How opposition squandered its chances for power

BPF supporters
BPF supporters

The opposition movement has been engaged in a long, protracted and ardours war to end the Botswana Democratic Party’s (BDP) domination of the political space, writes Mmegi Correspondent DOLLY BYRONE THEBE

It has been a long and tiring journey. And some of the war weary cadres have since jumped ship to join the party they had opposed with everything they had. The 55-year-old war has been generally an exercise in futility in so far as its objective of capturing State power is concerned. No less than 10 opposition formations have been engaged in a tussle for power with the BDP over the years. Despite setbacks and humiliation suffered during the course of the struggle, some political formations adapted and metamorphosed to remain relevant and resilient while others fell by the way side and had been swept into oblivion. Indeed there is no easy road to freedom.

It is not so much the strength and organisational ability that kept the BDP in the driving seat all these years. Rather, it was the opposition’s political immaturity and pettiness that always offered the BDP a lifeline even when the chips were down. The opposition movement has a notorious distinction of failing to manage its internal differences at the crunch time.

The last 55 years witnessed several developments where the opposition leaders at the slightest provocation would disparage and denigrate one another and wash all their dirty linen in public. On the contrary, the BDP had been smarter in terms of mastery of the art of deception - that is glossing over its problems. Conscious of the fact that in an election season there is a lot at stake, the BDP came up with election protocols which served the party well. The most prominent of these protocols is the “go baya botsetse”, which can be interpreted to mean down playing differences in order to rally all troops behind the bigger picture of winning elections.


The same cannot be said about the opposition. In the 1990s after patiently building the Botswana National Front (BNF) into a formidable political force, the late Kenneth Koma came close towards fulfilment of his long cherished dream of seizing power. The BNF had made a big political statement in the 1994 elections as it recorded for the first time since its formation, 13 parliamentary seats. The BNF’s historic feat signalled a brighter future and the BDP became aware of its finitude and that the days of its invincibility were coming to an end. Perhaps, it was this wake up call, which made the BDP consider retiring the late President Sir Ketumile Masire in favour of an Oxford graduate Festus Mogae. The fortunes were dwindling and in what proved to be a political masterstroke, Mogae enlisted the support of the popular Ian Khama from the army to prop up the BDP sinking ship.

Mogae and Khama later succeeded in increasing the BDP political lifespan. Eventually as planned, Masire left the political scene in April 1, 1998, paving the way for Mogae. So in 1999 the limping and faction-riddled BDP now under the tutelage of a political novice in Mogae, expected a hard-fought and tight election race against a resurgent BNF under the guidance of the veteran of opposition politics, Koma. However, the expected show of strength did not take place. In an unexpected turn of events, the BNF was rocked by a schism, which subsequently paralysed its ability to participate ably in the general election in the 1999 elections and even beyond.

The BNF displayed a childish and amateurish behaviour in 1998 by allowing its internal differences to play themselves in the public domain. The violence and destruction of property, which took place at its Palapye meeting, dented the image of a party that before this saga looked like a government in waiting. When the opposition embarked on a political suicide, one could hear BDP’s collective sigh of relief. Mogae had gotten an early Christmas present and the benevolent BNF did not lose the 1999 general election but simply handed over power to the BDP on a silver platter. This has been the sad story of the opposition since the dawn of national politics in the 1960s.

It will be remembered that the Botswana Peoples Party (BPP), which came into existence in 1960, gifted the BDP political power in an almost a similar fashion. Having existed two years earlier than the BDP, the BPP was clearly a better known party both locally and internationally. But on account of costly political miscalculations, the BPP gave away its comparative advantage. The BPP big three being Motsamai Mpho, Kgalemang Motsete and Philip Matante just could not keep their eyes fixated on the big picture. But instead, they allowed their individual interests and insatiable appetite for power to take precedence over the quest for seizure of State of power.

The BPP split into three rival groups and this fragmentation handed victory to Sir Seretse Khama with relative ease. And Khama could not believe his luck. The opposition movement in Botswana has a history and stigma of disunity, which squandered its chances of electoral success. Opposition party’s propensity for violence resurfaced quite recently (2017) towards the 2019 elections. The guilty party was Goalathe Ndaba’s led Botswana Movement for Democracy (BMD). The storm had gathered prior to its conference in Bobonong. A dispute arose over advocate Sydney Plane’s application for membership. Some wanted his application considered favourably, while others wanted it rejected. The BMD attended the conference with two conflicting views over Pilane’s membership. Again, the matter was poorly handled.

