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The rise and rise of 'President' Masisi

Publishing Date : 28 November, 2017


In less than a decade Mokgweetsi Masisi's political star kept on shining brighter if not the brightest in sub-Saharan African political landscape. This feature looks at how a political novice's own political machinations and providence catapulted him to the pinnacle of Botswana's political system.

It is no longer in doubt that His Honour, Vice President Mokgweetsi Eric Keabetswe Masisi is one foot into the highest office on the land.  April Fool’s Day Sunday 2018 will crystallize this dream into reality when he takes oath of office before the parliamentary building. What is in question is how an erstwhile political lightweight in less than a decade ago in Botswana political landscape and the ruling Botswana Democratic Party (BDP) has managed to have a meteoritic rise and an exponential political growth to grab power in front of the politically anointed altar boys and the BDP high Priests. Masisi played his cards close to his chest and the proverbial Indian Karma was also in abundance in time of his need. Masisi is a political Machiavellian whose some of his political tactics can be derived from the famous book; The art of war and 48 laws of power.

Before 2009 Masisi’s only claim to political fame was his losing to the late Moshupa legislator Mr. Maitlhoko Mooka in the BDP primary elections prior to the 2004 general elections. At that stage of his career he had never had any political position within the BDP both at national and regional level. Before his coming to parliament in 2009 His Honour was a BDP outsider, only his family name made him to belong. He is the youngest son of the late Edison Setlhomo Masisi who was a high ranking member of the ruling BDP and a member of our first parliament to the eighth parliament who also served under Sir Seretse Khama and Masire as cabinet minister in different ministerial postings.

After winning the parliamentary seat in the Moshupa constituency, President Ian Khama chose him as the junior minister in the ministry of presidential Affairs and public Administration. This deployment meant he had a close working relationship with the president and the quickest time to acquaint himself with the likes and dislikes of his superior and benefactor. When we became the laughing stock of the global community through Khama's developmental agenda of Poverty Eradication Programme by back-yard gardening, Masisi became the president spin-doctor and cheerleader, traversing the length and breadth of the semi-arid terrain of our country promoting his party leader's populist pet project. 

He promoted this programme with passion and aplomb to the point where the down trodden masses of our society took it as gospel truth that indeed back yard gardening will be the panacea to totally obliterate their pangs of hunger and their abject poverty. Masisi somewhat acquitted himself with flying colours; the bearer of bad news who turned them to glad tidings.

He did this by also ducking blows from the opposition which mocked the programme calling it unsavory names and defended the president from antagonistic elements within the broader sector of the populace. This programme execution and defending the president from the opposition detractors somewhat endeared Masisi to President Khama who equates total allegiance and blind loyalty to him to patriotism. This was the beginning of Eric Masisi's upward trajectory in his political sojourn.

He got his remarkable reward more than he had expected. As fate would have it, he got promoted to a full ministerial position when his superior Daniel Kwelagobe was made to choose between his ministerial position and the party position of chairmanship. Kwelagobe preferred the latter over the former. Masisi steered the ship of the ministry with dexterity in the eyes of his superintendent, Ian Khama. The next test of his loyalty to the powers that be was the infamous public sector strike of 2011.

Masisi struck his neck out and came to the rescue of his superior by risking his dignity, promising political career and his intellectual prowess by telling all and sundry, who dared to listen that the public sector unions mostly BOFEPUSO, can go to hell, come sunshine and hailstorm, the 16% salary increment they were demanding will never be effected let alone any salary increase however small. What the public servants will be getting will instead be no work, no pay. This was Khama's hardline stance regarding public sector wage negotiations which Masisi wholly embraced.

He only did not embraced it, he lived and preached it. Other cabinet ministers did their bidding but Masisi's ministerial portfolio was the one responsible for public sector, so he championed the course of his master with the description of superlatives only. After the 2011 public sector strike there were ensuing court battles and the public sector federations declaring war on the government and the ruling BDP head honchos including Masisi. Masisi got on well with his ministerial duties as nothing has happened.

He was still the president's blue eyed boy but at that stage a political minnow in the party hierarchy. He went about biting the bullet for the president whose high affinity for praise-poets, sycophants, loyalists and boot-lickers is second to none. By this stage of his career Masisi had already located Khama' soft spots, sensitivities, fears and vulnerabilities. He knew the person he was working for and the traits he embraces from his inner circle of cabinet ministers, parliamentarians, technocrats and others.

 Time was also crawling to the heartbeat of the Moshupa legislator. Then came the time for the BDP primary elections dubbed Bulela Ditswe. What came out of the primary elections was politically unprecedented. Some of the party stalwarts had been heavily defeated by what was seen to be political 'mosquitoes'.

The likes of Phandu Skelemani was beaten by Buti Billy, Ian Khama's cousin Dikgakgamatso Seretse was for the umpteenth time beaten by his longtime rival Kgotla Autlwetse, Peter Siele by Alfred Madigele, Reverend Setlalekgosi was beaten by  Tshenolo Mabeo. The sad reality was that all the losing candidates were cabinet ministers and the party's golden generation. They were openings for the party young turks to come to the fore to take their rightful places in the high echelons of BDP structures.

 In Moshupa constituency Mokgweetsi Masisi was elected BDP candidate unrivalled. He was given a clean bill of health to wrestle the constituency with the opposition which was now a quadrilateral alliance of the Botswana National Front (BNF), the BDP splinter group named the BMD, BPP and the Public and private sector union federation, BOFEPUSU. The quadrilateral alliance was now seen as a force to reckon with the ailing and fractious BDP and the political tide of the time was pregnant with regime change expectation.

