Since the beginning of the 1990s, the Botswana Democratic Party (BDP) has been synonymous with one thing — factionalism. The unrelenting factions have seen the party suffering two major splits in the last decade. As the party heads for its first elective congress under the guidance of President Mokgweetsi Masisi, staff writer ALFRED MASOKOLA studies the evolution of the ruling party.
Between 1962 when BDP was formed until 2007, a period of 45 years, BDP had two Secretary Generals; Sir Ketumile Masire and Daniel Kwelagobe. However, ever since Kwelagobe left the position, the party changed Secretary Generals six times in just under a decade. The evolution does not end there; it has many facets key among them the elections of party Members of Parliament, a development which has seen the party’s MPs re-election rate falling dramatically in the last three general elections.
There are many schools of thought explaining the party evolution. Some believe that the evolution was inevitable, but an ardent debate remains on whether the change has been for better or for worse. BDP started experiencing factions beginning of the 1990s, primarily because of an investigation carried out by government through a commission of inquiry— and its resultant findings. The findings led to the resignation of then Vice President Peter Mmusi from his position, a development that polarised the party forever.
At the centre of the factional wars in the 1990s and early 2000s was the battle between Kwelagobe and Mompati Merafhe, mainly over the control of the party and succession plans. Despite Lt Gen Ian Khama being brought to the party in 1998, specifically for the purpose of uniting the party, BDP split for the first time barely two years after he became party leader. The first split resulted in the formation of the Botswana Movement for Democracy (BMD) under the leadership of the late Gomolemo Motswaledi.
Motswaledi fell-out with Khama in the build to the 2009 Kanye Congress, where his faction, Barataphathi, supported among others Kwelagobe defeated A-Team, which enjoyed the backing of Khama. Owing to the fragile relationship between the two factions, Motswaledi was suspended from the party, barely two months after his faction won all but one Central Committee (CC) positions in Kanye.
The suspension of Motswaledi set in motion the events that led to BDP’s first split since formation, an occurrence which in the past was synonymous with opposition parties. BMD became an important founding member of the Umbrella for Democratic Change (UDC), which has been threatening BDP’s hold on power since then. A year after Khama left the leadership, the party also suffered a second split, and again Khama was at the centre of the debacle.
A fallout between Khama and his successor, President Mokgweetsi Masisi over the ‘gentleman’ agreement that they had, saw Khama and a legion of supporters, including the disgruntled primary elections losers leaving the party. A splinter party, Botswana Patriotic Front (BPF) was formed, a development which saw BDP for the first time losing its traditional base in the Central District, its long-time stranglehold.
Ever since the 1990s, BDP never recovered, and it has become a party associated with factionalism. The problems however now go beyond factions, as there are new problems threatening the future of the party. BDP had to go through reforms since 1990s, the major ones being the 1997 constitutional review which resulted in the introduction of 10 year limit for presidential term; reducing voting age from 21 to 18; and establishment of Independent Electoral Commission (IEC).
At party level, the 1995 constitutional review made it explicit that party President shall be elected at party congress every election year. This provision however was never exercised, both during President Festus Mogae and Ian Khama’s terms but chickens came home to roost after Masisi became President. In a historic moment, Pelonomi Venson-Moitoi, a Cabinet Minister in Masisi’s administration announced her intention to challenge the latter for the throne. The battle for leadership was tense, and played a key role in the formation of BPF, after Venson-Moitoi pulled-out of the race at the eleventh hour.
But one of the problems facing one of the longest governing parties in world, is the inevitable evolution that brought among other things reforms and money. Money is today the most important tool in the fight for BDP control, a trend which is tearing the party asunder, perhaps in the manner that is bellicose than just factionalism. In 2003, BDP replaced its old system of selecting MPs and council representative through a Committee of 18, with a new system of Bulela Ditswe, where the party members were enfranchised to participate in the process.
Popular hardworking and loyal activists were always assured of a berth in Parliament or Council if they participated. Central Committee position was the preserve of thoroughbred members who understood the party and its tradition. The new developments have left many frustrated. No matter how popular they are, they know without the financial muscle they will remain in the periphery as the monied buy their way into power. These developments remain an errant bode, and to most, it is an irreversible trend.
“How can money politics be a positive development? It rules out vast majority of dedicated hard working activists from occupying certain political offices,” said a former BDP Central Committee member. “It starts at primaries. When you look at many people who won primary elections, they are new in the party but won because of money. If they had presented other credentials than money they would have been outcompeted by long servers who know the party better.”
