Saturday, December 3, 2022

‘Ask your Ambassador what’s going’ – Masisi to Hichilema

It might seem like a single throwaway line in a speech chockful with mind-blowing revelations. However, “Ask your Ambassador what’s going on” is a loaded statement with unusually interesting implications.

Those words were uttered by President Mokgweetsi Masisi at the recent Botswana Democratic Party National Council which was held in Gaborone during the President’s Day holidays. They relate to the ugly and protracted public spat between him and his predecessor, Ian Khama. Political leaders in the SADC region are gravely concerned about this spat not just because of its unseemliness. It could snowball into something bigger and uglier that would require their intervention and threaten regional stability.

On the basis of the foregoing, President Hakainde Hichilema of Zambia used the opportunity of a meeting with Masisi to ask what was going on in Botswana. It was then that Masisi asked him to instead get full unbiased details from a source who keeps Lusaka up to date on what is happening in Botswana: the Zambian High Commissioner to Botswana. Masisi may have used a generic term but envoys between Commonwealth countries are called high commissioners and not ambassadors.

Masisi’s statement is significant in one very important respect. As part of concerted effort to portray Masisi as the culprit and himself as a victim, Khama has been badmouthing the latter to SADC leaders. In some cases, Khama has actually visited SADC countries and pointed an accusing finger at Masisi from across the border. This is a futile attempt because save for countries like Lesotho and Swaziland, virtually all SADC countries have envoys who live in Gaborone. These envoys understand the Masisi-Khama feud the same way that the most enlightened people in town do.

You almost don’t recognise diplomats unless they are raising wine glasses to make a toast at a four- or five-star hotel. However, away from the endless reception dinners and the soft life that largely characterises diplomatic service, diplomats are voracious information hounds. In some cases, the hounding strays onto spying territory. Diplomats read newspapers religiously, follow all the major political and economic developments and interact with people from all walks of life to get a full picture of what is actually happening in a country they are posted to.

In 2003 when then Vice President Ian Khama sought to topple Ponatshego Kedikilwe from the chairmanship of the Botswana Democratic Party, the writer took a sponsored trip to a European Union country. The itinerary included an innocent-looking invitation to tea at the foreign affairs headquarters. During this session, diplomats at headquarters were overly curious to learn who between Khama and Kedikilwe had a better chance of winning. This is par for the course with diplomats: they invite you to what they would have characterised as a social get-together that, however, turns out to be an information-gathering exercise. About the same sort of thing would have happened with former Debswana Diamond Company spokesperson, Kabelo Binns. Diplomatic cables from the United States Embassy in Gaborone that were leaked by WikiLeaks quote Binns as having told an officer there that former Debswana boss, Louis Nchindo, paid a study that paved the way for Khama’s ascent to the presidency. Information obtained in that manner, some of which can be open source, is then distilled into intelligence.

As the WikiLeaks cache shows, the languages used in diplomatic cables is typically brutal and honest. On the basis of the foregoing, successive Zambian High Commissioners to Botswana having been sending back home diplomatic cables that are written in honest and brutal language about the Masisi-Khama feud. Prior to this feud, they would have written similar cables about Khama’s 20-year political stint in the government, first as vice president and later as president.

When it was announced that VP Khama was going on a five-year sabbatical leave, then Zambian High Commissioner to Botswana, would have soaked up all the analysis and rumours of the time to compose a comprehensive cable to mystified political leaders in Lusaka. The government district in Lusaka knows more about Khama’s stewardship of the Directorate of Intelligence Services and Security than does the average civil servant at the Gaborone Government Enclave.

The foregoing explains why Masisi would ask Hichilema to ask his Ambassador what is going in Botswana with regard to the feud between him and Khama. It also undermines Khama’s effort to define this feud in terms that are favourable to him. When Khama meets President Cyril Ramaphosa and badmouths Masisi, the South Africa president would want to confirm what he was told with South Africa’s High Commissioner to Botswana. So would Angola’s João Lourenço, Namibia’s Hage Geingob and Zimbabwe’s Emmerson Mnangagwa.

Of late, Khama has spread his wings to the west, making his first stop in the United Kingdom where he gave interviews to some national newspapers. If he lobbied the UK government to side with him, it would naturally want to find out from its Gaborone-resident High Commissioner what exactly is going on between Masisi and Khama. In short, Khama can’t tell foreign leaders anything they don’t already and what he tells them will be fact-checked with envoys in Gaborone. In that regard, his attempt to bad-mouth Masisi will have very limited results.

Having been president, Khama will naturally have additional and juicier information about Masisi, which information envoys would not have had access to. However, that advantage is itself limited by the fact Masisi himself has the goods on Khama and as the BDP National Council showed, he won’t be holding back. Tragically though, Masisi has implicated his statesmanship in the process of doing the latter.

When heads of states meet, they discuss all kinds of secrets secure in knowledge that what is whispered in the privacy of a convention hall will never make it to the public arena. Uhuru Kenyatta and Geingob would certainly not have wanted the public to know what they told Masisi about Khama in private. It’s likely that their respective envoys in Gaborone have lodged an official complaint about what Masisi said at the National Council.

“He shouldn’t have said that,” says a veteran diplomat. ‘If anything, he should have privately told Khama what other leaders think about him.”

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