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A new dawn in the midst of fear: The political climate in Botswana ahead of 2019

Change is near; change is imminent. This is the echo coming from Botswana’s opposition fanatics and their leaders. Political scientists and the youth also seem to be in consensus. Botswana is pregnant with hope that the opposition will usurp power in 2019 elections. There is a reason for that, a palpable one.

The reason resides in the fact that at the helm of this hope are three young politicians in their 40’s. Botswana National Front’s (BNF) Duma Boko; a supremely talented Harvard trained lawyer. Ndaba Gaolathe of the Botswana Movement for Democracy (BMD) is a graduate of Wharton Business School with two degrees in Pure Mathematics and Finance while Dumelang Saleshando of the Botswana Congress Party (BCP) is a Political Science and Economics graduate of the University of Botswana. 

Motlatsi Molapisi of the Botswana Peoples party (BPP) is the oldest of the pack in his 70s, with an impressive track record in opposition politics. These leaders are a new generation in charge of new formation fittingly called Umbrella for Democratic Change (UDC).The UDC contested the 2014 general elections, and got a combined 16 seats.  The BCP garnered only 4 seats from a 57 constituency demarcated national parliament.

The BCP was not part of the UDC arrangement that contested the 2014 elections. Last week, the BCP, which was severely punished at polls for not being a member of the UDC at the 2014 general elections, joined the hugely popular UDC as a group member after protracted negotiations which had now made the once popular BCP almost unpopular.

Trade-offs were made, the BCP president Saleshando-a smart all rounded politician in his own right-salvaged the vice presidency for the BCP under the Umbrella. The BCP has been allocated 17 candidates under the UDC banner in the upcoming 2019 elections. The BMD will get 14 constituencies while the BNF gets 22 with the BPP taking only four constituencies.

The BMD under Gaolathe will also get the vice presidency while the chairmanship goes to Molapisi of the BPP. Boko retains the presidency of the UDC and continues as its presidential candidate in the 2019 elections. In 2019, the ballot paper will simply be UDC vs BDP. This it appears, is what Batswana want. The country is swimming in a euphoric mood. The new UDC has adopted royal blue as their colour.

Botswana is under pressing economic conditions with high levels of unemployment within the youth, high numbers of highly trained graduates without jobs, frequent retrenchments in the work place, poor or low wages, and unprecedented corruption levels, worker strikes precipitated by poor government/labour relations, student strikes over unpaid stipends and pressing land issues.

There is an outcry about inexplicable deportations of foreign nationals, extrajudicial killings, a compromised judiciary, poor old age pensions, a general paradigm shift on foreign policy and outrageous military spend. On international relations, Botswana is seen as a wayward African state with no interest in the African agenda.

Foreign Affairs minister Pelonomi Venson-Moitoi recently lost out in the lucrative and powerful African Union chairperson position to an unknown candidate from Chad. Teachers and miners have been vocal against the government with several strikes and protests. Poor copper prices have led to closure of BCL Mine which laid off about 6000 employees three months ago-leaving Selibe Phikwe; the country’s third biggest town desolate and abandoned.

The ruling Botswana Democratic Party (BDP) which has ruled Botswana uninterrupted for more than 50 years since Independence in 1966, is no longer seen as a party of patriots and conservatives who cared much for the citizenry but now closer to foreign nationals who have amassed a considerable amount of fortune through a plethora of what is generally seen as dubious tenders and cronyism. The government is also accused of state capture by a handful of ‘tenderpreneurs’ whose proclivity for munificence and superfluity has compromised a minuscule economy heavily and desperately reliant on diamonds and beef. These are the problems that the UDC has pointed out repeatedly in their colourful and heavily attended rallies. 

The UDC seems to be winning almost all by-elections that occasionally come up. The 2014 elections were strange. Both the BCP and UDC presidents chartered helicopters and flew to rallies to match the strength of incumbency enjoyed by the BDP who have access to unlimited resources. This was new in opposition politics. The opposition demonstrated to all and sundry, that they were now serious about state power. The UDC enlisted the goodwill of superstars from abroad to grace their rallies.  A South African soccer celebrity appeared at one rally. An American film superstar Rick Yune, close to UDC leader Boko was put on a visa restriction. Julius Malema had been scheduled to address a UDC star rally in the country’s largest village Molepolole, but he too was put on a visa restriction.

The opposition had serious money. But as usual, they were fragmented in their message. They were not together, voters decried. Clearly people wanted a single opposition force. The BDP also flew state choppers under the pretext of Presidential privilege. The introduction of the hugely controversial electronic voting machines (EVM’s) is not only the biggest, but an extraordinary test of Botswana’s democracy. The UDC has opted to litigate against the introduction of the machines with the BCP asking the courts to declare the use of the machines unconstitutional.

