Thursday, October 28, 2021

A President by default: Masisi’s hard-won battles to the State House

With exactly a week left before Mokgweetsi Masisi takes over from Ian Khama, a forceful narrative is being pushed to create an impression that yet again this is a smooth transition ÔÇô a result of long planned succession that in the end had all the hallmarks of serenity.

Either out of sheer mischief making or well-meaning attempts to rehabilitate the country’s declining ratings abroad, once again the story of Botswana’s exceptionalism in a continent consumed by coups and conflict-ridden transitions is being railroaded for the attention of the world.

Nowhere was this particular narrative more pronounced than at last week’s national council of the governing Botswana Democratic Party where even the ailing former president Festus Mogae was hastily pulled in for a photo-opp.

The optics and indeed the literature being paraded play to a create facade of unanimity that has always existed from the beginning.

An impression is being created that this is a transition that has been free from internal rivalries; that everything has turned up exactly the way all of the key players had wanted it to be; that from the onset the ducks were always on line.

Nothing is further from the truth.

The serene and upbeat public demeanour of a smooth transition belies a stormy turbulence underneath.

Information emerging from inside indicates that behind the scenes this has been the most drama-fraught transition that the country has ever had.

It is a transition that has been roiled with disagreements and many episodes of quarrel, discord and conflict.

Not even the shambolic weeks of uncertainty that followed Sir Seretse Khama’s death in office in 1980 come anywhere close.

In short, and put more crudely, it is a transition that almost never happened.

Masisi was never meant to become a president.

In the minds of those who made key decisions at the time, Masisi was only appointed as a stop-gap vice president who would never ascend.

As it turned out, God had other plans.

Thus in exactly a week’s time to the day next week, Masisi will be State President.

It is a transition that is happening because of a combination of factors: Masisi’s grit, stubbornness and survival instinct have been crucial.

Ian Khama’s good judgement when it mattered most has also played a part.

But then so too has been Khama’s indecision and general sloppiness.

A string of losses, poor judgement, misfortune and just sheer ineptitude on the part  those that had been pre-ordained have also conspired to put Masisi on a pole position.

In a way, the transition we are seeing is a product of a succession plan that was mishandled from the first day.

In the beginning the crown prince was Ndelu Seretse whose mighty fallout with power brokers at intelligence services – DIS, followed by loss of primaries in Serowe North sealed his fate.

Once Ndelu Seretse was explicitly out of the picture in his place came Kitso Mokaila.

But owing to BDP backstabbing and internal fights Mokaila too fell off the rails when he lost a constituency to the opposition in the 2014 General Elections.

Under the constitution of Botswana one can be vice president on condition that they hold a substantive constituency behind their name.

Once Mokaila was out, an attempt was made to move mountains to bring Eric Molale into the picture. To the disappointment of the planners, Molale proved a hard-sell.

A supposed easy shoo-in, Molale lost a carefully choreographed by-election that he was expected to easily win and get himself on a higher pedestal.

Just as Khama was running out of alternatives so too was the time running out for him to weave his succession plan according to his liking.
In the meantime Masisi was busy entrenching himself.

But then too was Tshekedi Khama growing more ambitious, more animated and even discourteous.

Increasingly he exhibited signs of entitlement.

More than once a very well informed and quite Khama-rite senior minister has told me how

Tshekedi Khama had aggressively pushed his elder brother to get himself appointed Vice President.

He lobbied and nagged his elder brother so much so that family retainers were called in to try and restrain him ÔÇô with little success.

Every attempt to knock sense into him had the effect of making him more rebellious.

The private quarrels with his younger brother weighed down on the president.

“I can tell you that in the end Khama has regretted ever bringing TK into politics,” the same minister said.

In this, Tshekedi was not alone.

The family backed him and goaded him all the way.

Ian Khama deserves some credit.

With his back against the wall, and under attack from those closest to him, the president resisted all such calls, saying that far from his family’s strongly-held views, Botswana was not a private property of the Khamas to dispense and expend with as they wished in fulfilment of their nefarious ambitions.

The president argued that having brothers as president and vice president would not only rupture the party but also the country. He was right but also alone.

Had the president given in to such outlandish demands by his family, Tshekedi not Masisi would by next week become the President.

That would have made him a third Khama to be president of the republic.

Even by ridiculously low African standards, this would have been pushing the envelope a little bit too far.

The two-year long attacks on Tshekedi Khama by Samson Moyo Guma were neither spontaneous nor inspired by any love for good governance.

They were part of a calculated “save Masisi” episode, albeit by a self-appointed zealot.

Early on in 2017, there were leaks made to a few in the media by some in cabinet that the relationship between President Ian Khama and his deputy was headed for a brash denouement.

The storyline was that Masisi had fallen out of favour and that he would ultimately be sacked.

That of course did not happen.

An emissary was even at one point dispatched to go and plead with Masisi to resign as both party chairman and vice president ÔÇô or face being sacked.

That, apparently had been part of a previous deal.

After seeking advice from an array of sources that included Sir Ketumile Masire, Masisi balked, and spurned calls on him to resign, effectively calling on the president to sack him if he so wished.

As it is, Khama chickened out.

Attempts to get rid of Masisi were not over yet.

At a cabinet retreat, minister after minister took turns to disparage Masisi ÔÇô a sitting vice president.

They had gotten wind that the vice president was on his way out.

The president had given note that everybody could say out their mind without fear of being victimised.

According to a minister who attended the meeting, the vice president sat there stone-faced and in disbelief as his colleagues took turns to literally dismember him. The recurring theme was that he was not a team player. And that he was unworthy of the top job.

Yet again he bit the bullet, stayed put and survived the onslaught.

Had Masisi left that would have cleared the way for another member of the Khama dynasty to be appointed in his place.

There were so many odds stacked against Masisi’s ascent

As it is he refused all calls on him to step down. The president too developed cold feet and failed to sack Masisi. Even then that is only half the story.

The most important thing is that Masisi is alive and well. And from the look of things he will be serving his full ten years given an opposition that is in now in total disarray.

If there is a lesson to learn from this charade, it is that sacking a vice president is not an easy undertaking. An even bigger lesson is that it does not help for us mere mortals to try and play God.

Having ascended to the throne by default himself Masisi should be careful not to fall into a similar trap where in the end he too will lose control of events.

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