The undying opposition spirit

UDC members during party congress PIC: MORERI SEJAKGOMO
UDC members during party congress PIC: MORERI SEJAKGOMO

Botswana gained her right to self-determination and sovereignty in 1966 at a time when the whole sub continent was a war zone, writes Mmegi Correspondent, DOLLY BYRONE THEBE

The founding president had to walk a tight rope creating a balance between advocating cherished principles of justice, freedom, democracy, the rule of law and surviving propaganda, threats and acts of aggression perpetrated by neighbouring hostile regimes. Botswana‘s mission was to teach the world that it is possible for whites and blacks to live together in peace and harmony and that multiparty democracy was possible.

It was not an easy task to accomplish at the time given the geo-political climate of the time. Zimbabwe, Namibia and South Africa were yet to gain their freedom while Mozambique was at war with itself, engaged in a bitter and prolonged internal conflict that pitted the strength of FRELIMO against RENAMO rebels.

Botswana’s story was unique and peculiar.


The transfer of power was a peaceful and bloodless negotiated settlement. When Batswana expressed a desire to take charge of their own destiny, the British were equally eager to yield.

Upon taking the reigns of power, Botswana established a non-racial, multi party democratic system based on the principle of universal suffrage. When racial conflicts flared up in the sub continent, in the1970s Botswana remained an island of peace in a sea of turbulence.

Democracy and the will of the governed continue to reign supreme as Botswana maintains a ritual of permitting the governed to renew their government after an interval of five years.

The sustenance of what looked like a thriving democracy is narrowly and naively credited to the ruling Botswana Democratic Party (BDP) while other principal actors like the opposition parties are denied a fair share of the credit.

In dictatorial and tyrannical system of government where rulers have exclusive, monopoly of power, there is only one big story and one way of looking at things and that is the government way.

Political life is seen from the parochial minds of the rulers and alternative views; the voice of dissent is denied freedom of expression. The official version of things, however, flawed as it may be, is promoted to gospel truth and lies and propaganda are rehearsed and repeated and elevated to the status of truth.

Under this type of environment suffocating divergent views, the governed finds it difficult to make a fair and informed appraisal of the rulers. Fortunately, Botswana’s choice of a democratic path permitted plurality of ideas to thrive and the opposition in Botswana acquitted itself well in checking official rhetoric, counteracting propaganda and lies, setting the record right and giving the governed two sides of the story and most importantly offering alternative approaches that could further expand the frontiers of democracy and improve the welfare of the nation. Former president, the late Sir Seretse Khama was spot on when he said: “I have said democracy like a little plant does not grow or develop on its own. It must be nursed or nurtured if it is to grow and flourish. It must be believed in and practised if it is to be appreciated and it must be fought for and defended if it is to survive.” Indeed, Seretse must be smiling in his grave because the opposition parties made his dream come true. They had put up a spirited and uninterrupted fight for five decades to make Botswana a safe heaven for democracy and to defend it with everything at their disposal when under threat. Being in the opposition is a daunting and demanding task calling for personal sacrifices.

•All in the name of defending democracy, some of the opposition leaders suffered the indignity of losing personal fortunes and attracting headlines as Deputy Sheriffs pounced on them to attach and ‘rob’ them of their hard-earned livelihoods. But in spite of the hardships, the opposition train continues to gather momentum.

•Despite adverse and unfavourable circumstances which limited chances of electoral success, the opposition in Botswana continued to relentlessly participate in every election season and their consistent participation made the system look credible and the world never ceased heaping praises on what seemed to be a working and vibrant democracy. Subjected to all forms of abuse and at times threats of banning, and a barrage of uncomplimentary and unflattering remarks, the opposition remained strong and never shied away from an election process they had already lost even before contesting. The opposition kept the game going with the hope that one day the BDP conscience would direct towards adoption of the principles of fair play. The undying opposition spirit of hope demonstrates patriotism, political maturity the extent of commitment to the cause of making democracy work. The maturity of the opposition parties made life easier for the BDP and diverted attention from the temptation of sliding into a one party rule. In defence of democracy, opposition leaders for the last 50 years endured BDP disparaging remarks aimed at cowing them into submission. In December 1978, the late Sir Ketumile Masire cautioned opposition parties that, they faced banning “if they tried to use violence to satisfy their lust for power.” And in the same vein, one of the founding leaders of the BDP, Moutlakgola Ngwako described Dr Kenneth Koma as a ‘perverter’ of the youth. This was at a time when the Moscow trained philosopher and communist had embarked on a programme of political education targeting young people and competition for the souls and hearts of youth ensued.

