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BCP loses its innocence after The Night of Long Knives


Previously known as the party of peace and stability, the recent events in the Botswana Congress Party (BCP) signaled that the 24-year-old movement is finally paying the price for becoming a mainstream party, having had to take a radical decision to expel five of its Members of Parliament in a purge driven by the party rank and file – writes ALFRED MASOKOLA.

In 1998, in the eve of general elections, Botswana Congress Party was formed. An overwhelming 11 of the 13 Botswana National Front (BNF) Members of Parliament (MPs) elected in 1994 general elections, broke ranks with the party President, Dr Kenneth Koma to establish their own party.

The formation of the new party was the culmination of a protracted power struggle between Koma, and the Central Committee that was elected in 1997. The 1997 Ledumang Congress saw the party old guard, being trounced in competition for a place in the party politburo.

The defeated cadres, styling themselves, The Concerned Group, resented their setback and started another spirited campaign against the members of the new Central Committee. Party leader, Koma closed ranks with them, creating two centres of power that tore the party asunder until the fateful special congress in Palapye.

Perhaps only rivalled by Botswana Movement for Democracy (BMD)’s 2017 Bobonong Congress, the BNF special congress held in 1998 was full-blown war. Flying chairs, tables, and other useful furniture at the disposal of delegates, were used as weapons as the two factions failed to agree to a single agenda item. In the midst of the brawl, Koma dissolved the Central Committee, and later appointed a new one. It was the most radical decision ever taken by a political party leader, but the High Court later ruled in Koma’s favour, putting the final nail in the coffin in his battle with members of his central committee. Few weeks later, BCP was formed.

The Palapye congress was preceded by another critical decision, which Koma took against the wishes of the BNF MP. In 1994, in an extraordinary year by Botswana politically standards, BNF had gone on rampant on general elections, shooting from three seats gained in 1989 general elections to 13 seats courtesy of Botswana Democratic Party (BDP)’s own factional bloodletting. The BNF numbers meant that —– in the 40 seat parliament — the party needed only eight more seats to overthrow BDP from power.

The prospects of winning power were, however, not the most important debate in the BNF. It was the control of the party, a conversation which pre-occupied party faithful until Palapye happened. Palapye happened on the back of another fallout in the BNF, involving Koma and the parliamentary caucus then chaired by Otlaadisa Koosalaletse. As the BDP weathered against stormy waters, frightened by the prospects of losing government, power brokers were at play, orchestrating the exit of President Sir Ketumile Masire and the entrance of Festus Mogae.

Mogae was a new entrant in the affairs of the BDP. He ascended to the top post on the back of a constitutional mechanism designed to protect the party from possible split; to save him from being at the mercy of seasoned campaigners and stalwarts such as Ponatshego Kedikilwe and Daniel Kwelagobe.

Uncertain about his support base in the BDP after ascending to the presidency, Mogae reached out to Koma, to solicit for the support of BNF in endorsement of his Vice President. The Vice President in waiting happened to be the person by the name Lt Gen Ian Khama. BNF had resolved on David Magang, but Koma endorsed Khama, breaking ranks with fellow MPs. With the BNF already in turmoil, Koma’s acts exacerbated the hostility.

“I remember Maitswarelo Dubutha saying to him: ‘Can’t you see that you are taking us back to 1997? People are going to respect the BDP because of the Khama name,’” recalled former BNF Secretary General and later BCP President, Gilson Saleshando in an interview with Mmegi in 2010. “Koma did the things that were difficult to forgive him for. He tore apart BNF in Palapye.”

Few months after Palapye, BCP was born in Mochudi. It was led by Michael Dingake, then BNF Vice President and Member of Parliament for Gaborone Central. Dingake immediately, assumed the Leader of Opposition in parliament, dethroning Koma from a position he had held since 1985.

BCP made its debut in general elections in 1999, a year after formation. The outcome was not kind to the new party. BCP lost all, but one seat, from the 11 MPs who had defected from BNF in the previous year. Only Kavindama survived, retaining the Okavango constituency, which had held since 1984. Meanwhile, BNF salvaged some of its old seats, but managed only six, way below the 13 it won in the previous elections. New faces such as Nehemiah Modubule, Robert Molefhabangwe, Michael Mzwinila, and Omphithetse Maswabi arrived in parliament under BNF ticket, replacing firebrands; Paul Rantao, Gil Saleshando and Maitshwarelo Dabutha.

BNF, having gained 105,109 votes in 1994 declined to 87 457 in 1999. Its popular vote fell from 37 percent in 1994 to 24.7 percent in 1999. Meanwhile, BCP registered 40 096 votes in 1999, and got 11.3 percent popular vote share.

As the going became tough in the BCP, some founding members returned to the party. This was after Koma left the party, leaving under controversial circumstances in 2003 after being involved in the formation of New Democratic Front (NDF). Rantao and Isaac Mabiletsa are some names who returned to the BNF to rekindle their careers.

Rantao returned to parliament as a member of newly created Gaborone West North constituency under BNF ticket, with Mabiletsa returning to parliament as MP for Mochudi East. In total, BNF registered 12 MPs under the leadership of Otsweletse Moupo. For the BCP, it was another election to forget for the party. The party registered one MP, after a then 33-year-old Dumelang Saleshando, scrapped through against Dr Margaret Nasha at Gaborone Central.

