Trouble enters DISS paradise

Full of hope following the despised spymaster Isaac Kgosi’s unceremonious sacking from the secret service almost two years ago, the nation is concerned that his replacement Brigadier Peter Magosi may just be another Kgosi waiting to happen. Staff Writer TEFO PHEAGE sneaks a peek into the spy world and emerges convinced that Botswana may be a naked state surviving on God’s grace but in dire need of an emergency exit.

Brigadier Peter Magosi is not new to the spy world and controversy, having risen to popularity in 2009 when his military intelligence gunned down John Kalafatis in an alleged extra-judicial execution that was a major blemish on the country’s law enforcement record. He was once court-marshalled for missing spying equipment that fell under his care which was allegedly lent to Minister Eric Molale.

But many considered him cut for the country’s premier spy agency, considering his past and experience with MI. This was despite being chosen ahead of other established and retired MI spymasters like Brigadier David Setshedi, Brigadier Peter Tapela, Colonel Leano Leshongwane and General Matshwenyego Fisher, the former army commander and renowned security scholar now misplaced as an ambassador in Zimbabwe.

Setshedi told this publication that he was done with the intelligence work and wants his time alone whereas diplomat Fisher was understandably not willing to engage on a matter of this nature. Others, Colonel Leshongwane and Brigadier Tapela, said they retired but stand ready to serve the nation if called upon by the President.

Magosi entered at a time when democratic countries are moving towards shrinking the powers and latitudes enjoyed by their spy agencies to subject them to accountability and public scrutiny. Spymasters are not only under pressure to justify what they do but must also accept unprecedented levels of legislative and judicial scrutiny. A shadowy business by nature, its pioneers like Mark Lowenthal admit that many aspects of this secret world are now more openly analysed and discussed. Intelligence gathering and analysis naturally guides and informs policy decisions and preserves national security.

In their book, Intelligence Agencies in Africa:Pateman, Roy say “the secret networks of a number of states in Africa have grown dangerously out of control, sometimes pursuing policies completely at odds with the wishes and interests of their regimes, let alone their inhabitants.” The authors argue “that it is essential to try and balance the genuine needs of national security with the protection of civil liberties.”

Upon assuming office, Magosi cut a picture of a man on a mission ready to transform and reform the troubled spy agency from its ruins, ticking all the right boxes and maintaining contact with the media. During Kgosi’s days, the agency was a mysterious blissful paradise which, according to Kgosi, did not account to anyone. Magosi believes he is in the right track despite upheavals of criticism. “I am getting positive feedback from stakeholders and the nation and I am also happy and at peace with my progress so far, despite some not seeing anything,” he said this week in a heart-to-heart interview.

Apart from the rogue operations, laissez-faire and absolute powers, DISS has been accused of many human rights violations and politicisation. Without fully deliberating on the basis for its creation, discourses have focused on the politicised aspect and ignored its primary function. While some blame the lax and permissive DISS Act, others blame not the law but leaders who, according to organisational traits experts, determine the character and direction of the organisation, for abusing the vulnerabilities in the Act. Although perhaps prematurely, the DISS leader is already meeting with disapproval from some quarters. Infact, some members of the new Parliament across the aisle are already calling for action.

