BDP stands on a precipice

| February 29, 2008

The ruling Botswana Democratic Party (BDP) will retreat to a special congress March 28 at Gaborone’s Boipuso Hall. The sole purpose of this meeting will be to endorse proposed amendments to the party constitution. Botswana Guardian’s ABRAHAM MOTSOKONO takes a look at the intended outcome of the envisaged changes, their potential implications on inner party democracy as well as how the current BDP Chairman, Ian Khama – who will be sworn in as state President four days after the congress – will emerge as the main beneficiary.

Who is Ian Khama?

Khama is more of a military man than a politician. His personal development has been more on the side of military than political life. He has been a military commander for a much longer time than he has been chairman of the ruling party. It is this background that should give insight into any machinations that take place within the BDP at this critical time – the eve of Khama’s ascendance to the presidency of Botswana.

As a military strategist, Khama obviously knows that the need to secure his ground is a first and foremost priority as he prepares to take over the leadership of the country and party. He knows that security must obviously start from within the party he leads, for the greatest threat to any fort is usually from within. Therefore, Khama would be alive to the fact that he must consolidate his power and control of the inner structures of the BDP.

For that reason, fresh in his mind would be the recent open rebellion marshaled by the ruling party backbench in parliament, a phenomenon so unprecedented that it irked President Festus Mogae so much so that in his characteristic undiplomatic disposition, he castigated them openly, reminding them that as BDP members they could only toe the party line and that the party has no room for wayward ideas. Mogae was a frustrated president after a number of important legislative enactments such as the Judges Miscellaneous Provisions Amendment Bill; and the implementation of the Privatisation of Air Botswana legislation could not see the light of day. At the BDP Women’s Wing Congress at Tati Siding last year the president made it clear that such behaviour by the BDP backbench would not be tolerated.

Next to him, Khama – waiting in the wings – sat, and the strategist in him knew that such internal destabilisation had to be nipped in the bud even if it meant sacrificing a cardinal democratic value of free speech; a value that has guided the policies of the BDP. The constitution of the BDP has always guaranteed its members the unfettered right of free speech, participation in discourse and the right to question and criticise party officials or the actions of government.



Now, among the proposed amendments to the BDP constitution is one relating to the Parliamentary as well as Council Caucus. In terms of this proposed amendment, President Khama would enjoy the power of presiding over the Parliamentary Caucus. Currently he chairs the BDP Parliamentary Caucus by virtue of his position as chairman of the party and not because he is the president of the party.

The decisions taken at caucus are not necessarily binding on BDP Members of Parliament. This is evidenced by the sharp differences that have oft en characterized the relationship between the executive and the BDP backbench. Khama will have nothing of that after the special congress. Under the proposed constitutional amendments, not only will he personally chair the party caucus but the decisions of the caucus would be binding on each and every Member of Parliament of the BDP. Therefore parliament under Khama’s reign (aft er the amendment passes) would be characterised by tailor-made presentations from all BDP parliamentarians, including the backbench. The line between the executive and the legislative wing of government is likely to be obliterated as there would be no room for divergent views in debates within the BDP

flank in parliament. The doctrine of separation of powers is generally accepted by all western democracies as an important tenet of good and accountable governance. It provides checks and balances and oversight over cabinet actions. The excesses of government are kept in check through this process. It is this system that has recently led to government’s sudden turn around in the intended Air Botswana transaction.

Batswana in general have roundly hailed the newly found vibrancy within the BDP backbench in the face of a polity characterised by a very weak and fragmented opposition. The BDP backbench has since assumed the role that would have been played by the opposition – the greatest beneficiary of this state of affairs being, of course, democracy. This is likely to be a thing of the past during Khama’s reign, as it appears the BDP is gradually being steered into a centralised formation with more power in the presidency.

Power centralized in presidency

The resolve to centralise power in the hands of Khama the BDP president can be gleaned from other intended amendments in the party constitution. New party structures are planned. For example, President Khama will appoint the National Council of Elders, whose mandate would be “to perform and or carry out any such function which the Central Committee may from time to time delegate”. Traditionally, the BDP is a party that embraced western liberal norms of democracy and had a system of devolution of power. Decisions and election of people to key party structures has always been a collective effort. The party’s broad-based structures such as congress or the Central Committee or the regional branch committees – not the president alone- exercised this collective power. But Khama the military disciplinarian would not lead an ‘undisciplined’ collection of individuals. 

He must exercise ultimate control, personally, on each and every member of the party. The disciplinary process characteristic of civil institutions is long winded. It is dotted with dilatory features such as natural justice, fair hearing and so forth – all niceties that hamper instant discipline. Khama will not have this. He must have a firm and strong grip on the party rank and file. And for this, like a military commander, he must have powers to summarily discipline any member of the BDP and therefore, so goes the proposed amendment: “the president may exercise summary disciplinary power against any member”. The proposed amendment in the notice circulated by the party secretariat is very cunning, obviously to catch the unwary BDP member. The exercise of such summary disciplinary power, according to the proposal, “may result in verbal or written reprimand, if [the president] considers that to be in the best interest of the party”.

At first glance the summary disciplinary amendment creates an impression that the powers of the president in this regard are limited only to verbal or written reprimand, but the amendment does not preclude the president taking other harsher actions against a party member. The proposed amendment is merely permission for the punishment the president may need, but in a very sly way it gives Khama a free reign to unleash his disapproval summarily on any member at any time.

Army style discipline

Summary trials are characteristic of the army. Soldiers must be disciplined immediately, for an undisciplined army is a potential risk to the society it is meant to serve. Just what is wrong with the existing BDP disciplinary procedures? Are they inadequate? Has the party degenerated to such levels of indiscipline that require infusion of military style justice? The BDP has a long-standing tradition of adherence to principles of natural justice in matters of discipline.

On September 6, 2005 the party Central Committee codified this tradition in the guidelines for disciplinary procedure thus: “There must be a valid reason for disciplinary action. This means that there must be sufficient proof looked at objectively that the member has in fact committed the alleged misconduct. This requires the complainant to place sufficient facts before a disciplinary inquiry to establish both that the alleged misconduct has been committed, and also that it has in fact been committed by the member”. Disciplinary structures are in place to ensure due process, complete with  the right of appeal to  the next higher structure . This would come to an end with the system of summary disciplinary action meted from the top most office and abetted by a new creation- the BDP Veterans Forum and National Council of Elders – which subsumes the functions of ward, branch and regional committees.

Where does a member appeal to if he is aggrieved by Khama’s swift and summary judgement on him? His fate would be left in the hands of Khama the leader. The system that is slowly being introduced into the BDP is one that is designed to enhance utmost loyalty and allegiance to Khama. Power and control of the fate of each member of the party is in his hands. Once this kind of culture gains root within the party then a sense of belonging is lost and affinity would only be extended to the individual [Khama]. Self-censorship and a false sense of discipline would reign over the party. But history has shown that civil institutions that tend to be highly centralized and restrictive on people’s will to express their views without let or hinder are not sustainable. The BDP is well advised.

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