A season of acrimony threatens BDP’s hegemony

Edward Bule - NE correspondent
Monday, 20 March 2017
A season of acrimony threatens BDP’s hegemony

The ruling Botswana Democratic Party(BDP) has hitherto been associated with internal cohesion, peace and stability while the opposition was associated with instability emanating from incessant fights for party positions.

In a paper written by Professors Batlang Seabo and Professor Zibani Maundeni of the University of Botswana(UB), the BDP has in the past survived factionalism due to its better management of internal differences while the opposition lacked the wherewithal to deal with internal disputes.

The divisions among the opposition have, in many instances, assumed factional dimensions leading to splits even as early as 1962 of the Botswana Peoples’ Party (BPP) which was then hardly two years old. The Botswana National Front (BNF), on the other hand, spilt several times in the ’80s. The BDP suffered its one and only split in 2010.

Indications are that the impending chairmanship and presidency races, could prove to be an existential threat to the 55-year-old party which has been in power since 1965 as the protagonists assess the gains of the positions they want to contest, settle scores with their opponents and form and re-form alliances. In the present situation, matters are not helped by the fact that, while in the past the Vice President automatically became the President in the event a vacancy occurred, this time around, the passage of the Vice President, Mokgweetsi Masisi to the position of President is not guaranteed because, three candidates have declared their intent to become President Ian Khama’s successor.

Professors Maundeni and Seabo, say automatic succession “...has helped to eliminate the succession struggle. In addition, the fact that the Vice President succeeded to the Presidency, also minimised policy reversals or changes that could have sparked factions to form in defence of the old order.”

Unlike in the past when BDP functionaries fought over wards, constituencies and controversial decisions by their leader President Ian Khama, this time around, what is ultimately at stake is a much bigger prize hence the high stakes. A member of the BDP central committee members confessed that the current situation in the party is a matter of great concern to the party leadership. This was after a physical fight at a BDP elective regional congress in Francistown last week. “The tension in the party is unprecedented. It is worse than what prevailed in the BNF before its split in 1998. It is also worse than the tension levels in the run-up to the Kanye congress after which the party experienced a split in the party resulting in the birth of the Botswana Movement for Democracy(BMD),” said the party official.

Another BDP functionary posited that, if he had his way, a compromise would be reached among the presidential aspirants, Robert Masitara, Nonofo Molefhi and Vice President, Masisi to avoid what is likely to be a debilitating fallout in the party. However, another BDP activist feels that, compromises are not good for democracy.

“Hopefully, the BDP rank and file as well as leadership are mature enough to handle a high-profile election such as a presidential one. Contests are part of democracy. We should run an exemplary internal election as the ruling party. We have been in existence for over 50 years and people expect a lot from us,” he said. The BDP has used compromise deals before to manage heightened factionalism.

In a paper entitled Management and Mismanagement of Factionalism in Political Parties. 1962-2013, Seabo and Professor Maunden make the point that, at the height of the Kwelagobe and Merafhe factions, “...compromise deals also enabled Kedikilwe and Kwelagobe to dominate the chairmanship and secretary generalship of the party without giving it the power to veto government policies. As a result, compromises led to a win-win situation in which the ‘anti-corruption’ faction controlled the government and the Kedikilwe-Kwelagobe faction controlled the party. 

“Thus, it was not just incumbency but good management as well that held the BDP together despite factionalism that threatened to tear it apart,” say the academics. The Professors, however, acknowledge that the BDP have not always used compromises to resolve their factional wars. “For instance, between November 2004 and May 2005, the BDP was working on a compromise deal whose intention was to set central committee elections aside. The compromise deal collapsed,” say the Professors adding that the collapse of the deal led to heightened factionalism in the party when the party held its elective congress in 2009 in Kanye.

“The Kwelagobe faction vanquished its rival and was in a good position to formally control the party. However, in a move to regain control by the Merafhe-Nkate faction, President Khama appointed into other central committee positions members who predominantly belonged to one faction which had lost. Factional feuds worsened as some members of the Kwelagobe camp decried bad leadership of Khama who they perceived to be intolerant of divergent views,” added Professor Maundeni and Seabo.

What followed, they say, was a season of acrimony leading to the suspensions, expulsions and resignations of key party members and the birth of the BMD. Asked whether he thinks the BDP should consider a compromise arrangement for both the chairmanship and presidency of the party, Seabo advised that, the BDP is in a Catch 22 situation. “It is clear that compromises have worked for the party in the past and if there are possibilities to compromise in the interest of the party, there is nothing wrong with the party opting for that option.

“Up until 2010, compromise solutions seemed to be workable for the BDP. They may want to explore that possibility and avoid a full-blown conflict,” said Seabo who however argues that the practice could at the same time offend some of the members who might feel that they have been denied the opportunity to choose their preferred leaders in a democratic set-up.

“Such people may rebel against the party and this could hurt it politically. The party must therefore tread carefully,” he said. Seabo believes that the BDP, which boasts of running a democracy, should rise to the occasion and be a role model not only to the opposition parties here with respect to conflict management but to other countries as well. “The party and its leadership will hopefully not repeat the mistakes of 2009 where intolerance took centre stage. They must transcend all forms of intolerance and promote internal democracy,” advised Seabo.

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