With the Botswana Democratic Party’s fondness of claiming credit for the country’s independence, the opposition political parties in Botswana are adamant that their role towards independence in 1966 and beyond has been of significant value.
Of the current 6 political parties in this country, only Botswana Peoples’ Party(BPP), Botswana Democratic Party(BDP) and Botswana National Front(BNF) existed before independence. Marx, Engels, Lenin and Stalin(MELS), Botswana Congress Party (BCP) and Botswana Movement for Democracy(BMD) were formed in the 80s, 90s and 2000s respectively.
Discussing the role of the opposition in a democarcy, Julius Kiiza of Makerere University said that, besides holding government to account for its commissions or omissions, the opposition provides the electorate with electoral alternatives. “Parties present a viable alternative to the incumbent government by designing alternative ideas, principles and policies for governing society. Should the party in power let the voters down, the ‘government-in-waiting’ takes over the reigns of power through free and fair elections,’’ says Kiiza. The opposition parties are also expected to articulate the interests of the people they represent both during parliamentary sessions and the budget process. According to him, by “Promoting responsible and reasonable debate, opposition parties promote a national conversation and pushes democratic discussion to a higher level of political development and maturity.” Opposition parties help raise political consciousness in the country by teaching the people how politics affects their lives.
Kiiza further says that parties, including the opposition, are the training ground for future leaders. “Shadow cabinet ministers, for example, typically conduct serious party business in their designated portfolios,” he says adding that the participation of party members at their respective conferences and other party fora engender s the spirit of tolerance, enhance accountability and entrenches the culture of democarcy.
Mpho Molomo of the University of Botswana (UB) says this about opposition parties, “They play a countervaillance role to government and make it more transparent, accountable and responsive to the people.” The academic goes on to explain that, in trying to play their role, the opposition in Botswana was faced with daunting challenges such as financial constraints in a country where there is no political funding. “At the same time, over the years, the BDP has had unfair advantage by receiving funding from external resources. According to him, the ruling party, in 1999, got P24 million from an undisclosed source. “In typical Mafia style, the source of the money was only identified as ‘Client’ under code name MRMDU 33XXXX in the bank telegraphic tranfer transcript,” he stated. Opposition parties have complained that their efforts have been compromised by the ruling party’s dominance of the public media at the expense of its competitors.
The challenges notwithstanding, the secretary general of the BPP, Shathiso Tambula maintains that his party has contributed hugely to the development of this country. “The country is where it is today because we have played our role as an opposition party with alternative views. The BDP was in no hurry to change anything even after the attainment of independence. The BDP had no problem with the country using the South African Rand after leaving the British Pound at the occassion of independence until the BPP raised its voice resulting in the introduction of the Botswana Pula and Thebe, our own currency,” said Tambula who also reminisced that, for some time, after independence motor vehicles had registration numbers with a ‘P’ for Protectorate. For instance, the plate numbers, according to him, were BPA(Francistown), BPB(Serowe), BPD(Gaborone), BPE(Palapye), BPF(Lobatse), BPG(Kanye) and so forth.
Tambula added that it was the BPP that pressurised government to buy land from the Tati Company for settlement by some communities in and around Francistown. “Our first manifesto said that a BPP government would introduce the old-age pension. We also talked about free education long back,” said Tambula whose party came into being in 1960. He added that the BPP’s demand for tribal equality has given hope to the minority tribes some of whom government has begun to recognise. For his part, the information and publicity secretary of the BNF, Moeti Mohwasa, says his party has shaped the modern day Botswana. The party was founded in 1965. “Both in and outside parliament, we advocated for free education and when it eventually came, access to education increased manyfold,” said Mohwasa who further attributed the introduction of Setswana in Parliament as well as the establishment of the Independent Electoral Commission(IEC) to agitation by the BNF.
The BNF spokesman gives credit for the lowering of the voting age from 21 to 18 years to the BNF. “Elections in this country have always been unfair but we participated in them in the face of all the provocation. For exmple, the ruling party has always dominated the state media but instead of boycotting the elections in ptrotest, we hoped for the best and mobilised our people to go to the polls. We did not want instability in the country,” said Mohwasa. The BNF official said that one of the achievemets of his party has been to organise labour to rise and fight for their rights. “All in all, we have been a worthy opposition,” added Mohwasa.
“As a collective, the opposition has done a lot for this country. We have been peaceful even under the most difficult of circumstances. For example, we have, since independence, tolerated mismanagement of the elections by the BDP government which made it difficult for the opposition to win. This was not because we did not have the wherewithal to go to war. If the opposition were not tolerant, there could have been war. We perservered because we treasure peace. We love this country,” declared Themba Joina, the founder of MELS in 1984.
“Considering that we were formed as recently as 1998, there is no doubt that, looking at the motions that we have passed which were adopted by parliament, we have an admirable track record,” said the vice president of the BCP, Dr Kesitegile Gobotswang. He noted with pride that his party successfully moved a motion seeking the exemption of basic food items from VAT. “First time home owners were exempted from VAT when buying building materials,” remembered Dr Gobotswang. His party tried to push through a motion for the inactment of the Freedom of Information Bill but the motion failed. “Our motion on the Declaration of Assets and Liabilities motion was never given a chance by the BDP either,” regretted Dr Gobotswanag. “
He also mentions his party’s role in civil society activism. “We are the only party in the country that sent out a mission to the CKGR at the height of the controversy to relocate the Basarwa by government. We produced a report and we are happy that, the High Court judgement that followed after the matter was taken to court had startling similarities with our findings. We have also published and distributed copies of the Democracy Alert whenever we saw the need such as during the public service strike,” His party has also used platforms such as the Ombudsman and the courts to advance some of their activism.
The chairman of the BMD, Nehemiah Modubule contends that the BMD, formed in 2010, has been a game changer in the political landscape. “For starters, the split of the BDP and resultant formation of the BMD has made it possible for the opposition to attain the unprecedented 53 percent of the popular vote in the 2014 general election which translated into 20 seats. Because of our contribution and participation in the cooporation talks, a total of three parties managed to go to the election as a united front. Previous efforts at uniting the opposition did not go far,” said Modubule who noted that democracy in this country is much stronger thanks to the BMD. “We are a force to reckon with,” boasted the veteran of opposition politics.
While admitting that the opposition has contributed to this country’s democratic heritage at least by their very existence in the political space, the secretary general of the Botswana Democratic Party(BDP), Botsalo Ntuane, has found the opposition wanting with regard to meaningful contributions in Parliament. “We would not be enjoying our status as one of the foremost democracies in the world if we didn’t have an opposition that since independence has been permitted to operate feely without repression or harrassment,” said Ntuane in a written response to an enquiry. Ntuane, however, said that the opposition has, for the past 50 years, failed to come up with workable alternative policies that resonate with Batswana. “Voters need progressive and life affirming policies and not the grievance politics that increasingly seems to be the stock in trade of our opposition,”