Is Masisi fighting the Deep State?

03 Dec 2018

America’s girl group Destiny’s child has nothing on President Mokgweetsi Masisi. Long after the group dropped off the pop charts and went their separate ways, Botswana’s president is still standing and singing about being a survivor who has weathered perfect storms.

Hardly a month in office, the self proclaimed survivor was already in familiar territory, steering his way through choppy waters. Masisi was still settling in at the Office of the President when he found himself struggling with rogue members of his own administration mostly powerful holdovers from his predecessor Lt Gen Ian Khama.

In an interview with the Sunday Standard, President Masisi recalls sending emissaries to his predecessor with a message that stated in part: “If I ever find out that anybody usurped the authority not granted to them by law, I will deal with them because I wanted them to respect the law as was intended.”

By “the law as intended”, President Masisi was referring to the President's Pensions and Retirement Act. The message was sent a few days after former Directorate of Intelligence and Security Services (DISS) boss Isaac Kgosi had usurped President Masisi’s powers and granted former President Lt Gen Ian Khama the use of an official aircraft. This was after president Masisi had declined his predecessor’s request.

President Masisi explained to the Sunday Standard that in his understanding, the President's Pensions and Retirement Act related to “the possibility of the former president to use aircraft on a case by case basis as authorized by the president. Now what that meant to me and what it means to me now is first the case by case presumes for me an assessment by the authority holder of eligibility or of whether or not to authorize, otherwise it would not be the case by case. Every case must be made and authority sought…….. The authority of yay or nay lay with the president.”

The former DISS boss’ power grab was ominous. It suggested a developing conflict between the president and his intelligence boss which could lead both leaders to wield state power against each other, destabilizing the nascent administration.

President Masisi had threatened to take action against civil servants who had overreached themselves. Those inside government reveal that there were fears that when the leader of an institution with vast power to eavesdrop, harass and detain sees himself as locked in a zero-sum struggle for survival, it is often the country’s security and stability that end up in the crossfire.

Although President Masisi never mentioned Isaac Kgosi’s name not even once throughout the interview, the Sunday Standard joined the dots and an outline that emerged suggested that this was the reason the DISS boss was fired.

For the Botswana political cognoscenti, the firing of Isaac Kgosi marked the crescendo of President Masisi’s transformation into his own man. By asserting his authority over the most powerful but insubordinate civil servant, Masisi showed the doubters he was tough, and he traded up.

Most people, however, simply dismissed Kgosi power grab as a legacy of the Khama administration where executive overreach accelerated at an alarming rate and the spy boss commandeered unfettered authority. Kgosi saw himself as beyond the reach of legislative and executive oversight and even had the chutzpah to tell the Parliament Public Accounts Committee that he was not accountable to anyone. Switched on political watchers however saw Isaac Kgosi’s audacious power grab as an indication of a Deep State.  Scary, but plausible.

Deep state Botswana style

A constellation of bureaucratic sabotages by rogue civil servants that have hobbled President Masisi’s administration since inauguration day hark back to the crisis  in countries like Egypt, Turkey and Pakistan, where shadowy networks within government bureaucracies, often referred to as “deep states,” undermined and coerced elected governments. The Huffington Post puts it this way: Deep State "implies a unified force deeply embedded in the republic that has its own agenda and the means to undermine the decisions of elected presidents and members of Congress. Its power derives from control of the mechanisms of power and being invisible."

A few days after President Masisi disarmed the Botswana Wildlife anti poaching unit, some powerful civil servants and tourism interest mobilized against the new administration, sponsoring an international media propaganda that the president’s decision had led to an elephant massacre in the Chobe enclave. A sexed up report by a consultant engaged by the Botswana Ministry of Tourism suggested that elephant poaching in the country had gone up since the new president’s decision to disarm wildlife rangers.

Does that mean President Masisi is battling a deep state? Maybe not, but the echoes are real — and disturbing. The distinction between deep-state meddling and an innocuous protest is difficult to draw in the case of Botswana, because this degree of opposition is so unusual.

Although resistance to change can be a normal and healthy check on a president’s power, what is happening now extends much further. Botswana seems to be developing an entrenched culture of conflict between the president and his own bureaucracy.

Institutional push back against President Masisi’s agenda has grown into something larger and more concerning.

In his interview with the Sunday Standard, President Masisi revealed that, “I had to change my paragraph in the State of the Nation Address to remove seeming impatience with matters of corruption to allow for a toleration of and an acceptance of what I was being told was happening by investigating agencies.”

Sources close to the Office of the President have revealed that, frustrated by the apparent resistance from the Directorate on Corruption and Economic Crime (DCEC) and the Directorate of Public Prosecution (DPP), the president dedicated a paragraph in his State of the Nation Address to castigate the institutions. However following consultations with his aides the president expunged the paragraph, concealing the incessant push and pull between the Office of the President and the country’s bureaucratic complex. The President’s complaint however was a small quibble. Investigating authorities’ push back against the President’s resolve to investigate and prosecute corruption has created an atmosphere of open institutional conflict often with near fatal consequences.

The DCEC investigation into the misappropriation of pensioners’ funds was recently scuttled by a network of powerful renegade spies and senior civil servants.

The parallel Intelligence service turned the heat on the nine person DCEC task team assigned to the investigation, forcing them to resign en masse.  For some time, the task team had all but collapsed after four key members resigned because they feared for their lives. This followed an attempt on the life of the intelligence lead investigator (name withheld) and assassination plots against his colleagues by the shadow intelligence service allegedly working with some powerful DCEC insiders.

The task team also withdrew its informants from the operation because “the ground was getting too hot”.

The crippling setback in the investigation which involved the Botswana Public Officers Pension Fund, BONA Life, Botswana Opportunity Partnership (BOP) and Capital Management Botswana (CMB) involving hundreds of millions of Pula was the first indication that President Mokgweetsi Masisi’s administration was grappling with a powerful Deep State.

Deep States tend to arise when powerful interests are threatened and President Masisi’s determination to investigate corruption seems to have rocked the government enclave’s proverbial boat.