound after being shunted aside to make way for Tshekedi in Serowe North West constituency. Of the big guns, only the innocuous Dada has been spared. In fact, those close to the inner circle allege the vice president may receive notice soon after October. Should their prediction come to pass, Merafhe will be a wounded former VP. Though details are sketchy, the grand succession plan is rumoured to partly entail either Ndelu Seretse or Kitso Mokaila, both trusted members of the inner circle, succeeding Merafhe as vice president whilst Tshekedi is prepared for the state presidency.

The thinking is that had Kwelagobe capitulated and withdrawn as was demanded of him, his running mates would have done the same thereby clearing the decks for the installation of a new team of people to take forward Ian Khama’s grand succession plan together with his vision of a party completely loyal to the dynasty.

Only Kwelagobe stands between Khama and the realization of this objective. Loyalists say after all his years of sacrifice, he is sad and wounded at the treatment he is receiving. Now seemingly set on his course of action, the president has ensured the coming winter season will be a long and bitter one for the BDP. If Khama, in this standoff with the keeper of his flame, does not handle the situation with dexterity and care, the month of March 2009 might in years to come signify the watermark of a party split between the Khama dynasty and a coalition of the wounded.

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The Telegraph September 30

Digital edition of The Telegraph, September 30, 2020.