Botswana Democratic Party (BDP) is shaping up as an utterly unpredictable monolith these days. Its elective congress in Maun left many diehards agape particularly when two unlikely business partners – Samson Moyo Guma and Thapelo Olopeng, complete with their friend, Ian Khama - seized control of the party.
Reminiscent of the 1844 mythical tale by Alexander Duma, the ‘three BDP Musketeers’ have proved to be a formidable force of inseparable friends who live by the motto; ‘all for one, one for all.’ The election of Guma as BDP chairman - barely 18 months after he returned from his founding opposition party, Botswana Movement for Democracy (BMD) – offers a rare glimpse into how BDP politics has changed these days. “Someone who has left the party has returned only to lead it,” a Pelonomi Venson-Moitoi sympathiser declares half joking as he comes to grips with the large-scale loss suffered at the hands of the three musketeers. “It is a great loss to the party. Tenderpreneurs have taken over.”
Big money has always dominated politics the world over, but the advent of tenderprenuers in Botswana- a term used to describe those who get rich from government contracts- is increasingly becoming a big factor in politics. Guma is accused of using his wealth to win votes in Maun, a criticism his two business partners, Olopeng and Mpho Balopi rubbish strongly. He trounced what was thought to be an experienced campaign team in all positions of the central committee, prompting veteran politician and central committee-member-for-life, Daniel Kwelagobe to chicken out of the additional membership race. But a day before elections, Khama had foreshadowed cynical comments from Venson-Moitoi sympathisers when he declared: “We are a forgiving party,” in reference to Guma’s controversial decision to dump BMD only to contest for BDP’s top post.
In another presumed dig at Venson-Moitoi’s team, Khama said something remarkable about the fresh-faced Secretary General, Balopi who was contesting against Isaac Seloko and Phillip Makgalemele. “Balopi has brought with him energy and enthusiasm in the party.” “He has raised the profile of the BDP in the media and the region. Thanks for stepping in.” This was a clear endorsement of Guma’s camp in general and of Balopi in particular. The next day, Seloko suffered a humiliating defeat. His margin of 383 votes was telling and a clear sign that Khama’s invisible hand was at play in Guma’s camp.
As for Makgalemele, it was a warning not to take chances, as his votes could not even exceed 0.5 percent of the total delegates. For Balopi, those who hold the view that Khama endorsed him are suffering from political myopia. “Look, a leader should be very objective. The President was accounting to the democrats. The Secretary General is the melting pot of the BDP and he had to update the party,” he said on Wednesday and argued strongly that those who complain that the president endorsed him lack leadership qualities. “If they think it is, then they should work hard to gain it.”
Khama appeared to have gazed at a crystal ball and had an idea of what was likely to happen at Maun Senior Secondary School. “The good times are back,” he said before the elections and urged those who will lose not to sulk, but rally behind the winners. After the results Khama appeared elated and remarked that the party he leads is in better shape. Yet behind the veneer of “tranquility” deep-seated fears of return to factionalism lurk in the background. “If central committee does not appease those who lost and reward those who supported them, there will be factions,” an insider warned after elections. But the biggest change is the composition of BDP central committee. The new dispensation has seen more business leaders taking over the reigns in the politburo. But there is a bigger concern about the three musketeers plus Balopi.
“They don’t haven a distinct ideology, they follow the leader,” said one political analyst. As present day musketeers, President Khama, BDP chairman, Guma and deputy treasurer, Olopeng look out for each other and protect each others’ business interests – and of late, political interests. This is a tragic mistake Venson-Moitoi camp failed to grasp. Maun was aimed at ushering in new leadership, but the script for a takeover from the embattled chairman, Daniel Kwelagobe to Guma was written months ago. The grapevine has it that the BDP central committee has been meeting in Gaborone ahead of Maun congress. “They had long planned this,” one disgruntled BDP insider purred on Tuesday.
The well-connected Moyo Guma
Despite his opaque political roadmap, Guma’s victory makes him the second most senior BDP politician and provides him a clear shot into the vice presidency. His success is attributed to his political strategies, which involve the use of money in campaigning. There is fear that the three musketeers plus Balopi will “run away with the party and tenders,” according to Tsholetsa House insiders. “The common denominator here is money, not political ideology. This is a tripartite relationship,” the insider said. Guma was “at a loss” when president Khama advised him to vacate office as assistant finance minister in January 2009 after the Directorate of Public Prosecution had indicated that they wanted to charge him with corruption. Two years later (in July 2011) Khama publicly expressed regret at his decision. “…I was unfortunately misled by relevant officials and I do regret that I made that decision based on wrong information.” Months later Guma retraced his steps to the BDP, but those who undermined his ambitions to lead the party had greatly misunderstood the arrangement by the three musketeers.
The three musketeers’ business connections do not only end at the recently established Sunday publication, The Patriot. Through his company, the Interest Research Bureau (IRB), Guma won tenders from the ministry of lands to collect debts in 2003 and then allegedly collected inflated charges from thousands of residential, commercial and industrial plot owners, according to South African newspaper, The Mail and Guardian. Guma also allegedly bought a stake in a firm being pursued by the IRB for interest on land in Kasane. The Mail and Guardian reported that Guma was said to have misled the company into selling the land for P1-million after claiming that the Office of the President had issued a directive that all plots in arrears had to be repossessed. Guma, who was not available for comment had not publicly refuted The Mail and Guardian claims.
