Whatever the outcome will be of the ongoing Botswana Democratic Party primary elections appeals in Gaborone, the relationship between Phandu Skelemani and former Francistown mayor Buti Billy will never be the same. Skelemani is the incumbent Member of Parliament for Francistown East.
Ten years ago, Skelemani and Billy were political allies, but now the two men are bitter rivals in Francistown politics. When Skelemani first entered politics in 2003 following the resignation of former MP Joy Phumaphi, he relied on foot soldiers that included Billy to do the dirty work of politicking for him. Billy, together with another former mayor of Francistown, Peter Ngoma, created a pro Skelemani team. The team made sure Skelemani wins the hotly contested Bulela Ditswe primary election and ultimately the general election.
It was to be a reciprocal relationship with Skelemani also supporting Billy’s ambition to become an elected councillor in Botswana’s second city. That came to pass and Billy won the Satellite North council election in 2004. It didn’t end there. Word has it that after the 2004 general election Skelemani further responded in kind when he supported Billy’s bid to become the mayor of Francistown.This he did by lobbying some of his councillors in Francistown East to rally behind his man.
Billy initially lost the mayoral election to Ignatius Moswaane in 2004 only to win the mayoral chain a year later.
With the support of Skelemani Billy became the mayor for the next five years. “These two men were never personal friends, but they were political allies. They were part of the same faction in the BDP – the A Team,” argues a councillor in Francistown who has worked with both men. For many people, even though Billy was exposed to party politics before Skelemani, he was Skelemani’s protégé than anything else. A former Attorney General, Skelemani brought a wealth of experience into party politics, something that Billy – a former primary school teacher and businessman – lacked.
According to sources, when BDP members in Francistown doubted Billy’s loyalty to the party because of his past association with Botswana Peoples Party, Skelemani cared less about the association. A BDP member who has worked with both Skelemani and Billy adds that the breaking point of the relationship between the two men came after the 2009 general election. It is said that some members of the BDP in Francistown East felt that since he has been an MP for more than 10 years, it was now time for Skelemani to retire from active politics and give way to someone more energetic. Again, Skelemani had won the election by a few votes. He lost four of his councillors to the opposition Botswana Congress Party (BCP), with only two councilors – James Kgalajwe and Billy – escaping the opposition onslaught.
By all accounts Skelemani had performed badly and this did not go unnoticed. Some BDP members felt that the poor performance was a sign that Skelemani was no longer a popular man in the constituency.
Despite losing the support of the key structures in the constituency, Skelemani was not about to let go. He declared his interest to stand in the constituency in 2013.
Without wasting any time, immediately after the 2009 election Billy informed some BDP supporters that in future he would go after Skelemani. He was so determined that sources say he immediately launched his campaign among the BDP structures in the constituency. For Billy, the decision to challenge Skelemani had nothing to do with past political favours. It was his constitutional right.
Because of his foreign affairs portfolio Skelemani was hardly in the constituency. This allowed Billy to capitalise on his absence. “We had an easy campaign. With our opponent missing in the constituency, it was easy to sell our man,” says Billy’s campaigner who preferred not to be named.
For Skelemani, Billy’s candidacy was a deadly stab in the back by a man who had been one of his closest political allies. The youthful Billy went on to win Bulela Ditswe by 973 votes to Skelemani’s 635.
Now Skelemani is appealing the primary election outcome and is hoping that the BDP would order a rerun in the constituency. With the regional committee already recommending a rerun, chances are that that will come to pass. Skelemani is alleging that there were electoral irregularities during the primary election. Whatever the outcome of the appeals, supporters of the two men are not likely to work together.