Botswana's President Mokgweetsi Eric Keabetswe Masisi is a master of political camouflage who fooled everybody and left his benefactor and predecessor, Lt-Gen (rtd) Ian Khama a deeply frustrated man living in agony.
As Khama’s vice-president from 2014-2018, Masisi was a staunch loyalist to his boss, who picked him ahead of more senior figures as his successor. The teacher-turned-politician came out as a political lap-dog who could be easily controlled by the powerful but retired Khama once he assumed the presidency.
Before he ascended to power, he did nothing to suggest that he will not continue to be a Khama-loyalist even after getting the ultimate prize. He was a dutiful yes-man who defended Khama to the hilt. That made him a chief ‘lelope’ (sycophant) – the derogatory name given to a member of a loose collection of people known to be fawningly loyal to Khama. Like their demigod, the dress code of the group is a sleeveless multi-pocket brown khaki jacket and a matching cowboy hat.
FOOLED HIS MASTER
Perhaps taking advantage that Khama loves boot-lickers and unquestioning loyalty, Masisi was able to fool his master by pretending to be an eternal sidekick. Under the circumstances his nickname ‘Sisiboy’ (a corruption of his surname) even looked apt. Occasional reports that Khama will not easily give up power after his constitutional term ended added fuel to claims that as president, Masisi would be a puppet dancing to the tunes of the retired master.
A relative political greenhorn, Masisi quickly rose through the ranks under Khama’s 2008-2018 administration to become a trusted super minister. At one point before he was chosen vice-president in 2014, he was put in charge of two ministries. In that arrangement, Ms Pelonomi Venson-Moitoi, a full minister, was put under him in an unclear set-up that amounted to a demotion of the latter by Khama.
Months later after the October 2014 general elections, Masisi was made Khama’s vice-president and successor to replace the retiring veteran Ponatshego Kedikilwe, a former frontrunner for the presidency.
Things looked rosy between the two allies on April 1, 2018 when Masisi succeeded Khama as the fifth president of the diamond-rich southern African country. But it did not take long for the new president to reveal his true colours and stun his mentor. He wasted no time in showing an unsuspecting Khama that the game has changed and it is not business as usual. He set about dismantling some of Khama’s controversial policies and denying him privileges he enjoyed illegally or by discretion.
Masisi sent shockwaves through the Botswana political establishment when he unceremoniously sacked the country’s dreaded head of intelligence, Colonel (rtd) Isaac Kgosi, a long time Khama aide since their military days. From the military, Khama moved with Kgosi to politics in 1998 when he became vice-president. He made Kgosi the first head of Botswana intelligence service when the unit was set up in 2008 to coincide with Khama’s ascendancy to the presidency.
During his reign, Kgosi was a feared man who acted with impunity as head of an outfit that became infamous for extra-judicial killings and overzealousness. Kgosi himself was the subject of a high level graft investigation that produced an explosive dossier serialised by the press but no action was taken against him. So feared was Kgosi that the anti-corruption sleuths who investigated him were put under the protection of military intelligence operatives.
Early this year the feud between Khama and Masisi opened a new front when a stupefied Kgosi was arrested at the Sir Seretse Khama International Airport in a humiliating fashion in front of a battery of journalists who had been tipped about the impending incident.
When he recovered from his stupor minutes later, Kgosi went berserk and hurled epithets at those who were arresting him before being whisked away in hand-cuffs. He went as far as threatening to topple the government saying that he had worked hard for the country but he is now being mistreated.
The operation was led by his successor as intelligence boss, Peter Magosi, who reports say he had previously kicked out of the military. The fate of Kgosi was a clear warning that Masisi was ready to confront Khama head-on with even reports suggesting that the former president could also be arrested.
At the policy level, Masisi has irked Khama on a number fronts. He has removed the tight restrictions on drinking and entertainment slapped by Khama, a teetotaller and lifted a wildlife sports hunting ban imposed by his nature-loving predecessor in 2014.
Khama has also suffered debilitating blows in other ways as some of his former top allies and protégés in cabinet and civil service have sided with Masisi to humiliate him. The most notable is head of civil service, Mr Carter Morupisi, a Khama protégé now used as the harbinger of bad news to his former boss.
Khama is known for his love of planes and things military and it hurt him badly when Masisi locked him out these. He was denied permission to fly military planes, a privilege he was granted under former president Festus Mogae contrary to findings by the Botswana Ombudsman. As a former military chief, Khama had free use of military facilities for years despite the fact that he had retired from service. Masisi has put a stop to this and even curtailed Khama’s foreign travels.
At one time, even his personal staff were withdrawn only to be reinstated in a move that could have been meant to remind him of his reduced status. All these have left Khama fuming and using choice words like “arrogant, immature, autocrat, drunk with power” to describe the man he single-handedly propelled to the top seat.
In an unprecedented move, Khama quit the ruling Botswana Democratic Party (BDP) in a huff this year and threw his lot with the opposition through a new party, the Botswana Patriotic Front (BPF), launched in May.
Nobody had ever imagined that Khama would leave the party founded by his father and Botswana’s respected first president, Seretse Khama. Thus he became the first ex-BDP president to lead a breakaway party and join the opposition.
Before he quit the BDP, Khama’s hand was seen in another unprecedented development in the ruling party when Ms Venson-Moitoi became the first politician to challenge a BDP president in party elections. She was sacked from cabinet after she announced that she would challenge Masisi and the general view was that she was acting at Khama’s behest.
There were claims she became an easy pawn in the feud between Khama and Masisi because she was sulking after she failed to be appointed vice-president by the latter. Eventually, she did not challenge Masisi after her bid to clear what she saw as hurdles in BDP election rules and regulations flopped in court.
Through a mixture of political subterfuge and tough action that some see as an erosion of Botswana’s democracy, Masisi has driven Khama and his supporters over the wall and into the unfamiliar territory of the opposition. The man’s nick-name is Sisiboy but he is no sissy.