For some months now, at least since 2016, president Ian Khama had been promising a Cabinet retreat.
Apparently there had been some murmurs from some Cabinet ministers to the President. What was not clear was what these were all about. It did not take long to find out. Let’s rewind to 2015 to complete the narration.
In 2015, the BDP as was a norm held its national congress for election of the Central Committee. These elections were held every two years. The congress and the elections were held in Mmadinare. Mokgweetsi Masisi was a late entrant to the elections. Prior to his announcement, there was Tebelelo Seretse, Ndelu Seretse, Moemedi Dijeng and Biggie Butale vying for the chairmanship of the BDP. Naturally, party members including MPs had aligned themselves with some of these candidates. Whilst I did not support Butale, I admired his courage. He was a man, hardly two years as an MP, who now sought to lead the party. He would years later realise this dream, when he became president of the Botswana Patriotic Front. There were also suggestions at the time that Tshekedi Khama wanted to stand for the position of chairperson, although he never really took a public position on it.
Save for Butale, there was something interesting about the aspiring candidates. Their common denominator was not lost to the public. They shared a particular surname or lineage. They also came from the same village, a village called Serowe. The President came from Serowe. The late vice president had also come from Serowe. The former president had also come from Serowe. There was the anti-Serowe sentiments amongst many BDP Members of Parliament. They did not have to express it loudly. They murmured. I was indifferent towards it. Masisi’s announcement that he would be contesting the chairmanship of the BDP caught most people off guard. Well almost. It resulted in alliances reconfiguring and almost overnight Masisi had half of the party with him. Tebelelo Seretse and company were left fuming. I suspect they felt betrayed. You did not need to be a genius to recognise that once a vice president announced an interest in a party position, there would be gravitation towards supporting the VP.
There was something attractive about this fellow from Moshupa. Eloquent, sensitive and generous and a political master manipulator. He was also an extremely efficient organiser. I would serve in his campaign team. He knew how to play the game and this would become more apparent as years went by. With his announcement, the seeds for his attempted coup were planted.
Masisi’s appointment as VP upset the apple pie. He made history. On his sixth year as an MP, he eclipsed very senior members of the party to become VP. It did not sit well with the older members of the party who did not see it coming. President Khama played a card few saw coming. When Masisi was announced as VP, I remember the silence from the party senior members. I also remember the post announcement reactions from some of them. One woman minister had to be attended by a doctor. She had thought she would be the first female VP. She never congratulated Masisi on his appointment and never got over being overlooked. On the day of Masisi’s announcement, she had worn all red, ready to give an interview on her appointment. I suspect she had prepared a speech, large parts of it devoted to praising President Khama for his courage and commitment to empowering women. She never got to read the speech. Although appointed a senior cabinet minister she never got over being overlooked. I doubt that she has ever forgiven Khama and Masisi to date despite her posturing.
Prior to Masisi being appointed VP, President Khama had asked the BDP caucus to nominate a party member they wished to be appointed as VP. There was just one condition. One was not to appoint oneself. Although President Khama never announced the winner of the secret ballot, I recall seeing a lot of people having nominated themselves. At the time of the exercise, Masisi and Khama, having met much earlier knew the end game. I did not and certainly the majority of the caucus did not know. That is how well Masisi and Khama played their game.
I have been asked before what I think of Masisi’s appointment. In appointing Masisi, Khama fulfilled God’s plan. Masisi was meant to be President. Psalm 23 talks of God preparing a table in the presence of one’s enemies. Masisi’s appointment created enemies for him, Masisi’s was to go on a massive recruitment drive for the BDP, a party whose fortunes were declining. Instead of being commended by his fellow MPs, he became a target. His campaign and recruitment of the opposition members was to be used against him by those who sought his head. He was never the celebrated VP. He couldnt be celebrated.
There had been talks of a Cabinet retreat for sometime. No one knew what it would entail but there was recognition that one was needed. If for anything else but to get to know each other and discuss challenges we may have been experiencing in our different ministries.
We were never asked to contribute to any agenda items. It was not like we were preoccupied with the Cabinet retreat in any case. When it eventually materialised we did not think there would be anything concrete on the agenda. Boy were we wrong. The irony of it was that, the one whose blood would be sought was involved in calling for the retreat. What finally necessitated the retreat was as it would turn out apparently complainants regarding Masisi’s recruitment drive. I was not aware of these complaints before the retreat. Were these complaints genuine and sincere I can never tell.
The 8th February 2017 was the day of reckoning. There was nothing in the air so to speak that gave away what was about to unravel a few hours into the morning at the Office of the President (OP).
The OP is behind the parliamentary building. It’s a small building, nothing impressive about it. What it lacks in character it compensates by the sheer power it wields.
