Friday, July 10, 2020

Masisi’s Covid-19 hangers-on stage boardroom coup

Former Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Health and Wellness Solomon Sekwakwa was the quintessential establishment man. After more than four decades of working his way up to the top of the government enclave, very few could claim to be more civil service insiders. The ultimate civil service insider broke his silence this week and revealed how he was pushed out by the powerful new group of civil service “outsiders” – the COVID-19 Response Team. 

Sunday Standard investigation team spoke to a number of civil servants, turning up information suggesting that Sekwakwa’s dismissal is a sign of the times and points to the growing fear and loathing that is building around President Masisi’s COVID-19 hangers on. Faced with an emergency, Masisi created the COVID-19 task team on the fly. He personally pulled together a high-powered group of suits to help fight the pandemic. The new and powerful layer of bureaucrats with a direct line to the president are special appointees who do not exist in the civil service establishment register. The group was personally hand-picked by President Masisi and is perceived as the “captains picks” who wield unfettered power.In an instructive anecdote, axed permanent secretary Solomon Sekwakwa told Sunday Standard how the task team wanted him to unfairly dismiss a certain technical officer from the ministry.“I ignored that and continued with my work,” he said.

He believes that is what cost him his job.Sunday Standard investigations have revealed that constant crisis management has consolidated Masisi’s relationship with this group of “inside outsiders” much to the chagrin of Botswana’s establishment men. There is a sense that this new “crisis structure” has evolved beyond the initial brief and has become something of a kitchen cabinet to President Masisi. There are growing fears that Masisi’s bloated crisis structure has marginalized the cabinet and civil service and reduced the transparency of government decision making. It is understood that this crisis structure conducts deliberations outside conventional civil service structures and beyond watchdog institutions. The technical leadership and implementation of the response to the epidemic was, naturally, expected to be coordinated by the Ministry of Health. The Minister responsible for public health Dr. Lemogang Kwape has however been reduced to twiddling his thumbs and watching the action from the side-line.

The top two Ministry officials alleged to have demonstrated their discontent, Permanent Secretary Solomon Sekwakwa and his Deputy Dr. Morrison Sinvula, were unceremoniously relieved of their duties. Sekwakwa confirmed to the Sunday Standard that the COVID-19 team alienated the Ministry of Health and reported directly to the president. Chief Public Relations Officer in Ministry of Health Doreen Motshegwa has also been reduced to a powerless spectator. “The Ministry of Health and Wellness Chief Public Relations Officer should be the one shining with her team but the poor people have been relegated to the backseat,” a source told the Sunday Standard.

Even Permanent Secretary, Botswana Government Communications and Information System (BGCIS) Andrew Sesinyi one of few establishment men believed to be the president’s man is also understood to have been alienated by Masisi’s crisis structure.Sesinyi however insists that he “remains seized with government communications including Covid-19 issues” despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. While there are reports of tension between the BGCIS and the COVID-19 Task Force communications unit, Sesinyi insists “there is excellent collaboration and synergy between the Task Force Coordinator and Government Communications.”  

GORVENANCE SQUALOR 

It has further emerged that Botswana’s COVID-19 has become a crisis where ad-hoc committees with a direct line to the president proliferated. As the number of Masisi’s special advisers continues to grow, so has the accountability gap. Among incidents that offer a glimpse into the moral squalor and stealth that define the president’s growing list of hangers on, is the goings on at the Task Force Communications Unit under Press Secretary to the President Batlhalefi Leagajang. Despite existing government communications departments under both ministries of Health, and Presidential Affairs the Task Force has roped in almost a dozen marketing and public relations officers from various parastatals and private sector to handle all issues relating to COVID-19 communication, operating under the Office of the President and reporting directly to the President. This group draws monthly allowances that are higher than permanent secretaries’ salaries.

The situation is not helped by the fact that this powerful group is not being kept in check because it was constituted in haste, under a state of emergency, with governance and accountability retrofitted in a chaotic and patchy fashion. It is understood that the Permanent Secretary to the President, Elias Magosi has also raised concern about the workings and huge wage bill of the group. While civil service profiles and salaries are public knowledge, Sunday Standard was sent from pillar to post while trying to establish the identity and remuneration packages of this group of PR officers.

Indications are that they are supposed to be invisible.They pop in and out by the back door and try to avoid the cameras at the front. This has amplified the uncomfortable feeling that shadowy characters wield too much official influence, while conventional structures are being marginalised. Sunday Standard has established that this shadowy communications unit which is part of Masisi’s new crisis structure has often clashed with the communications unit under the National Emergency Operation Center (NEOC), a body established by government to assist the COVID-19 Task Force Team, Cabinet and Office of the President (OP) with the coordination of the national response in line with Botswana Public Health Act of 2013.The communications unit under NEOC is headed by Treasure Mothobi.

The Task Force communications unit and the NEOC are alleged to have particularly clashed over the former’s annexation of the COVID-19 Permit System from the latter. NEOC is headed by Major General Mpho Mophuting. The NEOC was supposed to be the headquarters of the fight against COVID-19, until a separate more powerful body was set up at the Office of the President. Among other things, the Operations Center is credited with designing the online permit application system.The activities of the Presidential COVID-19 Task Force, headed by Dr. Kereng Masupu alongside his deputy Professor Mosepele Mosepele have often been conducted under a cloak of secrecy with the public and media being fed information on a need to know basis. The Task Force activities have largely been opaque. Business Botswana have also complained about this lack transparency and collaboration. “We had offered our media sector expertise to beef up the work of the Task Force; however, that was not to be, resulting in a communication gap which could have been avoided,” Business Botswana said in a written statement this week.“It is worth noting that, Business Botswana continues to make business and economic interventions balancing this with medical realities on the ground, decisions of the Task Force continue to be one sided focusing on the medical nature hence failing to balance the economic survival of the country with the pandemic.” 

Officers close to BGCIS, however revealed that the government communication outfit is unhappy that they have been side-lined by the Press Secretary who has reportedly made it clear that he reports to no one but the President.The animosity between BGCIS and the Task Force communications unit has apparently muddied reporting structures at OP, with the two allegedly jostling to outdo each other and in the process compromising the flow of information about COVID-19 to the public.There is also a sense that Masisi’s appetite fordiscontinuous change with the aim to change Botswana business model may be driving his desire to recruit outsiders to refresh the civil service gene pool.The government enclave is however uneasy with the “inside outsiders” apparent lock on power, marginalisingcabinet and senior public servants, and this dynamic is becoming a force for instability – Sunday Standard investigations have revealed.

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Sunday Standard July 5 – 11

Digital copy of Sunday Standard issue of July 5 - 11, 2020.