Wednesday, May 22, 2024

Covid-19 pandemic leads to government enclave bloodletting

In Botswana, the rules used to be simple: If you wanted to make loads of money, you joined the private sector, clocked in early, knocked off late and lugged a bulging briefcase home over the weekend. However, if it was job security you wanted, you joined the civil service.

This conventional wisdom is unravelling and the machinery of government is being steadily but fundamentally transformed as President Mokgweetsi Masisi reckons with crunch time, battling to rescue the economy and subdue the coronavirus.

In a sense, the precarious position in which the civil service now finds itself precedes both President Masisi and the Covid-19 pandemic.

For some time, there has been widespread dissatisfaction that Botswana’s civil servants are corrupt and incompetent slackers who are incapable of thinking imaginatively about policy, and hopeless at executing ministerial initiatives.

President Masisi who is half way through his first term in office came with the intent to clean the stables. Hardly two months in office, he fired former president Lt Gen Ian Khama’s holdover, Isaac Kgosi as head of the Directorate of Intelligence and Security Service, and replaced him with Peter Magosi. Next in the President’s line of fire was former Permanent Secretary to the President Cater Morupisi, whom he replaced with Peter Magosi’s cousin, Elias Magosi.

State House insiders say for a long time, the two Magosi’s were the first people the president saw in the morning and the last he saw at night.

This is hardly surprising. Masisi’s predecessors also relied on their chiefs of intelligence to keep them in the loop and their PSPs to run the show at the government enclave. This picture-perfect portrait of a united threesome was shattered last week when Masisi in a daring civil service reshuffle, demoted the most powerful civil servant in the country to an underling at the Ministry of International Affairs and Cooperation as Ambassador-at-large. For good measure, the Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Health and Wellness Kabelo Ebineng, who was the man at the coalface of Botswana’s fight against Covid-19 was demoted and subsequently fired three days later.

It was a hard choices moment that demonstrated the challenge Masisi is facing in turning his blueprint to subdue the coronavirus into actions.

Faced with the Covid-19 emergency, President Masisi moved swiftly to consolidate the civil service fire-power, seeking to inject new people — especially ones with the math and science skills he considered lacking in senior civil servants. The president literally created the COVID-19 Presidential Task Team on the fly. He pulled together a high-powered group of suits to help fight the pandemic and anointed them with the same access and some insiders say authority as his PSP.

The former PSP and Task Team members who all had easy access to the president found themselves pushing and shoving each other at Masisi’s door. And they took opposing views on major issues – a dynamic that is playing itself out in the government’s response to the pandemic.

Covid-19 constant crisis management apparently consolidated Masisi’s relationship with the Covid-19 Presidential Task Team, much to the chagrin of Botswana’s establishment men. There was a sense that this new “crisis structure” had evolved beyond the initial brief to become something of a kitchen cabinet to President Masisi. There were growing fears that it was marginalizeing the cabinet and civil service and reducing the transparency of government decision making.

For some time, the Coordinator of the COVID-19 Presidential Task Team Dr Kereng Masupu, his deputy Professor Mosepele Mosepele and the then Director of Health Services Dr Malaki Tshipiyagae were the three most visible faces of Botswana’s fight against coronavirus. However, the two outsiders who made up the Covid-19 Presidential task team and the Director of Health Services fitted awkwardly with the permanent government bureaucracy. The fight against Covid-19 tended to elevate Tshipiyagae above Solomon Sekwakwa, his Permanent Secretary, while Dr Masupu and Prof Mosepele who embodied a new and powerful layer of bureaucrats with a direct line to the president were special appointees whose positions did not exist in the civil service establishment register.

But when Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Health and Wellness, Solomon Sekwakwa was fired last year because of what he claimed was a vicious and orchestrated campaign by his Director of Health Services, Malaki Tshipiyagae, this was a juicy subordinate-from-hell story which quickly became a metaphor for the Presidential Covid-19 Task Team’s broader tensions with Botswana’s much vaunted civil service.

In an instructive anecdote, Sekwakwa told Sunday Standard how the task team wanted him to unfairly dismiss a certain technical officer from the ministry. “I ignored that and continued with my work,” he said. He believes that is what cost him his job.

With the former Permanent Secretary’s bitter exit, a feud that had been brewing behind closed doors spilled into the open. It was a startling break with decorum for the civil service, in which disputes are worked out privately and officials like Sekwakwa shun the limelight.

The “permanent government” layer of bureaucrats who stay on from president to president, burrowed deep in ministries across the government enclave started pushing back against the Covid-19 Presidential Task team.