Violence erupted between the rival BMD camps inviting both the police intervention and public wrath. And the party split giving birth to BMD under PIlane and Alliance for Progressives (AP) under Ndaba. And the BMD, which had a promising start in the 2014 elections, has become a shadow of its former self and it might be well on its way to the dustbins of history. In the same 2014 elections, one of the main opposition movements unwittingly refused to cooperate with the Umbrella for Democratic Change preferring to go it alone. The Botswana Congress Party’s (BCP) non-participation in the UDC project proved to be a costly political blunder, which not only robbed the opposition of a golden opportunity to assume power, but also gave the BDP a new lease on life. If there is any party that must thank sincerely providence and count its blessing, it is the BDP. The picture is clear. Over the years, the opposition movement has suffered from self-inflicted problems while the opposition was engaged in political suicidal tendencies, the BDP exploited opportunities on offer. The opposition made the work of the BDP quite easy.

The BDP made a meal out of the opposition mess. Khama led the onslaught against the opposition from the front. He accused the opposition of desiring to take power through violence and bloodshed. Professor Thomas Tlou, Neil Parsons and Willie Hendersson captured Seretse’s position on the opposition when he said, “like any other country we have our own social malcontents not interested in government by consent of the governed. They are power hungry fanatics seeking to seize power to set up a tyrannical regime which must of necessity institutionalise force and violence as instruments by which it must govern.”

Khama was referring to the BPP earlier power struggle as well as the BNF‘s socialist ideology. Socialism, according to its champion Karl Marx, was not expected to come about through peaceful means. And the BDP maligned the BNF right from the beginning as a dangerous creature threatening the peace and tranquillity that Botswana was known for. What is more, Khama condemned the BNF for importing foreign ideas with no relevance to the Botswana situation.

He spoke of “self-styled intellectuals of the BNF who are busy brainwashing the people with conflicting attitudes borrowed from other countries”. When the BNF advocated an egalitarian society with equal access to the means of production, the BDP deliberately distorted this communist ideal and told people in political rallies that the BNF meant that when one has parked his vehicle another person without permission can come and drive it away as he pleased. And too many people who had no exposure to communist literature found it quite scary.

The BDP successfully portrayed the BNF as a dangerous party, which entertained alien ideas, which posed a threat to the way Batswana lived their lives. This explains why the BDP for many years preached with some degree of success the narrative that there was no alternative party. Some of the opposition leaders did not do the opposition movement any justice at all by making outlandish promises.

Extravagant promises which appeared practically impossible reduced the opposition movement into a laughing stock. Martin Chakalisa‘s party, which has since gone into obscurity, once promised to make rain. The BDP made a meal of this and responded with modest and less extravagant promises. In spite of the negative publicity and propaganda peddled by the BDP, the BNF leader Koma did not relent. He fought the fight, kept the faith and genuinely believed that one day the BNF will rule the country. His hard work was not in vain. Four years after the demise of Khama, Koma made it to Parliament not by violent means as the BDP had alleged but through the ballot box. He came to Parliament following a Tshiamo ballot box saga in which an unopened ballot box was discovered after a retuning officer had declared Vice President, the late Peter Mmusi of the BDP, the winner of the Gaborone South constituency albeit by a narrow margin.

Koma won the rerun comfortably. Koma’s victory changed public perceptions of the opposition. People started warming up towards the opposition. However, the opposition failed to build on the foundation that Koma had laid. Koma worked extremely hard under difficult circumstances. The opposition was seriously under resourced and it was not fashionable for the business community to make donations towards the cause of the opposition.

The next election season is three years away. Already there are rumours of internal bickering within the main opposition party - the UDC. Not wanting to be outdone, the youngest kid in the bloc, the Botswana Patriotic Front (BPF), has its own fair share of problems stemming from the controversial suspension of its founding leader, Biggie Butale. It is hoped that political lessons have been learnt from past experiences and the opposition movement knows what is at stake. Koma once said the BNF had a funny way of fighting for the parts of an animal before it is captured and killed. Maturity should reign supreme when handling internal disputes. The opposition cannot afford the luxury of handing power to the BDP on a silver platter. Unlike Koma’s generation, the opposition is better resourced and it is now fashionable to identify with the opposition. The opposition is blessed with highly educated, eloquent, charismatic and promising young leaders. The combination of Duma Boko, Dumelang Shaleshando, Biggie Butale and Ndaba Gaolathe if properly managed can bring about desirable results.

Lessons of the past are clear: Opposition unity is a must not an option. Like all these years, the BDP has its own share of challenges. It is up to the opposition to exploit the weakness of the BDP and give Batswana an alternative path or the opposition can choose to yield once more and give the BDP another five years in office. The BDP would have stayed in power for 62 years.

Editor's Comment
Happy Independence!

We are 56 years old and what do we have to show for it? Looking at where Botswana started and where it is today, there are a lot of developments, but whether the developments match the number of years we have enjoyed as a country is a topic for another day.The fact that cannot be denied is we have seen major developments, but we are still lacking in several pertinent areas.Our beautiful country imports almost everything. We import fuel, food,...

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