President Masisi is in his element. He is dropping nuggets of wisdom about our democracy, waxing lyrical about Botswana and running us through the country’s political intrigues. We are not so much interviewing him as marveling at his beautiful mind roving from subject to subject. And then midway through a question he cuts in: “Mhh! it was in January 2017” he says as if caught in a flashbulb memory.
It is 23 months since the January 2017 Cabinet retreat where he survived an attempt on his Vice Presidency, yet all cabinet ministers who were present still recall in detail the partisan rancor that engulfed the meeting.
Weeks of machinations by some cabinet members acting with the support of substantial sections of the Botswana Democratic Party (BDP) leadership and former President Lt Gen Ian Khama to remove the vice president culminated in a huge Masisi pile on.
There were contenders to the vice presidency who rustled up support for the putsch. Then there were their sidekicks who made overtures to other Cabinet members and party leaders with elaborate indirectness, with each revealing just enough to advance the ball but not too much to be seen as agitators. Further down the food chain lurked wavering ministers who were waiting out the endgame before making up their minds. On Masisi’s corner were a few Cabinet colleagues who tried to close rank around him, and at the centre of it all was President Khama, the puppet master who played bad cop good cop.
After Masisi had been hauled over the coals by his cabinet detractors, everyone waited for President Khama to deliver the coup de grace, which would have been the finishing piece on a long-planned strategy to cautiously but decisively knock the Vice President off the perch he’d held since November 2014.
To everyone’s shock, the president went back on the initial plan, appealed for peace and called on all cabinet ministers to work with Masisi.
Twenty-three months later, we are seated around a garden table that looks like a bargain from a garage sale. On the background a bleak and cheerless brick and mortar monstrosity which is an excuse for a State House overlooks a desolate garden adding up to a depressing visual sweep. We are trying to establish the extent to which the blockbuster cabinet retreat has defined the Masisi presidency and relations with his cabinet colleagues. He insists that January 2017 is now all water under the bridge. “I don’t think much (of it) to be honest, because I thought they were being sincere and I thanked them for it. People were speaking their minds openly base on what they believed.”
Masisi says he does not have a problem with anyone who thinks he is not equal to the job. “It’s for me to prove that I am and it’s for them to think that I am not.”
Not all cabinet members who were present however remember January 2017 as erudite and nonchalantly as the president. Some are adamant that events of that day retain a powerful hold on the BDP collective consciousness. It is one of those moments that caused a shift in the tectonic plates of BDP politics. That is where the battle lines in the campaign to oust Masisi were first drawn. They point out that the ongoing BDP intrigue to subvert Masisi’s presidency does not only hark back to January 2017 but the fault lines bear a curious similarity; the January 2017 agent provocateurs make up the leadership of the New Jerusalem faction which is baying for the president’s blood.
There is a sense that while Masisi’s detractors saw January 2017 as an opportunity to push Masisi overboard, the former president tried to use it as a slight of hand to corner Masisi into doing his bidding. The former president’s bad cop good cop strategy was a manipulative technique which psychologists call the “fear-then-relief technique.” The technique preys on a person’s emotions. Here, the manipulator causes someone a great deal of stress or anxiety and then abruptly relieves that stress. After this sudden mood swing, the person is disarmed, less likely to make mindful or rational decisions, and more likely to respond positively to various suggestions. BDP watchers argue that the former President used January 2017 to show Masisi how vulnerable he was, then projected himself as his savior and tried to corner Masisi into a deal to appoint Tshekedi Khama vice president.
President Masisi is however adamant that he never made a deal with former President Ian Khama to appoint Tshekedi vice president. “Let me make it categorically clear, there was never a deal. I don’t owe anybody anything. I never promised anybody anything. Clearly there were signs that this may be preferred over the other, but I took that as normal and everybody is free to express their wish as some in the media fraternity also tried to persuade me to select one person or another as vice president. I saw that as normal. The former president in our discussions, which were very many, in various forms in our engagements we talked about the transition and he made his feelings known as any human being would. I never was cornered, forced into or had anything extracted from me by way of a promise. So I was very comfortable in assuming office. This transition issues as I have now come to talk about essentially manifested themselves post that and when one reflects, you can see elements of their beginnings prior to. I will stop thus far.”
Three weeks after the January 2017 cabinet retreat, President Masisi escaped a fatal plane crash when a Botswana Defence Force (BDF) passenger aircraft Casa 212, which was scheduled to transport him to Tsabong the next day crashed en route from Thebephatswa Air base in Molepolole to Sir Seretse Khama airport killing all three passengers on board. Conspiracy theories about a secret plot to assassinate the vice president started flying fast and thick. Adding more grit to the conspiracy theories mill were further reports that emerged revealing how Masisi had had to be airlifted to Morningside hospital in South Africa after suffering a deadly bout of food poisoning. No sooner had the countdown to the presidential succession started than the air was thick with fear and loathing. Conspiracy theories on the plot to assassinate Masisi had spread from the fringes to the political mainstream with local headline writers having a field day on how the vice president feared for his life and had stepped up his security.
The President however seems to be flying light and does not carry any baggage from his vice- presidency. Just like with January 2017, president Masisi is quite blas├® about the alleged attempts on his life. “Botswana is rich with imagination. I have no evidence of any plans to down the aeroplane, me in it or even the pilots unfortunately who perished in it. As for the poisoning there have been all sorts of theories put across on wherever I may have gotten whatever I ingested. I have no evidence of the source of that and it did not make me a different president. Whatever happened I just thought, look I’m going to start afresh. I’m a survivor. I survived all manner of attempts to have me removed. There were many in Cabinet who were convinced that I was not fit for duty, but I was very clear on one thing. I will never bully myself or bully anybody into clinging onto this job as vice president. I offered my resignation on four different occasions, one of them right in this house, for various reasons but they were declined. There were many who were asking that I quit, but for reasons that were not honest, and I was able to dispel them, but I ended by saying I am willing and ready to resign if my president wants me to go because I had promised him three things; to always respect him the government and the party; never to embarrass him; and to always submit to his desires in terms of my placement or deployment because that is keeping in consonance with the Constitution of the party and the government… so I offered that if I am the problem I will go immediately and will find the vocabulary to explain it, but I don’t want to have untruths said about me as the basis for my going. That I will fight with all might.”
With only six months before the Botswana Democratic Party Special congress, it is January 2017 all over again with all of the bickering, back stabbing and belligerence. The ultimate survivor faces the biggest political fight of his life ahead of the party congress where his detractors are rallying to topple him.
No one can predict how the leadership challenge would pan out ÔÇö. The history of the BDP infighting tells us that whatever happens next, it will be messy but the party would not risk rocking the boat too violently a few months before what promises to be the most difficult general election in the history of Botswana. For now Masisi is confident that he is in charge. “I feel competently and confidently in charge. There may be arguments about the extent to which and these are nuances of stability more than my ability to make things happen.”
Read part two next week