Even though there was panic among the ruling party functionaries, what was given and apparent was that the BDP will win the 2014 general elections. What was remote and latent was the extent at what damage the alliance will cause, who among the political heavyweights are going to be causalities. Electioneering had begun in earnest, political vitriol and venom were spewed from both side of the Rubicon.

Masisi was among ministers who were on the hit-list of BOFEPUSO, who were seen to be enemies of the working class. During the campaigns Masisi declared himself a progeny of sycophantic ancestry, himself a bootlicker of repute both in government and at the tribal kraals at Moshupa and Manyana. This statement seemed to have put Masisi in the most treasured parts of Ian Khama's 'golden' heart. Khama with no iota of doubt knew Masisi was one of his trusted lieutenants. Khama being the believer in the power of the spoken word and unpretentious believed in what Masisi meant.

Masisi was growing in political clout and stature more than any person he found in the party. At that stage his words carried weight and was now acted upon in the party by elders and those who were ahead of him in the party hierarchy. When the American Embassy in Botswana sponsored radio political debates before the 2014 elections, Masisi took a unilateral decision which was later agreed and endorsed by the party leadership not to partake in the debates but instead create their own debates on the national television, Botswana Television, (BTV).

He told the ruling party faithfuls to open false social media accounts to stem the tide of opposition which was at its highest point ever in Botswana political atmosphere. These high commands were ordered by Masisi to the party general membership and party leadership thanks to him taking center stage when the party was experiencing leadership vacuum under the weight of a marauding opposition

He acquitted himself well when he appeared on national television against opposition, when presenting his party manifesto and credentials. He was a star in the rising but he was not yet khama's political right hand man. He was may be in the top five of khama's trusted lieutenants. Before the general election Kitso Onkokame Mokaila was the preferred Khama's Vice President candidate and there was utmost consensus in the party and the first family.

The Mokaila's are the Khama's family friends. Looking at his competencies and aptitude he was befitting the vice presidential credentials. The 2014 general elections came and went but their repercussions and aftermath was ghastly to contemplate. Their destruction of political lives of some of the president's untouchables was beyond comprehension. Kitso Mokaila was one of them, his chance of becoming the vice president went begging and Khama was left blushing. His preferred candidate cannot be Vice president because constitutionally, for one to become VP he must be an elected member of parliament.

The other causalities of 2014 general elections included long time cabinet ministers and strongmen in the mold of Jonnie Swartz, GUS Matlhabaphiri and Daniel Kwelagobe. The brighter side of it was that political newbies had hatched from the BDP golden egg and they were now parliamentarians. The quadrilateral alliance of UDC had left the BDP with only seven constituencies South of Dibete.

Masisi was among the Parliamentarians who came unscathed from the grueling duels of the election. To pacify the opposition from entrenching their stranglehold South of Dibete, a Vice president from down South was a political imperative... With the President Ian Khama from North of Dibete, half of the presidium had to be from the South to balance the act of Botswana's North and South divide regional politics.

Among Khama's trusted top five allies apart from his brother, Eric Masisi was the only person who fit the bill of becoming the Vice President. He was elected Vice President with purported conditionality but nonetheless he accepted. Masisi knew it was better to be within than to be outside. Part of the conditionality was that he would serve only for two years before the ultimate Vice President will be chosen to assume presidency when Khama leaves. He continued his loyalty to Khama, served a stint as minister of Education as well as Vice President.

In less than a year into his vice presidential position, one of BDP strong man Guma Samsom Moyo persuaded him to try his luck for party chairmanship. Masisi reluctantly accepted the proposal. His reluctance emanated from his superior's perception about his political ambitions. At the initial stages of the chairmanship race Khama's brother Tshekedi, Tebelelo Seretse and Dikgakamatso Seretse were the front runners.  Masisi’s candidature for the ruling party chairmanship was akin to throwing the cat among the pigeons.

He won the party chairmanship convincingly. This was the turning point in Masisi's political career. He was now in the big league of Botswana politics. The ruling BDP chairmanship and State vice Presidency are not mean feats, they mean absolute power. Masisi's assumption to BDP chairmanship was accepted by Khama reluctantly and viewed with suspicion. The positions Masisi occupied made him slightly invincible in the greater scheme of things. Time came for the conditions that were initially given to Masisi to effect but nothing happened. Some small machinations were played when Goodhope - Mabule Member of Parliament James Mathokgwane resigned his seat for a plum job at SPEDU, to create a special dispensation for Eric 'Hardrock' Molale.

The opposition consuming fire continued to ravage everything on its way and Molale was not spared. He suffered a humiliating defeat at the onset of his political career. This seemed to change Khama's perception regarding His Honour Eric Masisi's suitability to succeed him because fate always seemed to favour him, when arrows and bullets were aimed at him. Khama had no options in his political closet, only skeletons of his political bosom buddies and confidantes whom in his eyes were more suited to succeed him not Masisi. Khama started breaking BDP's long held tradition of factional neutrality by openly endorsing his Vice for the retention of the position of chairmanship in the 2017 elective congress which was held in Tonota.

Masisi and his faction dubbed Camp Dubai swept all the positions in the Central Committee to quell any doubts over his arrival at the plateau of BDP and Botswana politics. The cherry on top of his political clout was when President Ian Khama announced to the nation during his last State of the Nation Address (SONA) that he will be relinquishing power next year into the capable hands of His Honour the Vice President. It might be the stuff of legends and myths, we should by now practice to say His Excellency Mokgweetsi Eric Keabetswe Masisi.

KEITERILE PHINEAS MALETSI is a freelance journalist



Do you think the courts will help put the UDC, BMD impasse within reasonable time ahead of the 2019 General Election?