Who owns Chobe Holdings’ Xakanaka “strategic airstrip”?

17 Jun 2019

Former President Ian Khama’s nephew Dale Ter Haar was appointed to the board of directors of Chobe Holdings Limited - a company that controls the controversial Xakanaka airstrip inside Moremi Game Reserve in the Okavango Delta in which a mysterious P2 million was pumped into the company.

The Sunday Standard cannot, at this stage, say with authority that the funds came from government amid officials holding this publication to second guess. Yet sources say the Khama family benefited and the Department of Wildlife and National Parks (DWNP) in the Ministry of Environment, Natural Resources Conservation and Tourism (MENT) and Management of Desert & Delta Safaris refuses to disclose source and reasons informing the P2 million worth of investment in infrastructure at the airstrip

The phrase “strategic airstrip” is becoming commonly abused whenever questions arise over privately-owned landing areas illegally sponsored by government come under scrutiny.

One such is the controversial Xakanaka airstrip inside Moremi Game Reserve in the Okavango Delta the other is Mosu initially said to have been a strategic government airstrip only to be confirmed as a private property this year.

Moreover, neither is the Ministry able to avail evidence of compliance with procurement procedures in the transaction that resulted in the changing hands of this strategic landing strip.

The Xakanaka Landing strip was transferred to new owners from the DWNP. Felix Monggae, Deputy Permanent Secretary at MENT was curt: “No transfer was effected.”  “An old landing strip was closed due to safety concerns. It was not transferred to anyone”.

Strikingly though, “Desert and Delta was granted permission to construct an airstrip by the DWNP in another area. The construction...was done in 2015. The new Landing strip is registered with CAAB as per regulations, and it is used by all who need to use it such as Government Departments and other tourism operators in the area,” Monggae explained.

Monggae stated: “The new Landing strip is operational and being used. All who use it are charged a landing fee by the DWNP.”

John F.Gibson, senior group executive at Chobe Holdings, of which D&D Safaris is a subsidiary, regarding the “permission” by Monggae when asked to elaborate said: “D&D Safaris had responded to a stated need by Kitso Mokaila, who then headed MENT, to bring a new and safer airstrip in the Xakanaka area into service to serve the Tourism Industry as a whole. We recover maintenance costs from operators.”

Gibson indicated that his company had accepted the responsibility under a Service Level Agreement with the DWNP, for the construction, maintenance and licensing as well as bringing of the airstrip into service at the cost of P2million.

This was in spite of the fact that no advertising or public notification was done of government’s intention to have the airstrip let out to private or other entities away from the DWNP.

Kenson Kgaga, President of the Botswana Tour Guides Association (BTGA) commented: “Generally we know without having been told that the airstrip is privately owned. Because sometimes before 2015 we were invited with many other virtual stakeholders to a meeting by the DWNP where we were informed of then unclear consideration to make open for a public bidding for the airstrip, but that was the end of it.”

Kgaga said the next thing to their surprise was seeing what in every way pointed to ownership by Chobe Holdings which though they are unable to attest.

“But I can say with certainty that given my interaction with this place I would be among the first to know if there were any advertising.  I believe the normal government procurement procedures have not been followed, whatever the nature of ownership. But we know its private,” Kgaga explained.

The Sunday Standard enquired whether the company was aware or not of concerns regarding its apparent ownership of the strip, or even, whether there is a possibility they may have exploited their connections with anyone in high places including the Former President Ian Khama.

Gibson replied they were not aware of any undue process in preparing the Memorandum of Understanding with DWNP or whether the department considered any alternative plan to open the new Xakanaka airstrip. He believed that the new airstrip would not have been brought into service without D& D Safaris’s wholly funding its construction and subsequent maintenance.

“Former President Khama has no commercial relationship or interest in either company or any other Chobe Holdings Limited entity. However, Dale Ter Haar was appointed to the board as an independent non-executive director of Chobe Holdings Limited on 28 February 2012,” cleared Gibson.

Dr. Cyril Taolo, Deputy Director at the DWNP replied: “That airstrip remains the property of the DWNP, and I believe the Department benefits in some way. As for the agreement it’s not necessary for you to see it.”

Gibson redirected: “The agreements you refer to are not secret, but are between the Department of Wildlife and National Parks and Desert & Delta Safaris with the department being the appropriate respondent to your questions in this regard”

On what the current status of the airstrip ownership spells for the strategic operations of the DWNP and other pertinent factors, the Sunday Standard learnt that a licence is not transferable and that any purported transfer of a controlling interest in the operations of an aerodrome is void and of no effect.

Modipe Nkwe, Head of Public Relations and Communications at CAAB qualified: “Therefore for the purpose of regulation 28 of Civil Aviation (Aerodromes) Regulation, 2012 of a controlling interest in the operations of an aerodrome includes a transfer of the aerodrome licence.”

Further the CAAB acknowledge they had the information that Wildlife entered into an agreement with Desert and Delta Safaris (DDS) operating under Chobe Holdings Limited for DDS to establish manage and operate the new Xakanaka aerodrome.

“The DDS applied for and was issued an establishment certificate to establish the New Xakanaka aerodrome. The Aerodrome was further licensed to the DDS after construction; the aerodrome licence is currently under the DDS name,” concluded Nkwe.