The Law Society of Botswana and some prominent lawyers have questioned the

appointment of judges by the President of Botswana. This he does under the draconian law that the executive power of Botswana vests in the President! Four judges have been suspended on a frivolous charge of benefitting unduly from a housing allowance they were not entitled to. Meanwhile, the gay and lesbian community has come against a steadfast government despite a landmark case victory at the High Court. Botswana has also been seen as an ‘’outcast, un-pan African’’ particularly on its pronouncements of African matters.

UDC’s Duma Boko has breathed life into a traditionally hopeless opposition electorate who have repeatedly asked for a combined and united force of opposition against the heavily funded BDP. The BDP enjoys monetary backing of multi-millionaire motor magnate and party treasurer Satar Dada. The BDP further has a bevy of men of means such as goods tycoon Jagdish Shar-the defecto owner of the country’s biggest soccer club, Township Rollers. The BDP has also been synonymous with the country’s wealthiest families; Derek Brink of Bokomo and Senn Foods, Johan Maynardt of Cash Bazaar and the owners of Francistown the Haskins family. 

Highly resourced African National Congress (ANC) of South Africa has also been very close to the BDP. The UDC which also has a fragile foundation because of its diverse constituent parties, formed on the single idea of change must face the agonizingly painful electoral system. Botswana uses the medieval and archaic constitution inherited at independence in 1966.

That the Botswana Constitution is unpopular is an understatement. A resolute young King(trained as a lawyer) of a prominent tribe Bakgatla Ba-Kgafela, Kgosi Kgafela Kgafela ii took the entire government machinery to court over the Constitution alleging that it’s not only fraudulent but criminal in form and shape. Kgafela ii lost the controversial and expensive case and fled the country for Pilanesburg in South Africa where he now resides. Kgafela has since become a cult figure in Botswana having opened people’s eyes on the constitutional flaws of Botswana. 

There in the Constitution, First Past the Post system, derived from colonial English masters still determines the electoral vote today. The system, the opposition argues, favours the incumbent and prejudices the runner up with a significant number in the sense that the winner takes it all. The system also gives BDP about 40 Members of Parliament while the combined opposition is on 17 members of parliament.

This is despite the fact that the ruling BDP only got 46% of the popular vote while the combined opposition sits on 54%! Botswana political parties do not get money from government. There is no political party funding and the contributions made by supporters remain unsustainable.

A few opposition stalwarts have crossed to the BDP with allegations of promise of largesse and tenders, jobs and favours in the BDP government. Parliamentary debates are not broadcast on state television. The state insists that the government is financially unable and is not fully equipped to do so. This is another opposition worry.

 The facts on the ground are that Botswana is besotted with the new leader Boko, a colourful orator who speaks excellent English, Setswana, and Xhosa with equal aplomb. Ndaba Gaolatlhe son of Baledzi Gaolathe-a long time Reserve Bank governor and later finance minister in the BDP regime, is seen as a godsend Wharton genius with the ability to fix Botswana economic problems and micromanage the imminent economic turmoil. Saleshando-by far the most experienced of the quartet-having served in parliament for a decade, is a truly prolific speaker, a detail politician.

Dumelang is son of BCP founder Gilson Saleshando. Meanwhile, Molapise is seen as the guardian and unifier of the three young turks and the UDC itself. Molapisi, now UDC chairman will serve as the most senior Minister in the anticipated UDC government.   The leaders of the UDC are definitely popular amongst the disgruntled youths and the frustrated civil service. Meanwhile, President Ian Khama remains largely popular in rural places where he gives out donations of food parcels and blankets.

By all accounts, the BDP is inextricably troubled. The party has refused to implement brilliant reform ideas brought about by its secretary general Botsalo Ntuane.  The 22-idea strategy has been accused of being pro-opposition.

President Khama retires in April 2018, his deputy Mokgweetsi Masisi is constitutionally, the natural successor but serves at the pleasure of the sitting President. Masisi has dealt nicely with stiff competition from former lawyer-cum-diplomat Jacob Nkate and affable and competent Minister Nonofo Molefhi for position of party chairman. 

Masisi is now expected to take the BDP forward and consequently tussle with Boko and the UDC in Botswana’s most defining moment, the 2019 elections. This will also depend on whether the UDC itself has remained intact up until the 2019 elections. In the midst of generic euphoria and optimism is the overarching phobia about the electronic voting machines.  Hitherto, only time seems to be the only arbiter of Botswana’s political future.

*Olebile Sikwane wrote this a few months ago; The BMD has now changed with one section led by Advocate Sidney Pilane while Ndaba Gaolathe leads another.

Opinion & Analysis



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