In the 12th Parliament, there were less than 10 returning MPs, majority of them being a new crop of MPs. In the past the party had a high re-election rate but since the advent of Bulela Ditswe the re-election rate has been on a drastic decline. Ever since 2007, when Kwelagobe retired from the Secretary General position which he held for 27 years, the party has been chopping and changing Secretary Generals. The trend has been affecting other Central Committee positions.
The Central Committee is currently made up of fairly new entrants, the only veteran being party treasurer, Satar Dada, who has held the position since 1995. Masisi, the party leader became part of the Central Committee in 2015, a year after being appointed Vice President, meanwhile his understudy, Slumber Tsogwane only tasted Central Committee in 2017 despite being the longest serving party MP.
Since 2007, BDP has had six Secretary Generals; Jacob Nkate, Gomolemo Motswaledi, Thato Kwerepe, Kentse Rammidi, Mpho Balopi and Botsalo Ntuane. “But it is an irreversible trend. Money now buys office. Those without money are being reduced to voting fodder for the monied. They are second class members who will never compete for big positions until they also have money to buy votes and build networks,” said the former Central Committee member who also served as MP at some point.
“Bulela Ditswe also placed lots of demands on candidates by voters who ordinarily would not participate in party activities. They had to be fed, transported and it is becoming common for them to be paid in exchange for their vote. It is also common for opposition supporters to be recruited to vote in bulela ditswe with full knowledge of both transacting parties.”
BDP is preparing for its first elective congress under the leadership of Masisi. The party, for the first time since formation, postponed its elective congress in order to nurse its fragile state while preparing for its most crucial elections in its history. Already there are indications that party members have grown disgruntled with the party Secretary General and his position is the most sought after as the party heads to July’s elections.
Unlike previous elections there are little fears that the party may split, but the party is charting into new territory. As new blood takes centre stage, most of the party’s traditions will be surrendered, and largely unconsciously. When Khama announced his departure from the party in 2019, it also presented a new chapter in the party’s history. It was the end of the Khama dynasty, a family which has been part of the party fabric since formation.
The 2019 general elections also provided new dynamics: BDP is no longer a party of Central District. In fact, it is charting new territory. BDP survived 2019 general elections, largely on account of urban and peri-urban vote in the southern part of Botswana. Whether that will sustain the party in power remains to be seen.
The outgoing President of the Court of Appeal, Justice Ian Kirby, shares his thoughts with us as he leaves the Bench at the end of this year.
WeekendPost: Why did you move between the Attorney General and the Bench?
Ian Kirby: I was a member of the Attorney General’s Chambers three times- first in 1969 as Assistant State Counsel, then in 1990 as Deputy Attorney General (Civil), and finally in 2004 as Attorney General. I was invited in 2000 by the late Chief Justice Julian Nganunu to join the Bench. I was persuaded by former President Festus Mogae to be his Attorney General in 2004 as, he said, it was my duty to do so to serve the nation. I returned to the Judiciary as soon as I could – in May 2006, when there was a vacancy on the High Court Bench.
Botswana’s civil society is one of the non-state actors that could save the country’s democracy from sliding into regression, a Germany based think tank has revealed. This is according to a discussion paper by researchers at the German Development Institute who analysed the effects of e-government usage on political attitudes In Botswana.
In the paper titled “E-government and democracy in Botswana: Observational and experimental evidence on the effects of e-government usage on political attitudes,” the researchers offer a strongly worded commentary on Botswana’s ‘flawed democracy.’ The authors noted that with Botswana’s Parliament structurally – and in practice – feeble, the potential for checks and balances on executive power rests with the judiciary.
Bangwato in Serowe — where Bamagwato Paramount Chief and former President Lt. Gen Ian Khama originates – disagree on whether they must send a delegation to dialogue with President Mokgweetsi Masisi’s family in Moshupa. Just last week, a meeting was called by the Regent of Bamagwato, Kgosi Sediegeng Kgamane, at Serowe Kgotla to, among others, update the tribe on the whereabouts of their Kgosi (Khama).
Further, his state of health was also discussed, with Kgamane telling the attendees that all is well with Khama. The main reason for the meeting was to deliberate on the escalating tension between Khama and Masisi — a three-year bloodletting going unabated.