Botswana Movement for Democracy (BMD) is on the verge of a major meltdown, and at every stage of degeneration, it is the leadership credentials of Ndaba Gaolathe – the Party President – that are on trial. Can he stand up and call the shots? Every failure at thwarting the crisis comes as good news to the ruling Botswana Democratic Party (BDP) from which BMD split in 2010. As the biggest partner in the opposition coalition – Umbrella for Democratic Change (UDC) – its weakening translates into a major catastrophe to UDC’s ambitious hope of winning elections in 2019.
Political leadership is not reserved for the faint-hearted; it provides a test of massive proportions with times of peace far surpassed by challenges. Ndaba Gaolathe is best suited to tell the story better. What could have been a joyous and trouble-free reign at the helm of the fastest growing Botswana Movement for Democracy (BMD) party has become unenviable baptism of fire. His house is burning and has been for some time. Pressure has never been higher for him to stand up and douse the fire. Options are quickly running out – he cannot wish for miraculous intervention; he has to act. As things stand, the party is tearing itself down the middle with those aligned to Gaolathe’s side and those seemingly following the Secretary General Gilbert Mangole. At the heart of differences in the party has been the return of Advocate Sidney Pilane to the party after a taking a short-lived sabbatical from active politics. After Gaborone North refused to re-admit him into its membership last year Mangole’s constituency rolled out the red carpet for him.
Indications are that though at some point Pilane, a founding leader of the party who contested for the BMD presidency against the late Gomolemo Motswaledi, resigned from the party he never really dished his former comrades completely. His influence continued to resonate in the movement. He assisted those that came to seek his counsel in the party, including availing financial and related resources to such. Some of the current BMD MPs talk openly about how they are beholden to him for the financial aid he availed them. His graciousness was however felt the most when he sacrificed his savings to fund investigations surrounding Motswaledi’s death. He brought in an accident investigations specialist and even hosted him at his house. This endeared grew his profile among BMD members who never celebrated his earlier resignation from politics. His influence has been felt throughout the life of the party since its formation in 2010.
He has allegedly funded some section of the youth league with some having campaigned openly using his vehicles. MP for Kgatleng West Gilbert Mangole has confirmed that Pilane used his personal resources to see to his re-election in the area. It not surprising that when Gaborone North spurned Pilane’s request for membership Mangole was more than welcoming to grant it. When Gaolathe differed bitterly with the move, Mangole penned a long letter to defend himself and his move also calling the leader to order for responding to the constituency decision through social media instead of engaging in formal party structures. Abroad at the time, Gaolathe had posited that he did not expect Pilane’s membership to be considered by any organ than the party Congress in 2017. It is now too late as Pilane is now a full member of the party and enjoying its privileges.
With the National Executive Committee seemingly divided on factional lines, it is unclear whether fruitful discussions ever take place when it meets. Indications are that Gaolathe is outnumbered at the NEC and as that scenario persists he will remain powerless in altering the course which is unfavourable to him. Having pushed for a more democratic constitution that reduces the powers of the president when compared to other parties, the party will continue to drift away from him in as far as decisions are adopted by show of hands. Of the most influential positions, party chairman Nehemiah Modubule and Secretary General Mangole are reportedly on one side while Gaolathe and his deputy Wynter Mmolotsi are on the other. This means that Gaolathe and his deputy do not have the control of the secretariat, leaving Mangole to plan and run party affairs as per his wishes and those close to him. Reports that Gaolathe has opened another party office only go to confirm, the serious differences the movement faces. Those in control of party machinery are miles ahead in determining delegates to party election congresses from women’s wing, youth wing to the national congress next year where Gaolathe is widely expected to face a strong challenge.
Implications of BMD demise
As a party with more MPs within the opposition coalition – the UDC – it means it has more members and hence any stability in it stands to benefit political opponents, in particular the ruling BDP. As its offspring, the BDP would like to do everything possible to bring BMD down. The ruling party has always believed that since BMD followers left them due to protest over Motswaledi’s treatment, they are most likely to rejoin the party than members of other opposition parties. In fact, the BDP has examples to show for this. A number of MPs that had decamped in 2010 later rejoined the BDP, among others current Secretary General Botsalo Ntuane – at one time BMD Vice President – Tati West MP Samson Moyo Guma, Shoshong MP Dikgang Makgalemele and former Mogoditshane MP, Patrick Masimolole. Individual members and councillors also rejoined. The BDP is pinning its hopes on this. As BMD infighting continues opposition cooperation which was supposed to have become the main issue for this year with the welcoming in of Botswana Congress Party (BCP) will struggle to take off.
In fact throwing even a bigger spanner into the works has been reports that the party has decided to choose Pilane to represent it in the unity talks. Recent body language from UDC president Duma Boko has been of a man who did not believe that BMD did the right thing to welcome Pilane back into its fold. Having Pilane now in the heart of talks has a possibility of making discussions take different and difficult dimension with the lawyers in Boko and Pilane possibly arguing more than agreeing. It also highly possible that the decision to have Pilane lead BMD negotiations – if it is the official party resolution – did not have the full blessing of Gaolathe. It is not easy for him to relent to this having been opposed to his membership in the first place. And now with the Youth League calling for immediate leadership action to end chaos and restore order in the party, Gaolathe is under even more pressure to act. It will not be good enough to ignore the calls of the Youth Wing on grounds that it is aligned to people opposed to his leadership; he has to act. Perhaps, it will appear, he has taken longer than necessary to crack the whip.
Lessons for Gaolathe
During President Festus Mogae’s reign he took the bull by its horns. He threatened to dissolve Parliament when his own members of the party made it difficult for him to govern. Those who know Mogae well knew very well that he could have acted out his warning. Duma Boko inherited a Botswana National Front (BNF) that knew no peace; he cracked the whip and now as things stand the party is seemingly the most orderly of all. After a series and suspensions and expulsions members of the BNF know quite well that Boko will not hesitate to crack whip when called to do so. Gaolathe ought to take cue and make hard and painful decision for his party. He can suspend those that are behind the current chaos and move to have them if found properly out of line thrown out of his party. He should call a special congress for a review of presidential powers if they make him too weak. He should rise above all the bottlenecks and stand out to demonstrate strong leadership for his party; otherwise he will be dismissed as a leader who failed his people. He should be brave and daring, after all the greater the risk the greater the benefits. At this stage what works for him is his sincerity and honesty – a rarity in politics - which has endeared him to massive grassroot support than none of his challengers can master.