Dr Masupu, Prof Mosepele and Dr Tshipiyagae found themselves fighting a bruising turf war with the government enclave’s powerful (Performance Improvement Committee) PIC Force headed by former Permanent Secretary to the President (PSP) Elias Magosi. Initially, leaks were the primary way that entrenched bureaucrats, sought to undermine the task team.

Allegations that the Covid-19 Presidential Task Team was the government enclave bully pulpit made the trio, especially Masupu and Tshipiyagae lightning rods of controversy in Masisi’s new inner circle, readymade-villains for critics who accused them of riding roughshod over the civil service.

Sekwakwa’s successor at the Ministry of Health and Wellness, Kabelo Ebineng was thrust into the trenches where he fought the PIC corner.

With the Ministry of Health and the PIC Force pushing back against the Presidential Task Force, Botswana’s Covid-19 response devolved into a power struggle. Inevitably, Dr Tshipiyagae again found himself fighting his new boss, Ebineng.

The PIC Force decided it was time to break up the party, and upped the ante in their fight against the Task Team. Ebineng and the former PSP demoted Tshipiyagae to a subordinate position of Consultant Surgeon at Princess Marina Hospital, reporting to the hospital Superintendent, and allegedly replaced him with one of their own.

Sekwakwa’s dismissal aside, the biggest coup for the Task Team, was probably President Masisi’s decision to give them absolute command in the fight against the pandemic, shunting the then Minister of Health and Wellness Dr Lemogang Kwape aside.

The President also withdrew the more than P2 billion Covid-19 budget from the Ministry of Health and gave it to the Covid-19 Procurement Unit with is part of the Covid-19 Task Team under the Office of the President. These structures report to the Covid-19 Presidential Task Force which is chaired by President masisi and has among its members ministers of health, finance and trade.

The Covid-19 Procurement Unit under the Office of the President had already started reversing and cancelling some questionable procurements made by the Ministry of Health and Wellness when Ebineng stepped in and spoiled the party.

The former Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Health and Wellness defied President Masisi and refused to surrender the Covid-19 budget to the Covid-19 Presidential Task Force. The Covid-19 Procurement unit under the Office of the President teamed up with the Ministry of Health to close the Task Team out of Covid-19 appropriations.

The Sunday Standard has in its possession a letter from the Covid-19 Presidential Coordination Task Team to Ebineng, complaining that the former Permanent Secretary had elbowed them out of Covid-19 appropriations.

The Sunday Standard investigation team has raised another letter from the Task Team to the former PSP dated 7th March 2021 in which they complained that, “there is concern that procurement around testing, contact tracing/surveillance resources continues to be done without the input and advise of the Coordination Task Team worth millions of pula. Previously, MOHW would put in requests to the Coordination Task Team to advise on the efficacy, burn rate and need of the envisaged procurement, including price. Thus, clarification of budget control to the Coordination Office would be helpful.”

The feud between Masisi’s Covid-19 Presidential Task Team and Botswana’s entrenched bureaucracy carries echoes of the Trump administration’s deep state.  As the rift widens, the acronym PIC Force has come to mean something sinister to some members of the Covid-19 Presidential Task Team. More than just signifying a frustrated bureaucracy, it conjures a secret illuminatus of bureaucrats determined to sabotage the country’s response to the pandemic.

The paranoia is hardly surprising. When it comes to the endless number of more mundane policies and decisions farther from the spotlight, The Covid-19 Presidential Task Team has met with resistance — some of it subtle, some of it not.

It emerges from one of the letters that have been passed to the Sunday Standard that Ebineng allegedly hoarded crucial Covid-19 information and would not share it with the Task team.

The letter dated 4th January 2021 revealed that as the country was reeling from the festive season super spreader, the Covid-19 Coordination Task Team was kept in the dark about the extent of the pandemic. The Ministry of Health and Wellness had not shared the infection rate information with them for “almost two months.”

In another letter dated 7th March 2021 and addressed to the former Permanent Secretary to the President Elias Magosi, the Task team complained that, “the lack of cooperation by the Ministry of Health and Wellness to fully automate sampling and releasing of COVID19 results to patients and share outbreak information timeously, undermines effective disease response.”

Another letter dated 28th March 2021, also addressed to the former Permanent Secretary to the President alleges that the Ministry of Health and Wellness closed the task team out of the Arm Ready vaccination event. “However, we regret to inform you that the Ministry of Health and Wellness continues to attend to COVID-19 matters without involving the Coordination Office. A case in point is the recent launch of the Arm ready vaccination event, which the Coordination Office was not aware of until it became public. The Arm ready even has subsequently not been supported by a communication plan as indicated by questions arising from the public.

