Friday, July 19, 2024

Masisi and Ramaphosa boxing in the shadows?

amaphosa, the name Bridgette Motsepe is always the subplot of the story.

There is no doubt that the South African multimillionaire businesswoman is, and will for a longtime remain, a burr in the saddle of the two president’s relationship.

The three-way relationship cannot be any cringe-worthier: The woman who deployed her vast wealth to oust Masisi is Ramaphosa’s sister-in-law.

So far, the tension between Masisi and Ramaphosa has however remained at a low-intensity, below the threshold of declared hostilities.

But far from the lavish dollops of diplomatic niceties, a cast of non-state actors most with links to Bridgette Motsepe – among them a former Cabinet Minister who is currently holed up in South Africa, Samson Guma Moyo – are not holding back their fire, letting Masisi and his administration have it with both barrels.

This gung-ho legion has some Botswana security analysts worried that South Africa may have launched a grey zone attack against Botswana.

A grey zone attack is a below the radar offensive which does not cross the threshold of formalized state-level aggression. State-based actors use proxies such as cut-outs and criminals to conduct their objectives through a third party. This affords them deniability, cover and concealment, and obfuscation of their true intentions. In grey-zone conflicts, participants may rely entirely on unconventional tools and tactics, such as disinformation, propaganda, psychological operations and economic pressure to render an opposing country ungovernable without engaging in open hostilities.

Rattled by the apparent disinformation and propaganda campaign, the Botswana Police Service Public Relations Unit met the Botswana Editors Forum last week to express their concern. Among the names that came up during the discussions was Daniel Kenosi, an incendiary online scribe currently on self-imposed exile in South Africa from where he has been taking pot shots at the Masisi administration. Kenosi’s South African residence status has been a subject of curiosity, spawning speculations that he may be a pawn in the apparent grey zone campaign.

Another name that came up in the disinformation campaign was Moeladilotloko, an online podcaster accused of inciting disturbances in Ntswe le Tau and the Central District.

Inciting negative public opinion and a sense of crisis are often the grey zone attackers most effective tools.  Although they did not say it in so many words, the Botswana Police Service were uneasy that amid the ongoing media feeding frenzy, mainstream journalists may find themselves unwittingly sucked into the disinformation campaign

The Institute for Security Studies, an African Organisation which aims to enhance human security on the continent, warned last year that, “one of the many mysteries about the Bridgette Motsepe affair is why President Mokgweetsi Masisi is pursuing it so relentlessly despite the harm it seems to be doing to relations with Botswana’s big neighbour, South Africa.”

Motsepe is an old friend of former president Lt Gen Ian Khama. The South African mining magnate deployed her wealth to help Khama and his preferred candidate– former foreign minister Pelonomi Venson-Moitoi – to run against Masisi for the presidency of the ruling Botswana Democratic Party (BDP).

When the allegations first surfaced, Ramaphosa sent his international relations Minister Lindiwe Sisulu to Gaborone to assure Masisi the South Africangovernment had nothing to do with the plot.

Botswana’s decision to engage Afriforum to pursue Motsepe on allegations of money laundering however inflamed the already fraught relations with South Africa. Afriforum holds a vexing place in the eyes of the South African government. It is seen as an organization hell bent on undermining both the South African government and society by sewing racial disunity and corroding gains made in post-apartheid democracy.

Indications are that Botswana’s choice of Afriforum was a tactical blind-side. According to Head of DPP, Stephen Tiroyakgosi, Botswana’s government had grown increasingly impatient following a request to South Africa’s foreign office (DIRCO) for “mutual legal assistance” which went cold. Made in late September 2019, the request had apparently been diverted to the Department of Justice over nine months where, given the delay, it appears to have been ‘sat on’. This suspicion is strengthened when this case is contrasted with others in Botswana involving less influential individuals. Afriforum attorney Gerrie Nel blamed “political interference” for South Africa’s delay in responding to a request for assistance from Botswana. With a ‘stalled negotiation’ between the two countries, Botswana’s blind side sought to break the deadlock.

