Saturday, May 30, 2020

Masire’s staff was keen to avoid another plane incident over Angola

On its way to a SADC summit in 1988, the executive jet carrying President Sir Quett Joni Ketumile Masire was shot down over Cuito Bie, some 375 miles southeast of Luanda. Some 13 years later when he had retired and was a few minutes away from overflying Angola, Masire recounted this incident to a team he was working with to end the Democratic Republic of Congo civil war.

“An overflight notification had not been received and a missile from a MiG had shot one engine off the wing of his aircraft,” writes Phillip Winter, who acted as Masire’s Chief of Staff and refers to the now late president as “QM” ÔÇô for Quett Masire, in “A Sacred Cause: The Inter-Congolese Dialogue 2000-2003.”

The book’s account is that the pilot had managed to land the plane nonetheless. It adds: “QM was counting his blessings as he descended from the stricken aircraft onto terra firma [firm ground] when he realised that his shoes were full of blood. A piece of shrapnel had gone through the back of his seat and lodged between his shoulder blades, an injury which still occasionally causes him pain today.”

The book repeats what Masire himself told Winter and other staffers during a refuelling stop in a former South African Defence Force base at Ondangwa in northern Namibia in 2001. Thereafter, the plane was to overfly Angola on his way to Cotonou, Benin. Out of an abundance of caution, Masire’s staff “conferred with our pilot to make sure that we had in fact done all that was necessary to get clearance to fly over Angolan airspace.”

The official version about the incident, which the book restates, is that Angola had not received an overflight notification. However, doubt persists in some quarters as to how that could possibly have happened. Such doubt has motivated a theory that the Angola’s communist government, which at the time was fighting a fierce battle with UNITA rebels, did everything with its eyes wide open. The United States supported UNITA and allegedly smuggled arms of war into the territory it held through Botswana ÔÇô something that Angolan intelligence would have picked up. Botswana itself would have been helpless in a situation like that because any assertiveness on its part would have cost it US aid. In terms of this theory, the so-called incident had actually been planned and was meant to send a message to Botswana. The incident occurred while the civil war was still raging and it was only a year later that the war ended after UNITA’s leader, Jonas Savimbi, was killed in an ambush.

Whatever the case, Botswana’s first presidential plan was downed and damaged beyond repair. After that incident, the government bought a Gulfstream 4 jet which was replaced during the presidency of Ian Khama. The presidential jet that made a dramatic mid-air turn last month on its way to Mozambique, is the third. 

Masire, who died in June 2017, would have turned 94 this Tuesday.

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Sunday Standard May 24 – 30

Digital copy of Sunday Standard issue of May 24 - 30, 2020.