Wednesday, September 23, 2020

Mosepele puts Masisi on the spot

Friday afternoon, the Facebook was weeping buckets. Hardly five minutes after the Sunday Standard broke the news that deputy coordinator of the Covid 19 Presidential Task Team Professor Mosepele Mosepele had tendered his resignation, a multitude of Batswana converged online to pour their hearts out.

Four hours and thousands of Facebook posts later, the Office of the President stepped in to soothe the nation’s frayed nerves.

“The president has not accepted Professor Mosepele’s resignation and has scheduled a meeting with him tomorrow”, said a press statement from the president’s spokesperson Batlhalefi Leagajang.

For now, it is touch and go whether President Mokgweetsi Masisi will manage to persuade Professor Mosepele to stay on. Indications are that there will be lots of tears and blood on the floor before bedtime.

President Mokgweetsi who finds himself straddling a widening chasm at the government enclave has his job cut out.

Professor Mosepele, Coordinator of the Covid 19 Task Force Dr Kereng Masupu and Director of Health Services Dr Malaki Tshipiyagae have emerged as the three most visible faces of Botswana’s fight against coronavirus. The trio however is also fighting a bruising turf war with the government enclave’s powerful (Performance Improvement Committee) PIC Force headed by Permanent Secretary to the President (PSP) Elias Magosi.

Several combustible factors have come together to create this bust-up. The first is that the tree outsiders, who make up the Covid-19 Presidential task team fit awkwardly with the permanent government bureaucracy.

Masisi’s predecessors have relied on their PSPs to run the show at the government enclave. Today, an unfortunate confluence of a deadly pandemic and a presidential inner circle with no background in science has meant the power is shared with the three outsiders who are serving as a point of key information, unity and calm in the country’s response to the pandemic.

Faced with the Covid-19 emergency, President Masisi created the COVID-19 Presidential Task Team on the fly. He personally pulled together a high-powered group of suits to help fight the pandemic. The president anointed the Covid-19 Presidential task team with the same access and some insiders say authority as his PSP.

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.  The task team has burrowed itself into President Masisi’s inner circle, plunging the government enclave into a turf war, mired in conflict and discord.

The jury is still out on whether Professor Mosepele’s resignation letter will force President Masisi’s hand to resolve the Government enclaves’ two centers of power.

The Permanent Secretary to the President (PSP), Elias Magosi however is no pushover. A morally upright and feisty career bureaucrat who prides himself on his skill in pulling the levers of government and in offering unvarnished advice to a changing cast of politicians is a dyed in the wool Masisi man.

President Masisi who is approaching the half way mark of his first term in office came with the intent to clean the stables. Hardly two months in office, he fired former president Lt Gen Ian Khama’s holdover, Isaac Kgosi as head of the Directorate of Intelligence and Security Service, and replaced him with the PSP’s cousin Peter Magosi. Next in the President’s line of fire was former Permanent Secretary to the President Cater Morupisi. State House insiders say for a long time, the two Magosi’s were the first people the president saw in the morning and the last he saw at night. Then came the three Covid 19 Presidential Task Force doctors, splitting the government enclave into two centers of power.

All five have easy access to President Masisi. And they’re all but certain to take opposing views on major issues – a dynamic that is playing itself out in the government’s response to the pandemic.

Covid-19 constant crisis management has however consolidated Masisi’s relationship with the Covid-19 Presidential Task Team, 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 it has marginalized the cabinet and civil service and reduced the transparency of government decision making.

The “permanent government” layer of bureaucrats who stay on from president to president, burrowed deep in ministries across the government enclave has started pushing back against the Covid-19 Presidential Task team.

So far leaks have been the primary way that entrenched bureaucrats, have sought to undermine the task team.

Allegations that the Covid-19 Presidential Task Team is the government enclave bully pulpit has made the trio, especially Masupu and Tshipiyagae lightning rods in Masisi’s new inner circle, readymade-villains for critics who accuse them of riding roughshod over the civil service.

But when a respected career civil servant in former Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Health and Wellness Solomon Sekwakwa was fired earlier this year because of what he claimed was a vicious and orchestrated campaign by his Director of Wellness Malaki Tshipiyagae, what began as a juicy subordinate-from-hell story turned into a metaphor for the Presidential Covid-19 Task Team’s  broader tensions with Botswana’s much vaunted civil service.

In an instructive anecdote, 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.

With the former Permanent Secretary’s bitter exit, a feud that had been brewing behind closed doors spilled into the open. It was a startling break with decorum for the civil service, in which disputes are worked out privately and officials like Sekwakwa shun the limelight.