In the 2004 general elections, BNF did not only increase its seat to 12, but also increased its vote to 107,451, with a 25.5 percent popular vote, a slight increase from 1999 general elections. BCP, on the other hand, increased vote to 68, 556, and increased its popular vote by more than 50 percent, from 11 percent in the previous elections to 16 percent.

In 2005, BCP elected Gilson Saleshando to lead the party. The party started its upward trajectory. In the build up to 2009 general elections, BCP joined hands with Ephraim Setshwaelo’s Botswana Alliance Movement (BAM) to contest elections under pact arrangement, a result which saw BCP winning for the first time more than one seat. BCP/BAM pact brought five seats in parliament, with BCP accounting for four of the seats.

BNF, on the other hand, was going through turmoil once again. For the first time since 1984, the party failed to win a single seat in Gaborone, and lost control of Gaborone City Council. BNF stagnation had begun. BCP passed the 100 000 vote mark, to register 104,302 — more than 30 000 new votes from previous elections. Its popular vote rose to 18.8 percent.

BNF garnered 119,509 votes, but reduced the number of seats from 12 to six in another devastating showing. Its popular vote fell to 21.1 percent. BNF and BCP were now equal in strength. The growth trajectory of BCP looked great, while BNF was clearly on decline. Between 2005 and 2010, BCP merged with the BAM and NDF. BAM helped the party to increase its base in constituencies such as Ramotswa and Ngami.

BCP suffered a setback in 2014 general elections, now under the leadership of Dumelang Saleshando, who had become President of the party in 2010. After refusing to join the Umbrella for Democratic Change (UDC), a coalition of opposition parties which comprised Botswana Movement for Democracy (BMD), Botswana People’s Party (BPP) and BNF.

The coalition registered an unprecedented 17 seats contesting under once ticket, while BCP registered only three seats. BCP popular vote was however on the rise, registering 20 percent of the overall vote, while UDC managed 30 percent.

For many years, amid its steady growth, BCP has managed its democracy. Though committed to democracy, it was never synonymous with instability and factional bloodletting.  As a result, BCP managed to build a solid base in the past two decades, thanks to founding stalwarts such as Gil Saleshando, James Olesitse, and Batisani Maswibilili who built bases in constituencies that would later be won by their predecessors.

Major differences starting showing in the build up to 2015 Kanye Congress, where the party was faced with a simple but polarizing question; should the BCP join UDC? Those who supported joining the UDC eventually prevailed. BCP contested 2019 general elections under UDC ticket and won 11 of the 15 seats won by the coalition. It was the biggest showing since formation.

The party has, however, had not enjoyed the right to brag freely about its electoral success, as some question if the party could have reached the same heights had it not enjoyed the backing of UDC.
BCP success meant that the curse of growth finally caught up with it. With many voices, differences in opinions and how best to lead the party are guaranteed. This is the reality that BCP had to contest with since 2019 general elections, and in earnestly, in the past two years.

BCP, led by among others; Saleshando, Lucas and Gobotswang, had been contending that the state of affairs at the coalition were unacceptable. Undemocratic, unaccountable and disorganized are terms that have been used to describe the state of affairs at the UDC. This particular campaign by BCP hardened the relationship between the UDC leader, Duma Boko, and Saleshando.

In an unexpected turn of events, in the build-up to Bophirima Ward bye-election in Gaborone earlier this year, BCP Central Committee resolved to contest the election against UDC. BCP was aggrieved by UDC’s decision to award the ward to BNF, despite previously having had agreement that the ward will be managed by BCP. BCP, however, lost the resultant bye-elections, with UDC emerging victorious, but the battles lines were drawn. It was the beginning.

In his battle with UDC, Saleshando was unable to woo his comrades to his side, resulting in five MPs breaking ranks with him to side with Boko. UDC eventually suspended Saleshando, and BCP Secretary General and MP for Maun East, Goretetse Kekgonegile for bringing the name of UDC into disrepute.

Boko, with the backing of BCP dissidents, eventually orchestrated a coup, toppling Saleshando from Leader of Opposition position in parliament, and having him replaced with MP for Selebi Phikwe West, and a member of BCP, Dithapelo Keorapetse.

The five BCP MPs, Nevah Tshabang (Nkange), Oreneetse Ramogapi (Palapye), Kenny Kapinga (Okavango), David Tshere ( Mahalapye West) and Keorapetse disobeyed a resolution from their party, which advised them against attending a UDC caucus aimed at removing party leader from his position. The five were eventually suspended by the Central Committee.

The suspension of the five MPs came days before the crucial party conference in Mahalapye, where it was resolved, by fuming delegates, that the five be expelled from the party. It was a decision not synonymous with the party. It is certainly a new phase in the growth of the party, but it could also turn out to be costly; only time will tell.

Meanwhile, the fate of the five MPs remains in limbo. The conference decision means that the discarded members would have to seek a new home within parties which are members of the UDC, most importantly, to salvage their political careers.

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