•Koma’s youth programme gave the BDP and Seretse sleepless nights. When Koma made inroads into the youth constituency liitle did he know that his actions would dictate the BDP agenda. Seretse hastily formed a youth league under Leach Tlhomelang to check Koma’s influence and set up •Tirelo Sechaba• (National service) as Seretse put it to “engage the idealism of youth in rural development rather than shouting meaningless slogans and preaching about utopias of one kind or another.” The introduction of the national service was motivated by political considerations rather than a desire to expose Form 5 graduates to diverse cultures and rural life.

•The opposition played a pivotal role in shaping the electoral laws notably the lowering of the voting age and the formation of an independent electoral system. Previously, the elections were conducted by the supervisor of elections working under the Office of the President.

•The opposition vociferously questioned the credibility and integrity of the entire electoral process saying it was not water tight and could be open to manipulation. They were vindicated by the 1984 Tshiamo Ballot Box saga where a whole ballot box was discovered unopened after Peter Mmusi of the BDP was announced the winner ahead of his rival Kenneth Koma. A re-run was ordered and Koma won comfortably.

•The Tshiamo issue laid bare the weaknesses of the electoral system. Subsequently the opposition mounted pressure for reforms and this culminated in the formation of the Independent Electoral commission IEC). Even the present IEC operations are far from ideal. To demonstrate lack of faith in the electoral process, the 2019 election season produced a record number of election petitions. The petitions were overturned by the courts on the basis of technicalities and not merits.

•Thanks to the opposition, the 18-year-olds now enjoy the franchise. The electoral reforms came about at the behest of the opposition that gave Botswana’s democracy some semblance of credibility. Notwithstanding the weakness inherent in the electoral process, the mere fact that Botswana still upholds the right of the governed to exercise their constitutional rights of voting for a government of their choice has distinguished Botswana from her peers. For a very long time, Botswana was synonymous with good governance, democracy and accountability.

•The good international ratings did not come on account of one man or one single political formation but through collective efforts.

•The opposition political formations, though often underrated, have made their fair share contribution in shaping Botswana‘s story of rags to riches and maintenance of political stability, peace, democracy and the rule of law. In handling some issues of national concern, the opposition parties have in some instances outfoxed and outperformed the ruling BDP. Apart from discharging their normal legislative duties, the opposition holds the government of the day accountable, scrutinising proposed and existing laws in line with national interests, ask questions to seek clarity on matters of national importance and offer alternative views. The ever-vigilant opposition parties have performed with distinction the function of whistle blowing to expose wrongdoings/malpractices on the part of government.

•However, Botswana’s successive BDP governments derive pleasure in dismissing opposition, as a bunch of never do well, sponsoring irresponsible behaviour, chaos and anarchy. The charge is mainly motivated by political expediency rather than the truth. Even Sir Seretse Khama, who often denigrated the opposition as “malcontents not interested in government by consent of the governed”, once acknowledged the role of the opposition voice in keeping the ruling party on its toes.

•From 1966-1977, Botswana as a part of the colonial legacy existed without an army. The absence of an army endangered the country’s territorial integrity as well as the safety of the people. The whole of southern Africa was a war zone in the formative years of independence and yet the BDP government did not see the formation of an army as a priority. The formation of the BDF was the brainchild of the late Phillip Matante of the Botswana Peoples Party (BPP).

•He never missed an opportunity to advocate the creation of an army saying “no country can be respected anywhere in the world without a defence force.” Finally Khama’s government reluctantly formed an army in 1977 when the security situation in the North East frontier threatened the very survival of Botswana’s independence. Kgalemang Motsete composed the national anthem; also a leader of the BPP and the charge that opposition parties are irresponsible does not hold any water. •The present crop of opposition MPS comprises a good number of highly educated young people. T•hey have really given a good account of themselves exposing the rot in government. When our oversight institutions, under the spell of an over bearing Executive cannot deliver as expected, the opposition parties are closing the gap. Opposition parties continue to condemn in the strongest anatomy of words the cancer of corruption especially during this mad season of COVID-19 where the state of public emergency has been fully exploited to line pockets of certain privileged people at the expense of the suffering masses. With the help of the opposition, the gravy train might stop. In what looks like prophetic words, Sir Seretse Khama had warned that, “Botswana would destroy itself as a beacon of attractive values in southern Africa.

•There is an ever present danger that having enjoyed freedom and peace for so long, we could easily become complacent and apathetic and think our democratic institutions can perpetuate themselves without our support and our commitment for their survival.” His words had come to pass. The country is losing its spark and all hopes on everyone to keep democracy alive and well.

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