“The various activation events for the vaccination exercise were also not shared with the Coordination Office. Dr Masupu and Dr Matshaba were invited at the last minute to lend support to the vaccination activation programme and they attended to save Government from embarrassment”, states the letter.

It has also been revealed that Ebineng sat on letters from Botswana’s Ambassador in the United States of America Kitso Mokaila in which he proposed Botswana’s involvement with Johnson & Johnson, Pfizer and Merck in vaccine manufacturing, development and vaccination. Mokaila offered to help negotiate the deal. It is understood the deal would have involved among other things Botswana hosting clinical trials of the vaccines which at the time were still being developed by the three pharmaceutical companies. Mokaila was apparently hoping that Botswana would leverage its participation in clinical trials to ensure post trial access and benefit sharing in research. Post-trial access and benefit sharing are firmly entrenched research ethics principles.

Indications are that Ebineng cold-shouldered Mokaila and did not act on the letter. Ebineng also allegedly kept the information about the Pfizer, Merck, Johnson & Johnson vaccine deal away from the Presidential Covid-19 Task Team which only became aware of the proposal in November/December 2020.

The Sunday Standard has in its possession a letter from the Task Team dated 4th January 2021 this time addressed to Ebineng in which they inquired on progress made on Ambassador Mokaila’s proposal. Ebineng allegedly tossed away the letter and never responded.

It was at this stage that President Mokgweetsi Masisi intervened by establishing the COVID-19 Vaccine Committee headed by the then deputy PSP and now acting PSP Emma Peloetletse, to coordinate the procurement and administration of the Covid-19 vaccine.

In their letter to the former PSP dated 7th March 2021, the Presidential Covid-19 Task Team states that, “to the best of our knowledge, negotiations with Johnson & Johnson and Pfizer only started in February 2021 when the COVID-19 Vaccine Committee was set up.” This was long after the Johnson & Johnson and Pfizer vaccines had gone past the development stage and were already approved for use by WHO. In the letter to the former PSP, The Presidential Covid-19 Task Team points out that, “As a result of this late engagement, Botswana lost an opportunity to secure vaccines timeously.”

It also emerges from the letter to the former PSP that Ebineng did not consult the Presidential Covid-19 Task Team about the deal to procure the AstraZeneca vaccine. States the Presidential Covid-19 Task Team in their letter to the former PSP: “Furthermore, signing of procurement of the COVAX vaccine agreement in September 2020 by MOHW took place without the knowledge nor input of the COVID-19 Coordination Task Team Office. Consequently, MOHW opted for one product, AstraZeneca, and declined the Pfizer vaccine (as reported by MOHW at the COVID-19 Task Force meeting). This arrangement has placed the nation at risk of not having an effective vaccine should the sole product on order not work.”

It is also apparent from the Task Team letter to the PSP, that Ebineng also sidelined the COVID-19 Vaccine Committee established by President Masisi earlier this year and headed by the acting PSP Emma Peloetletse.

The letter from the Covid-19 Task Team to the former PSP states in part: “MOHW has also proceeded to communicate on the procurement of vaccines in the past week without the knowledge and final input of the COVID-19 Vaccine Committee.

In his defence, Ebineng wrote a four-page letter questioning the legitimacy of the Task team. Ebineng’s letter came only a few days after Magosi’s response to the Task team in which he also appeared to be questioning its legitimacy.

The former PSP pointed out that there was no Cabinet Directive which outlined the authority of the Presidential Task Team Coordination Office. In a letter dated 24th March 2021 addressed to the Task Team, Magosi tried to come up with new terms of reference for the COVID-19 Presidential Task Team that would stop them from reporting directly to President Masisi. This escalated the row between Magosi and the Task team into an open fight for the president’s ear. The Task team wrote back charging that, “it is also our understanding that your good office does not have the legal or administrative authority to replace or amend the original Terms of Reference of the Presidential COVID-19 Task team Coordination Office. Neither can it reassign roles as your letter purported to do by directing that the Coordinator of the Presidential COVID-19 Task Team Coordination Office should now report to yourself and the Director of Health Services, who amongst her duties/responsibilities, is part of the Coordination Team led by the former. We hold that the Presidential COVID-19 Task Team Coordination Office reports to its appointing authority, His Excellency the President of the republic of Botswana, Dr Mokgweetsi E.K Masisi, and the Presidential COVID-19 Task Force which he chairs. The relationship between the Presidential COVID-19 Task Team Coordination Office and the Office of the Permanent Secretary to the President is operational to ensure that the mandate of the Presidential COVID-19 task Force is fulfilled.”

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