President Mokgweetsi Masisi opened up for the first time last week about his differences with his predecessor Lt Gen Ian Khama and how this has harmed the country, the government and the Botswana Democratic Party (BDP).
In a wide ranging exclusive interview with the Sunday Standard revealed how differences between him and Khama in the interpretation of the former presidents’ benefits privileges and entitlements law has escalated into a difficult transition from the previous transition.
The president stopped short of censoring Khama’s political activities for creating two centers of power.
The president confided that when he first became aware of the problem between him and his predecessor he hid it from the public because he was trying to manage the situation.
Masisi told Sunday Standard that in his understanding, a former president can only be granted access to an aero plane on a case by case basis, and this is not an entitlement as the ultimate authority lies with the state president.
He explained that in deciding to give such access, the State President looks at different variables that include costs, budgets, availability and priorities.
He said in his understanding, every case must be made and authority sought from him directly as state president.
He said based on those factors, it presupposes that a request would have to be submitted timeously enough to allow for an assessment to be made by his office. He told the Sunday Standard that Lt Gen Ian Khama on the other hand often submitted his requests a day or two before travel, thus denying the president sufficient time to assess availability of aircraft. And often such requests are not even sent to the president himself.
“Sometimes the requests would come a day or two before travel, and they would be specific that this kind of aircraft and did not allow time for the scheduling. I have to make sufficient time to interrogate.”
Masisi said unfortunately his interpretation often clashed with that of his predecessor.
“I can only adduce based on what I got that the interpretation may have been read to mean automatic entitlement. So I think there is a variance in the interpretation of this.”
This variance became clear to Masisi after he had declined a number of Khama’s requests.
Masisi explained that in making a decision on these requests he took into account that a former president is a retiree, with no specific budgetary provisions made for such travel.
“And along it there will be another interpretation where an impression was created that where permission was granted, the aircraft would wait it out wherever the destination would be until he came back.”
“For me it was not whether the airplane is availed or not, rather it is the intention of the law and the cost and whether or not there is a budget for it and prioritization, for example if the vice president needs to travel, or the army is using the aircraft in active duty.”
Masisi said one always has to reflect this against what the intentions of the legislature were. Based on those he said he was surprised that this had become a controversial issue.
He said notwithstanding the variance of interpretation of the law between himself and Khama that was not the reasoning behind paragraph 270 [in the State of National Address] wherein he said transition of power from Khama to himself had lacked smoothness.
“Rather it was the way that those issues were responded to that had caused harm to the country, to government, to the party and to the process itself. If the transition was as smooth as I had hoped it would be, even if there were differences in interpretation, what happened to the dialogue I thought we had?,” he asked rhetorically.
“I can safely tell you that when I first realized this, I did not make it known. In fact I denied it as I thought it was my duty and I have no regrets about it because I thought I was managing what I thought was a relationship that needed to be managed. And that was beyond the individual personal’s likes or dislikes. It’s a national issue.”
When questions first arose of a possible rift between him and Khama, Masisi’s initial strategy was to deny.
The president said he believed that by denying the existence of a rift between himself and his predecessor that it was in keeping with his oath of office to maintain peace at party level and also at national level.
“That denial was in aid of that.”
He said while so denying, he simultaneously worked at finding a solution to the differences.
The initial response was to send his senior officials including his own Permanent Secretary, Carter Morupisi and also the Minister for Presidential Affairs, Nonofo Molefhi, “to engage with my dear former boss to arrive at some understanding, or if not an understanding to at least find out where the differences were.”
In sending Molefhi to former president Khama, Masisi said he had instructed his minister to make it clear to Khama that if it was found out that anybody had usurped the law, strong action would be taken.
“That was not to suggest there is no need for a former president to use an air plane. That was not to say there was no want. All I wanted to clarify was that we needed to be procedural in the way we do it.”
The president said in the event that the law was found wanting, there is a procedure that has to be followed to change and amend that same law to make it convenient.
“I alone have no power of providing an entitlement as if it’s in the law when it’s not in the law. Discretion I do. But discretion cannot be used to undermine a law. When it says case by case I cannot hide under the cloud of discretion and grant it as if it were right. That’s my fear.”
Masisi said the other absences of smoothness in the transition were more political.
He said when a former president is evidently politically active as Khama has been since leaving office it becomes problematic, particularly in the case of an immediate past president.
Masisi said in such instance the party faithful who had been so loyal to the former president starts asking themselves questions in their consciences as where to place their allegiances between incumbent and the former, particularly when there seems to be a difference of opinion between the two leaders.
“And when you clothe current with the fact that former president Lt. Gen. Dr Seretse Khama Ian Khama is a chief, clearly those for whom he’s chief as you know usually will pay their first call of allegiance to the royalty followed by others. And that causes a lack of smoothness in the transition.”