Political analyst and commentator, Thabo Masalila, posits that Peter Magosi is in no way better than his predecessor, Isaac Kgosi. “A reasonable man and of sane orientation has become accustomed to Magosi’s falsehoods and lies. The latest is the sham allegations against Wilheminah Maswabi who is accused of siphoning off P100 billion,” he says. He adds that Magosi failed the Department of Public Prosecutions by insisting on the courts before collecting and verifying information. The Absa and Nedbank banks have dismissed as falsified and none existent in their database the documents claimed by the state. “What is at play is abuse of power in elevation or de-prioritising specific issues considered terrorism despite there being no terrorist duly charged,” says Masalaila.
Masalila further says our failure in February 2019 to check the veracity of the claims of an assassination attempt on President Mokgweetsi Masisi’s life looks more shameful to history. The courts have since withdrawn the Palapye saga against those charged and the men are allegedly suing the state.
“If Magosi could not determine that the gun possessed by Khama’s security detail was a toy, then something is amiss at the intelligence headquarters,” he says before bringing up the case of China Jiangsu in which Magosi accused the company of “massive corruption and activities that border on national security.” No one, he says, has been charged. Infact, the Chinese outfit is currently at work constructing separated three grade intersections in Gaborone.
At the time of the dispute with China Jiangsu, Justice Jennifer Dube punched holes into the evidence submitted by Magosi, saying it was scandalous, vexatious and irrelevant to the proceedings. Magosi had deposed a supporting affidavit stating that China Jiangsu International was being investigated for corrupt practices but could not share the details of such investigations, saying it is classified information.
The spy chief also entered the black book of the opposition during the elections period when he attempted to fiddle with the Independent Electoral Commission’s data base where he said he had identified gaps in the IEC. Opposition leader, Dumelang Saleshando said DISS’s unending searches on UDC president Duma Boko in the build-up to the elections was pure harassment and activism.
Magosi, however, says it has not been a bed of roses as some assume. “I assumed office at a very difficult time and presidential transition. I had to re-prioritise and realign strategies to defend my country and president against internal and external forces,” he said in his defence this week.
This view is shared by another former high-ranking spy critical of Magosi’s modus operandi who prefers to be called No-name. “Magosi can be excused for being all over the show. It was difficult to delegate under those circumstances, considering the profile of the lead suspects – a former president and former army commander, a former spy chief and all their financial backing links,” he advised.
Commenting on Magosi’s leadership traits, he said Magosi is a commando at heart and easily itches for action. “Commandos are showmen, courageous and risk takers. They enjoy the ground and confrontations. He wants to be in the thick of things and wants to take part. Look at the way Brigadier Kgokgothwane conducts himself around danger and you will understand what I am talking about. These traits could affect Magosi’s managerial skills if left unchecked because power corrupts,” he warns.
However, Magosi says he knows of criticism that he is an absent leader, “I just wish some of these people could know how much time I spend in the office and outside,” he says. The agency office has two deputy directors, Colonel Kenamile Badubi (Operations) and Tefo Kgothane (Corporate services).
No-name says the problem is not Magosi but the free-role DISS Act which invites abuse.“The presidency, in my view, must re-culture their relationship with DISS.” He further says the national intelligence community and other law enforcement agencies are also worried that DISS believes it is their Big Brother and hardly ever considers their viewpoints. President Masisi has not said anything publicly on Magosi. Just recently, social media was awash with news that Magosi was suspended and Magosi later responded that it was fake news. The president’s chief advisor, Elias Magosi, is the spymaster’s cousin.
The lack of a national intelligence strategy, the blueprint that drives the priorities for the nation’s intelligence community components over a particular period, has been blamed on the haphazard conduct of the spymasters. The strategy would lay out the strategic environment and identify pervasive and emerging threats.
With the troubled and unsettled agency, Botswana’s ability to respond to threats remains anybody’s guess. Author Paul Collier, a professor of Economics and Public Policy and Director for the Centre for the Study of African Economies at the University of Oxford, says Africa is currently facing two entirely distinct security threats, one from the rise of radical Islam, the other from increased natural resource extraction. He concludes: “African security forces are ill-equipped to meet these threats,” he says in his paper, “Security Threats facing Africa and its Capacity to Respond.”
Radical Islam is a global phenomenon generated by the uncontrolled dissemination of extremist ideology and supported by vast private wealth in the Gulf, the use of which is not subject to scrutiny. “It poses a distinctive threat to Africa partly because many African countries have substantial Muslim populations that, in conditions of poverty and poor governance, can easily become disaffected. The response needs a level of sophistication which is not available in Africa. The threat from radical Islam has recently been evident in Mali, the Central African Republic (CAR), Kenya and Nigeria.”
Another threat, according to Collier, is natural resource discoveries which may become the favoured location for exploration and catalyse violent conflict. This is supported by a high-ranking Botswana Defence Force expert who says our intelligence should help us to find these answers. “We should have known that South Africa would not be in a position to fulfill its national power requirements and have surplus to sell to neighbouring states like us. If that was done, we would have known that we would be confronted by water scarcity due to climate dynamics. We would have known that this country was destined to face generational gaps which would affect future labour requirements due to many deaths experienced from HIV/Aids. We would be aware that shared water resources in rivers have caused conflicts in the past and that due to droughts and scarcity, this is likely to be repeated in the future if push comes to shove,” he says.
He gives the example of the Nile River basin which pits countries along the Nile, namely Egypt, Sudan, Ethiopia and Uganda and those of the Great Lakes to include Kenya. “This sounds close to home. Yes, the Okavango and Chobe rivers. It is in our interest that the Okavango flow uninterrupted because that not being the case, the flora and fauna will die and with it the tourism industry and a people’’ way of life. Our pride and national heritage would disappear. Therefore, if you ask me this, the VUCA environment at which our national intelligence with other partners have to make sense out of and help guide our national security construct and policy direction.”
But political and security analyst, Dr Gladys Mokhawa of University of Botswana, says nobody will ever know about the government or citizenry’s security until Botswana has a national security policy to guide planning and the future. “Without this, we cannot even claim to know the public’s safety or national security concerns,” she says.
Magosi says this is underway and is quick to add that it has not affected their work. “We have been having something that we have been working on while awaiting the national strategy to guide us to draft our strategy,” he says. “While others are calling for spy agency’s disbanding, Magosi advocates for a review. “I actually sanctioned it,” he says. “The Act is vague under some aspects and I support the review.”