While he didn’t reveal any details, former president Ian Khama has counter-accused President Mokgweetsi Masisi of “misrepresenting” a proposal that he [Khama] put before cabinet when he was still president.
The precise details remain murky but speaking at the recent Botswana Democratic Party National Council, Masisi said that Khama made a series of blunders and that his cabinet ministers routinely steered him away from what could have been disastrous laws and policies. One of the examples that he gave was of a proposal in terms of which marriages would have expired – and would thus have had to be renewed. The additional details that Masisi gave were that: this proposal was self-serving because Khama was “targeting” some enemies of his and sought to abuse his political power and that then Minister of Labour and Home Affairs, Edwin Batshu, was himself horrified. Marriages are administered under the Ministry of Labour and Home Affairs and Batshu would thus have had to take Khama’s proposals to parliament for approval. He would also have had to see to the implementation of what would certainly have been a controversial law.
Masisi’s statement reached the nation via an audio tape that went viral seconds after hitting social media. Audible gasps and laughter can be heard when Masisi made his revelation. With as many information gaps as the statement created, the people in the room – as those who subsequently listened to the tape, would have wanted a lot more detail. However, Masisi said no more and through an intermediary, Sunday Standard asked Khama to confirm that he ever tabled a proposal of the nature Masisi had described.
The response was very brief: “That is a misrepresentation of the issue and a violation of the cabinet oath.” The latter enjoins ministers to never reveal state secrets that are discussed during cabinet meetings. Khama made about the same point when he responded to Masisi’s accusations in a three-part series of rebuttals that was published in the media as well as on Facebook.
“In dealing with the issues I am still bound by the Oath of Secrecy that I swore to. I therefore cannot discuss Cabinet Minutes or Procedures except in clarifying inaccuracies, untruths and gross misrepresentation as has happened in this case,” he wrote.
However, the issue may not be that straight-forward.
Sources with intimate knowledge of cabinet processes say that the cabinet oath protects “state secrets.” Former Permanent Secretary to the President, Carter Morupisi, who served under both Khama and Masisi has also used that term to describe the classification of some of the information that Masisi revealed at the BDP National Council. However, the source says that not everything that is discussed in cabinet is a state secret. The source makes a distinction between “state secret” and “confidential information”, with the former being associated with more sensitive and important information than the latter.
The source further explains that only what cabinet agrees to and is reduced to written form as a cabinet directive qualifies to be called state secret. A state secret is so stamped on the document that it is written on. In that regard, the marriage-with-expiry-date issue, which cabinet rejected and was never reduced to a cabinet directive, wouldn’t qualify as a state secret. The source disagrees with what both Khama and Morupisi said about Masisi revealing state secrets because what he (Masisi) said was not lifted off a document that had been created in the stated manner.
At least on the basis of what this source says, it would seem that there is a very long tradition of using “state secrets” very loosely. Consequently, what is so described may often not be a state secret at all. It has been claimed that a VIP protection officer once chanced upon a former president (who was in the company of a minister in a holding room) going about the process of hiding alcohol in a soft-drink can ahead of a kgotla meeting. The minister is said to have warned the officer to not reveal what he had just seen to anyone because it was a “state secret.”
The source adds that what Khama is supposed to have told Masisi with regard to his succession plan – which Khama disputes – can also not qualify as a state secret it involves personal (and not official) business. According to Masisi, Khama leaned on him to make his younger brother and then tourism minister, Tshekedi Khama, Vice President. Such appointment would have enabled the latter to become president when Masisi stepped down.
Another technical aspect of this issue mirrors what happened in the United States in 2017 during the presidency of Donald Trump. A characteristically ham-handed show-off, Trump revealed highly classified information to the Russian foreign minister and ambassador in a White House meeting. Amid partisan bickering that followed, there was consistent legal analysis that Trump had actually done nothing wrong because as president, he could declassify anything at any time without any process. That has actually been the ruling of the US Supreme Court which said that the president has broad authority to classify, declassify and control access to information at will and that Congress can’t enact a statute seeking to limit such authority because that would raise serious separation of powers constitutional issues.
For the reason that the Botswana presidency was created as a 12th century monarchy, a Botswana president is even more powerful than an American one in terms of what he can do domestically. To the extent a president has broad authority to classify, declassify and control access to information at will, Masisi acted within his rights when he said what he said at the BDP National Council.
However, with regard to revealing the content of private discussions that he had with foreign heads of state like Uhuru Kenyatta of Kenya, he clearly overstepped the mark because that could have negative practical consequences for Botswana. Khama was the subject of these conversations and from Masisi’s description, Kenyatta is still literally having the last laugh when he thinks back to a period of time when Khama added his voice to that of westerners who wanted to feed the Kenyan leader to the International Criminal Court.