President Mokgweetsi Masisi is a man under siege and presiding over an economy on the brink of collapse due to COVID-19.
He cut a desolate figure when he addressed the nation lastweek Tuesday night. Masisi presaged his speech, which some have described as a complete bore, with an apology for failing to keep his promise of updating the nation on a monthly basis and said the updates would come once every two months henceforward.
His agenda was the COVID-19 pandemic in which he narrated a torrid tale of his anguished time as president. When COVID-19 first hit, Botswana was hailed among countries that were faring well in taming the beast that is the coronavirus.
How Masisi lost the fight
During the course of 2021, the nation got accustomed to an intermittent change of guard in the public service. Men and women at the fore of guiding the country’s COVID-19 response were suddenly axed from their positions. From the days of Dr. Malaki Tshipayagae and Professor Mosepele Mosepele who frequented Btv to give national COVID updates, the country also had to bear the agony changes at the level of Permanent Secretary at the Ministry of Health and Wellness.
There were reports of endless clashes between the Presidential Task Force and the Performance Improvement Coordination (PIC) Force that is made up of permanent secretaries.
And then there was the critical position of Director of Health Services. While it appeared the Director had authority over matters of the pandemic, it emerged that buoyed by its proximity to President Masisi, the COVID-19 Task Team believed and acted differently under Dr. Masupu Kereng as its Coordinator and Professor Mosepele as his deputy who once had to be dissuaded from resigning by the President himself.
As a recipe for his downfall, sources say during his reign as PS, Kabelo Ebineng had a broken relationship with the Director of Health Services and the Task Force after he allegedly questioned a P600 million PPE procurement. It was allegedly this issue that got him sacked.
In addition, the likes of former PS, Solomon Sekwakwa, former Deputy PS now back as a consultant Dr. Morrison Sinvula, Dr. Lemogang Kwape and Tshipayagae are reported to have been victims of the same trap.
This week, a reliable source told this publication that although uncertain about dates of arrival, Botswana has procured more vaccines from different suppliers around the world. According to sources, Professor Mosepele leads the vaccine committee of the Task Team and has been busy negotiating deals on behalf of the government. The Office of the President presides over all COVID-19 procurement approved by the Task Team.
Botswana’s neutral policy
President Masisi is criticised for failing to align Botswana’s foreign policy as the scramble for vaccines intensified. Although he tried to assume a neutral posture, sources say Botswana’s struggle to access vaccines on time points to a need for review the country’s foreign policy to look either East or West because vacillation can be tricky in geo-politics.
It does not help things that the powerful countries of the powerful countries of the West have not heeded the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) call against vaccine nationalism.
Similar to other pandemics, COVID-19 has become a tool of diplomacy in which rich countries donate masks and other PPEs to targeted Third World countries. For Botswana, by far only India proved to be a reliable friend in times of vaccine need followed by China’s donation of 200 000 doses of Sinovac that came as a bonus after the initial procurement of the same vaccines. The US too, as another of Botswana’s friend, donated to the fight against coronavirus in the early stage of the pandemic.
According to observers, President Masisi has failed to properly align the country in the best interests of accessing vaccines.
As part of the Task Force, the Director of Health Services and permanent secretaries are regularly briefed even though sources say most decisions of the powerful men and women of the Task Force are often irreversible.
It is now being suggested that the tragedy that befell Tshipayagae hangs over Dr. Malebogo Kebabonye’s head and that it is only a matter of time before a new director is named.
Botswana is currently being assaulted by a third wave of the coronavirus which is ravaging families while the government’s vaccine rollout is slow. In a desperate move, the President announced this week announced a decision to close schools for a month from 16 July to 17 August.
Against this background, trade unions and social media influencers have dared Masisi to extend the State of Public Emergency (SOPE), threatening mass demonstrations is he seeks another extension.
But the embattled president has been cited in a legal suit where Kgalagadi Breweries Limited (KBL) wants the courts to reverse the alcohol ban. As the saga unveils, Batswana are sharing CNN footage of a May interview in which President Masisi confidently tells anchor Zain Asher that Botswana is one of only few African success stories in dealing with COVID-19, the country having learnt its lessons from the HIV/AIDS pandemic that prompted it to develop robust medical infrastructure and response mechanisms.