The biggest coup for the Task Team, however was President Masisi’s decision to give them absolute command in the fight against the pandemic, shunting Minister of Health and Wellness Dr Lemogang Kwape aside.

The President also withdrew the more than P2 billion Covid-19 budget from the Ministry of Health and gave it to the Covid-19 Procurement Unit with is part of the Covid-19 Task Team under the Office of the President. Investigations have further revealed that the Covid-19 Procurement Unit under the Office of the President has already started reversing and cancelling some questionable procurements made by the Ministry of Health and Wellness.

With the Ministry of Health and the PIC Force pushing back against the president’s decision, Botswana’s Covid-19 response devolved into a power struggle for control.

The feud between Masisi’s Covid-19 Presidential Task team and Botswana’s entrenched bureaucracy carries echoes of the Trump administration’s draining of the swamp.  As the rift widens, the acronym PIC Force has come to mean something sinister to some members of the Covid-19 Presidential Task Team. More than just signifying a frustrated bureaucracy, it conjures a secret illuminatus of bureaucrats determined to sabotage the country’s response to the pandemic.

The paranoia is hardly surprising. When it comes to the endless number of more mundane policies and decisions farther from the spotlight, The Covid-19 Presidential Task Team has met with resistance — some of it subtle, some of it not.

Masisi on the other hand seemed comfortable with straddling the two-competing power centres and conflicting viewpoints. Government insiders say in his eye, the strongest proposal carried the day.

During the country’s petrol shortage crisis, The Covid-19 Presidential Task Team recommended a total lockdown, while the PIC Force argued against it, citing the economic damage it would cause. Masisi went with the argument of the PIC Force.

The two story lines crossed publicly when Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Mineral Resources, Green Technology and Energy Security Mmetla Masire made a public statement that the fuel crisis was caused by the Covid-19 protocols. The Presidential Covid-19 Task Team shot back with a press statement refuting Masire’s charges.

In another public spat Ministry of Investment, Trade and Industry Permanent Secretary and a member of the PIC Force recommended the lifting of the ban on alcohol and tobacco, but was shot down by the Task Team after Minister Peggy Serame published it on her social media pages.

In the latest clash in the in the intensifying series of battles between the Covid-19 Presidential Task Team and the PIC Force, The Ministry of Health entered into an agreement with the American Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to conduct Covid-19 community testing in Botswana behind the back of the Covid-19 Task Team.

Under the agreement, BUMMHI a Botswana citizen led NGO which is an implementing partner of the United States Centers for Disease Control through which it provides PEPFAR-funded HIV care and treatment assistance to the ministry will be conducting the Covid-19 community testing in partnership with CDC.

It is understood that the Covid 19 Presidential Task Team was particularly unhappy with the terms of the agreement that gives the US government intellectual property rights over Botswana’s Covid-19 local knowledge. Under the agreement, the Presidential Task Team would be required to surrender to the American CDC all the Covid-19 local knowledge they have created. Professor Mosepele who has been a Harvard Lead Researcher understands the value of knowledge rights and is reported to be unhappy with the agreement.

In an interview with The Sunday Standard, The US Embassy Public Affairs Officer Ineke Margaret Stoneham stated that, “the United States has partnered with Botswana over the past two decades in its fight against HIV with more than $1 billion in assistance, and we recently provided $4.65 million to assist in the fight against COVID-19. Since the beginning, our assistance has been grounded in partnership with the Government of Botswana and in utmost transparency. In fact, our COVID-19 assistance was widely publicized in a press release in April 2020 and with a ceremony at the Office of the President in May. When we partner with the Government of Botswana on health system strengthening, we do so after intensive coordination with the appropriate government interlocutors. Our doctors and technical experts work side-by-side with those of the Government of Botswana every day.  In these agreements, it is common practice to agree on data sharing so that scientists from both countries can further public health research. Our focus will remain on our joint efforts to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in Botswana, support those who may become infected, and contribute to supporting Botswana’s capacity to prevent, detect, and respond to public health threats.”

Professor Mosepele who is believed to be the brains behind Botswana’s Covid-19 response strategy has been “unhappy” during the past few months, according to senior civil servants, amid growing tensions inside the government enclave over its handling of the coronavirus crisis. At the time of going to press the Sunday Standard had not established the outcome of his meeting with President Masisi yesterday (Saturday).

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The Telegraph September 23

Digital edition of The Telegraph, September 23, 2020.