If President Mokgweetsi Masisi is really serious about empowering indigenous Batswana, the people who rule the world will certainly not like it one bit and may (not might) do to him what they just did to former President Evo Morales of Bolivia.
Way before Masisi started eating leftovers of presidential power from the previous regime, then Vice President Masisi whetted appetites by telling Batswana how enjoyable life would be under his rule with the Setswana mantra of “go tsile go nna monate.” The Setswana substantively means that “life under my presidency will be enjoyable.” Against all odds, Masisi fought off concerted challenge by his predecessor, General Ian Khama, to unseat him and emerged victorious in the October 23 general election.
Part of Masisi’s plan to make life under his presidency enjoyable is to ramp up citizen economic empowerment, a term franchised into public consciousness by former Debswana Diamond Company Managing Director, Louis Nchindo. Ironically, Nchindo did everything in his immense power to economically disempower other citizens while over-empowering himself and his family. One part of that plan is to increase citizen participation in the tourism sector which is dominated by white expatriates. While Khama once stated that Botswana’s tourism is dominated by indigenous (meaning black) citizens, the fact of the matter is that real, money-spinning tourism, that of the Okavango Delta, is dominated by whites, virtually all of them expatriates.
Technically, the part of Okavango Delta that yields billions of pula in tourism revenue is not part of Botswana because all the concession areas are owned by whites and it is near-impossible for indigenous Batswana to get in the business. The latter has to do with the manner in which the lease agreement of the Tawana Land Board has been crafted. Those who control the Delta tourism business owe allegiance not to Botswana but the west; holiday bookings are done outside Botswana; camp managers are commonly white couples from the west; the most commonly used currency in the Delta is the United States dollar; profits are repatriated abroad; English is the official language; and some of the visitors (who include Hollywood A-listers and European royalty don’t understand why their passports are stamped “Botswana” when they visit. The latter was motivation for a white member of the Brand Management Team to propose that Botswana’s name should be renamed “Okavango.”
For Batswana, breaking into the lucrative Delta tourism has its challenges, one being a controversial policy that appears to have been designed with nefarious intent. Delta concessions are parceled out through a lease system that makes it extremely difficult for indigenous Batswana to get a stake in the lucrative high-value tourism market. The lease agreement between the Tawana Land Board and tour operators contains a right-of-first-refusal clause. Right of refusal is a legal principle in terms of which a seller must give a party an opportunity to match a price at which a third party agrees to buy a specified asset on the same terms offered to the third party. When the lease for a concession area ends, all bidders, including the sitting tenant, compete in an open tender and upon evaluation, the latter is given the opportunity to match the overall highest bidder’s proposal. In the event the sitting tenant has to vacate a site, s/he has to be fully compensated for a site that would have been developed with huge sums of money over an extended period of time. As long as this system remains in place, indigenous Batswana will find it extremely difficult to gain access to the country’s most lucrative tourist asset.
In the event Masisi tries to level the playing field by getting Batswana into the lucrative Delta tourism, he could well find himself having to deal with consequences a lot similar to those that Bolivia’s Morales has had to deal with. Like Botswana, Bolivia has been looted of its riches by westerners for centuries – with regard to the former, the looting started when westerners hunted some wildlife species to extinction. Bolivia has large deposits of tin and lithium – a soft, silvery-white metal which is the essential element for batteries used in many electric cars, as well as other portable electronics. Lithium will gain greater importance when electric cars go mainstream.
As another iconic South American leader, the late Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, Morales wants his people to benefit from their country’s resource wealth and beginning 2006, has been fighting with multinational mining companies. In some cases, Morales nationalised resources and the end result has been steady and significant decline in poverty rates and improvement of social indicators among Bolivians. For decades, multinationals had been exploiting the country’s resources under terms that favoured them and not the country. The nationalisation came at a cost, literal in some cases leading as aggrieved parties went all the way to the Paris-based International Chamber of Commerce. The Chamber has ordered the Bolivian government to pay companies whose contracts had been annulled huge sums of money.
Morales was deposed by the army exactly one week ago. What BBC, CNN, Sky News and other western media channels will not be reporting is that the coup followed a crucial November 4 decision to cancel a December 2018 agreement with Germany’s ACI Systems Alemania (ACISA) to develop lithium deposits for batteries. Eight days later, Morales was forced out of office and the new government is set to reverse that fateful decision. ACISA provides batteries to Tesla and a day after the coup, Tesla’s stock rose astronomically. It has been alleged that the United States embassy in La Paz (Bolivia’s capital) helped coordinate a deliberate campaign of street violence and media disinformation in order to destabilize Bolivia and force Morales to quit. That same strategy was tried without success in Venezuela.
Morales’ fate mirrors that of Third World leaders who challenge western multinationals over control of resource wealth. If Masisi does indeed take proactive steps to retake control of the Okavango Delta, one of the things that he will have to do is have the lease agreements reworked. As court records at the High Court show, those who hold the concessions have been known to fight back fiercely. Likewise, if Masisi attempts to give citizens a greater stake in the mining industry, multinationals will fight back and seek to replace him with someone they can control. Like Masisi, Morales had also been too closely associated with the Chinese who were experimenting with new ways to both mine the lithium and share the profits of the lithium. China’s Tianqi Lithium Group was on the verge of making a deal with Bolivia’s Comibol—its national mining company—and Yacimientos de Litio Bolivianos (YLB)—its national lithium company— to start a lithium mining operation as equal partners.
Amidst the pre-election psychodrama involving Masisi and in which assassination was mentioned, the Directorate of Intelligence Services and Security did at one point suggest that companies doing business in Botswana could be involved. So, if Masisi makes good on his electoral promises and embarks on historic citizen empowerment push, he should expect a harder push from non-citizens who feel entitled to Africa’s riches.