Cabinet meetings are held at the OP. The first floor. There are two Cabinet meetings per week. One meeting is on Mondays whilst the other is on Wednedays. There is a difference in the composition and agenda of these meetings. The Monday meetings were attended by ministers and their assistants. The Wednesday meetings were only attended by full ministers. I never understood these differential treatment of colleagues.
Ministers and Assistant ministers were treated differently resulting in some ministers thinking they were more superior than their assistants. These differences arouse from small things. For instance, in the cars allocated. The assistant ministers were driven around in 5 Series BMWs with no flag. The ministers had the flag and the 7 Series BMW. Call it the animal farm setting. Ministers loved these differences. It excited their being. You only needed to watch their facial expressions to tell they relished in these small but significant differences.
On the first floor of the OP was the Cabinet board room. To get to this room, you passed the mini kitchen on your left before you were confronted by a swinging double oak brown door. The mini kitchen held refreshments for Cabinet ministers. The refreshment if we were to call them so, always and invariably included seswaa, phaletshe, food platters and cakes from Woolworths. Talking of cakes, President Khama loved chocolate cake from Woolworths. He was served by ministers Dorcas Makgato and Pelonomi Venson-Moitoi with this cake. Otherwise it was a self serve affair.
I was always observant when it came for time to eat. My curiosity was driven more by the different body structures and sizes God had generally bequeathed us. From small bodies to large bodies. Let me say, no one caught my attention when it came to food. The food which was the same through out the year did not seem to excite anybody and so the appetite observed was not anything out of the ordinary. That went for both male and female ministers. Fruits were more popular choice even for Minister Shaw Kgathi.
Coming back to Cabinet meetings, the Permanant Secretary to the President (PSP), who was the Cabinet secretary was always present. During my time, the PSP was Carter Morupisi, who I nicknamed ‘Prime Minister’.
I gave him this name because not only did he fully participate in Cabinet discussions, once in a while, he would actually bully us Ministers. I actually liked the guy and recommended him for a Presidential Honour.
That recommendation was overwhelmingly endorsed by Cabinet. For all his perceived faults, he was a hard worker and if you got to know him, actually nicer as a person.
Sitting in the middle of the board room was a big board room table. Ministers sat around it and their assistants behind them. The only time an assistant minister took his place around this table was when the minister was not around. The board room chairs were the same save for the presidential chair which had the coat of arms embedded. Ministers generally dominated the discussions. Minister Thapelo Olopeng always spoke.
The Cabinet meetings were robust. Minister Kitso Mokaila also spoke his mind. I always thought that President Khama had a soft spot for him. Minister Mokaila could say things that ordinarily would have upset any President. I never witnessed Khama losing patience with Mokaila. I believed that their relationship could survive such outburst only because of past association not only between themselves but their parents as well.
Monday Cabinet meetings were generally uneventful. Wednesday cabinet meetings were on the other hand where real decisions were taken. Some of the decisions included confirming employment of Chief Executive Officers (CEOs) and/or their firing. Ministers enjoyed the singular privilege of this meeting. President Khama’s Cabinet was robust and debates very much lively. Anyone who says otherwise would be dishonest.
On the morning of February 8, 2017, we were all called for a meeting of Cabinet. There was no agenda. It was simply a Cabinet retreat. At the time Minister Venson-Moitoi was running for the African Union (AU) chairmanship. She had the full support of Cabinet and the President. Nonofo Molefi had whispered his intentions to run against Masisi for the party chairmanship in Tonota. The Cabinet retreat accured with all these events at play.
Before the meeting commenced President Khama and Masisi came out together from Khama’s office. Their faces betrayed no emotions. The Cabinet retreat began. I was to later learn that Masisi and Khama had agreed on this date and approach.
The agenda was Masisi and his political recruitment. He was not celebrated. He was being accused by his colleagues of political sabotage.
Vincent Seretse was the first to speak. He was very brave. In his short but brutal message,he did not have confidence in the VP to lead the BDP. Butale was more dramatic, he said he would never serve under Masisi. Minister Tshekedi Khama and Makgato went straight for the jugular. Olopeng sat on the fence.
That day only myself, Kgathi and Slumber Tsogwane took Masisi’s corner. It was a day like no other. From no known complaints about Masisi to a vote of no confidence.
Cabinet had turned against him. For a moment it looked like his days were numbered. Given my close association with him, I knew that if he left, I would be next.
Faced with a barrage of criticism Masisi had an opportunity to defend himself. He did that with pomp and would later that day fly off to Ethopia with Minister Butale.
They did not know they would be on the same flight together. They shared business class travel together. One wonders what they talked about if they spoke at all.
The same coup planners would later jump to serve under Masisi.
Their feelings and their earlier rejection of him conveniently forgotten for power. Others sought to disassociate themselves from the man who made them, for continued privileges of public office.