FRANCISTOWN: The recent developments within the Botswana Patriotic Front (BPF) have triggered a serious debate about the substance of the party’s constitution.
A crucial element in the controversy is Biggie Butale’s refusal to step down from his role as party president in order to clear his name against sexual harassment allegations levelled against him by a student party representative.
The BPF national executive committee (NEC) does not have any powers to suspend the president or any leader under any circumstance under the current constitution, it has emerged.
The congress has full powers to exercise its lawful authority to suspend Butale in the event that he is found to have acted in a manner that undermines his office. The disciplinary committee also has the powers to suspend Butale, but the process appears very cumbersome and depends on many variables.
Butale has defied calls by the NEC for him to temporarily step down. He even addressed a political activity recently. Even party spokesperson, Lawrence Ookeditse this week said that the party is constrained to take action against Butale.
“At the moment it all depends on him, we have requested that he steps aside and deal with his sexual scandal, but he appears not to have done so. It really is a case of his ethics and morals now. Remember we did not suspended him, we asked him to step aside and he has not accepted our request,” he said.
If the BPF constitution gave the NEC outright powers, it could have suspended Butale in order to allow him time to clear his name or to pave way for investigation to be carried out before a disciplinary process (depending on the outcomes of the investigation) could be instituted.
When it was developed, the BPF constitution was meant to enhance the sense of collective ownership of key party decisions and promote ideals of democracy. That is, the idea was to modernise the party constitution so that it does not mimic that of other parties, where elites take all key decisions. As a result, the BPF constitution gives the NEC very little power.
In addition, the BPF constitution was to distinguish itself from those of other parties that created an increasingly authoritarian environment and gave more powers to presidents.
In a nutshell, one of the key reasons for giving congress so many powers at BPF is that the party perceives itself as a grassroot movement, belonging to the people and not an individual. In light of the ongoing battle in the BPF most notably Butale’s refusal to step down because nothing binds him to do so, some pundits have said that the developments in the party illustrate the limitations of a very liberal constitution, often times engineered to promote democracy. They believe that the spread of powers across various functions has made it very cumbersome to run the party. They have likened the current problems at BPF to what happened at the Botswana Movement for Democracy (BMD) a few years ago. Then the BMD found itself ungovernable because of constitutional challenges.
The constitution vested more powers on the party national executive which later made it very difficult to diffuse tension among warring executive members.
The motive behind the BMD constitution was to counter a manner in which some of the its founders, among them the late Gomolemo Motswaledi were sacked from the ruling Botswana Democratic Party (BDP). The BDP constitution gives the party leader the latitude to easily expel members. This week, Ookeditse did admit that the party’s constitution has some loopholes because of its liberal nature. He was however, quick to point out that some of the loopholes were foreseen and intended.
“Remember that we are a product of our own experiences. A lot of parties break away from other parties on the basis of tyranny of the leader. When you have a constitution or tradition such as that of the BDP, which is tyrannical and in which whoever is the leader at that point in time has absolute power it becomes a challenge. When you form a party, you try not to concentrate power on any individual or few individuals. You try to spread it out to as many structures and people as it is possible to counterbalance the emergence of tyranny that may occur as has been in your previous home,” he said.
He added: “This may from time to time appear to mean that the party does not have strong disciplinary processes or structures but in actual fact it is how it should be.”
The BPF spokesperson further noted that Batswana need to start co-existing in political organisations in which power is dispersed among structures and not quite vested in just one person or a few people because when that happens, it becomes a tragedy of calamitous proportion and even more detrimental. According to him, it is better for a party to be in a position where it does not have the power to expel someone forthwith, than to actually have power concentrated in one person who can do as he or she pleases to the detriment of the organisaion.
“Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. One thing you need to appreciate is that much as it is a handicap (liberal constitution), that handicap was foreseen. It was intended. It is intended by the frameworks of the constitution that it becomes hard to expel party members easily. The intention was to be in a position where if a comrade has done something wrong or if a leader at any particular point in time does not like someone and intends to punish that person, that person should be actually be given a proper and fair hearing,” he said.
He further noted, “In a way much as people say it is impulsive constitution some clauses were actually intentional; they were intended to ensure that the previous dispensation where a certain leader or a few people has certain power to do anything they wish. The weaknesses are here and there, and we will definitely be looking into reviewing as we go forward. But I can tell you that a constitution that is on the side of liberty is a treasure.”
Ookeditse also believes that a liberal constitution is also a good thing for participatory democracy. He explained that it will help grow the party, because democracy is enriched through participation and having more people having a say as to what happens in their party. Meanwhile, senior lecturer in Political and Administrative Studies at the University of Botswana, Dr Kebapetse Lotshwao noted that usually the constitutions of political parties are influenced by historical factors. “If the founders feel they were oppressed, or their former party lacked internal democracy, they will craft a more liberal constitution when they form a splinter party. Unfortunately, though ideal, such liberal constitutions are not very helpful during periods of crisis. There is thus a need to ensure that the leader has authority, but the authority is not or near absolute in between congresses,” he said.
He however, said even if the constitution does not empower the NEC to remove a leader, if the said leader faced serious allegations, he would quit without being pushed.