The Public Procurement and Asset Disposable Board (PPADB) could not provide latest information on recent tenders won by IRB. The spokesperson for the attorney general, Abigail Hlabano, later said the state had decided not to prosecute him because of insufficient evidence. Guma’s business interests cut across all the sectors in the economy. Guma co-owns a luxury lodge in Gaborone, Executive Closets, said to be an important meeting point for BDP politburo, with Olopeng. The two businessmen have also been linked to a chunk of prime land in Dumela Industrial Area in Francistown. The duo is said to be looking at constructing a state-of-the-art golf course. Guma has a significant shareholding at Northern Textiles in Francistown in partnership with Mukesh Josh. Together with Olopeng, the three are linked to Matsiloje Portland Cement (MPC) and are believed to be fronting for Khama. Josh is MPC chairman and could not be reached for comment despite several attempts to call his office. His personal assistant, who identified herself only as Linda, promised to return calls but did not. In politics, Guma appears to have used his wealth to dominate elections. Guma understands that money in politics is the root to success and does not need to have creative campaign ideas that seek to transform the society.
He is believed to have spent over P2 million in Maun. However, it is not clear how much Venson-Moitoi spent on the congress. As a businessman, Guma is known to have arranged and funded his campaigns skillfully in both BDP primary and general elections in the Tati East constituency.
Money makes politics go round
If you want to understand the power of money in political campaign, just ask Filbert Nagafela of Botswana National Front or Tonota South MP, Pono Moatlhodi. While considered a political novice, Thapelo Olopeng appears to have borrowed a leaf from Khama’s campaign manual. Due to rising rural poverty, at 23 percent, according to the 2010 Botswana Poverty Report, donating blankets and food hampers has proved to be the easiest way to parliament. But donating hampers requires significant financial wealth and Olopeng is endowed with it. A former Botswana Defence Force captain, Olopeng and Khama are two sides of the same coin. Their professional and personal relationship stretches back to the BDF barracks and has maintained his friendship with Khama after both men left the army. They are known to have travelled together on Khama’s official trips abroad. Now a businessperson, Olopeng’s latest venture The Patriot is co-owned with Balopi, Guma and the Chief Executive of the Choppies supermarket chain, Ramachandran Ottapath.
Olopeng is a close friend to Guma and their relationship knows no boundaries and is believed to have persuaded Guma to dump the BMD for the ruling party. Those who understand the complex business relationship, say that Olopeng has been tasked with the responsibility of fronting for Khama’s businesses, a criticism he denies angrily.
“Check with Registrar of Companies. I have no businesses with Khama,” he said on Wednesday. He wishes his detractors would separate issues when they chastise him. “We are in the central committee because we are in BDP. I want us to separate issues,” he pleaded repeatedly. He is incensed by the accusation that his camp bought votes. “Delegates slept in classrooms. Where would we have got money to pay for a thousand people?” he wondered. He admits he is in partnership with Guma in The Patriot and at “the hotel,” but insists that his election was based on merit not financial muscle. “We are here to contribute to the development of the party,” he said, adding that he is no longer in partnership with Guma at Matsiloje Portland Cement. He could not be drawn into discussing the Dumela venture. Olopeng denied that he has partnered with Khama in Sahara Computers, an IT company that provides, according to its website, “networking in general business, general office services, stationery, networking, computer networking, energy suppliers, solar energy, engineers and hardware stores business activities.”
‘BDP has been sold to the dogs’
President Khama is linked to Chobe Marina Lodge, a Kasane – based premium tourism outfit with two Italian shareholders. Chobe Financial Corporation (CFC), a subsidiary of Botswana Stock Exchange listed property developer owns 33.7 percent in Chobe Marina Lodge. Khama has a “significant shareholding” in CFC, according to sources familiar with the secret shareholding. Majority shareholders in Chobe Marina Lodge are Paulo Giachetti and Guido Giachetti. It is not clear if Khama has shareholding with the Giachetti’s other lodge - Isalo Rock Lodge in Madagascar. The Giachetti are owners of Italtswana Construction Company (ICC). Giachetti’s cousin, Giorgio Giachetti owns CFC. Reached for comment, Guido Giachetti denied Khama’s involvement in the venture. “He has no business here. CFC is a Liberian company that invested in Botswana in the 1970s. The company is owned by my cousin,” said Giachetti. “It has nothing to do with the president.”
Chobe Marina Lodge is not linked to Okavango Wilderness Safaris (OWS), another tourism outfit that Khama has interest in its subsidiary, Linyanti Investment, a subsidiary of Wilderness Holdings. Basarwa criticise OWS for illegally occupying their ancestral land in the CKGR. At Wilderness Safaris Holding, a Botswana Stock Exchange and JSE quoted tourism outfit, Khama owns 5 percent in Linyanti. Linyanti Concession covers over 1 250 km2 in the Northern Kalahari.
Recently, Wilderness Holdings appointed Parks Tafa, Khama’s other trusted friend, and a key member of the BDP, its chairman. Khama’s investment in tourism includes having significant shareholding in Leroo La Tau Lodge, Baobab 1, Baobab 2 and Linyanti camp. Khama is also known to front for Olopeng’s vast IT businesses. Despite denials from Olopeng, Khama has been identified as the investor behind majority of Olopeng’s businesses.
He has been linked to Sahara Computers. Khama’s involvement in business remains opaque but he is believed to have interest in diamond mining and construction.
Despite Guma’s record of running an effective campaign, observers say little will change on the ground. Remarkably, income inequalities are rising, while the poor are relegated to backyard gardens and Ipelegeng. “Distribution of income is meant to benefit elites,” a BDP politician said. However, Modise Kgotlele is not shy about expressing his dissatisfaction with the way things turned out. “BDP has been sold to the dogs,” he would say on a Tuesday morning. “How can a right thinking democrat be convinced by Guma and Olopeng? It is just about money!”