By enlisting masterful agitators politically at odds with the South African government, Botswana must have known there would be a reaction. It came a few days later. The Botswana Office of the President announced that Ramaphosa would be sending his state security minister Ayanda Dlodlo to Gaborone as his special envoy to meet president. Masisi.

Cyril Ramaphosa
South African President Cyril Ramaphosa

A senior South African official told Daily Maverick that South Africa sought the meeting, and Dlodlo would convey Pretoria’s displeasure at Botswana’s handling of the affair.

‘How does a friendly and sisterly state with whom we’ve got historical, strong and cordial ties involve a right-wing lobby group (Afriforum) in matters between us?’ the official was quoted saying. Ramaphosa’s office strenuously denied that the meeting was meant to dress Masisi down, insisting that Dlodlo was to have met Masisi to discuss the Southern African Customs Union – a claim many observers found strange, since the union is way out of her mandate. The meeting was called off, but the off the record reports revealed how the discussions between Masisi and Ramaphosa’s over the Motsepe issue was evolving. The relationship between the two countries had sunk to a new law.

Masisi is apparently worried that South Africa’s grey zone campaign may escalate to economic pressure. The president has been traversing the lengths and breaths of Southern Africa in an apparent attempt to ease Botswana’s dependence on South Africa, strengthen relations with regional leaders here and mend broken relations there.

Botswana has been a sitting duck for a grey zone attack since Masisi’s first day in office. A constellation of apparent bureaucratic sabotages by rogue civil servants that have hobbled President Masisi’s administration since inauguration suggested shadowy networks within government determined to undermine the new administration.

A few days after Masisi disarmed the Botswana Wildlife anti-poaching unit, some powerful civil servants and tourism interest mobilized against the new administration, sponsoring an international media propaganda that the president’s decision had led to an elephant massacre in the Chobe enclave. A sexed-up report by a consultant engaged by the Botswana Ministry of Tourism suggested that elephant poaching in the country had gone up since the new president’s decision to disarm wildlife rangers.

Did that point to sabotage? Maybe not, but the indications were real — and disturbing. The distinction between sabotage and an innocuous protest is difficult to draw in the case of Botswana, because this degree of opposition is unusual.

Although resistance to change can be a normal and healthy check on a president’s power, what has been happening extends much further. Botswana seems to be developing an entrenched culture of conflict between the president and his own bureaucracy.

Institutional push back against President Masisi’s agenda has grown into something larger and more concerning.

In his one and only interview with the Sunday Standard, President Masisi revealed that, “I had to change my paragraph in the State of the Nation Address to remove seeming impatience with matters of corruption to allow for a toleration of and an acceptance of what I was being told was happening by investigating agencies.”

Sources close to the Office of the President revealed that, frustrated by the apparent resistance from the Directorate on Corruption and Economic Crime (DCEC) and the Directorate of Public Prosecution (DPP), the president dedicated a paragraph in his State of the Nation Address to castigate the institutions. However following consultations with his aides, the president expunged the paragraph, concealing the incessant push and pull between the Office of the President and the country’s bureaucratic complex. The President’s complaint however was a small quibble. Investigating authorities’ push back against the President’s resolve to investigate and prosecute the Botswana public Officers Pension Fund corruption created an atmosphere of open institutional conflict often with near fatal consequences.

The DCEC investigation into the misappropriation of pensioners’ funds was almost scuttled by a network of powerful renegade spies and senior civil servants.

The parallel Intelligence service turned the heat on the nine person DCEC task team assigned to the investigation, forcing them to resign en masse.  For some time, the task team had all but collapsed after four key members resigned because they feared for their lives. This followed an attempt on the life of the intelligence lead investigator (name withheld) and assassination plots against his colleagues by the shadow intelligence service allegedly working with some then powerful DCEC insiders.

The task team also withdrew its informants from the operation because “the ground was getting too hot”.

The crippling setback in the investigation which involved the Botswana Public Officers Pension Fund, BONA Life, Botswana Opportunity Partnership (BOP) and Capital Management Botswana (CMB) involving hundreds of millions of Pula was the first indication that President Masisi’s administration was grappling with a powerful internal force.

But Whatever “game” is being played at the moment, it is unlikely that a bromance between Masisi and Ramaphosa will happen any time soon.

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