Monday, July 22, 2024

Botswana Isn’t Just a Democracy in the process of Failing, it is an Oligarchy in the process of Succeeding

In the 1990s when the Soviet Union collapsed many Russians filled the streets of major cities, with a sense of triumph but they were not sure what was going to replace the old Soviet Empire, the uncertainty had the whole nation on edge, many of them hoped the new system would lead them on a path towards Democracy. To their surprise, the Oligarchs who profited from the spoils of Communism became fantastically rich under President Boris Yeltsin, while ordinary Russians regressed into deep poverty.

When the colonial powers left, our founding fathers set us on the path to democracy, but that dream is diminishing given the events of the past decade or so, which resemble the immediate days of the post-Soviet Union. There is a web of business interests that have gained substantial power over our politics in general and our politicians in particular. They have been able to leverage their proximity to politicians and influence in our politics to establish a network of plutocrats at the expense of our democracy. For us too, the line between governance and business interests was blurred when it became normal for a sitting president to have active business interests. This is not something unique only to President Masisi, though it became more clear and evident under his rule because of his business appetite. Former President Khama too had well known interests in the tourism sector, and former President Mogae in retail. So it would be quite unfair to apportion all the blame to the sitting President.

Where it all began

For every nation, there probably exists a case which, failure to prosecute had led the nation in a different path. For Russia, it was case 144128, an investigation into a construction company called 20th Trust which had been registered by Putin’s economic relations committee while he was deputy mayor of St. Petersburg. Lt Col. Andrey Zykov who was a top federal investigator in St Petersburg was convinced that crimes had been committed. Two and half billion Rubles was transferred into the company’s account. The funds were supposed to be used for specific building projects but ended up being used for completely different purposes. Much of the money disappeared and some according to Lt Col Zykov the money was syphoned off by Putin and his friends to build vacation villas in Spain. Vladimir Putin should have been jailed, but for him, he didn’t go to jail, he went to Moscow instead.

Much like Russia, Botswana has also had a number of high profile cases of corruption that shaped its destiny, the National Petroleum Fund scandal where about P356 million was looted, the Capital Management Botswana (CMB) corruption scandal which robbed the Public Officers Pension Fund of more than P200 million. The elephant in the room, in both scandals, was the extent of the President’s involvement. Former energy and minerals minister Sadique Kebonang suggested in the CMB scandal that money syphoned from pension fund was used to support his chairmanship campaign at the BDP Congress in 2017, where they made it rain and dubbed themselves camp Dubai. Just like President Putin, President Masisi was never questioned before the courts, the same thing that haunts Lt Col Andrey Zykov many years later, haunts the rest of us, the idea that criminal allegations cannot be pursued in relation to the President.

Presidential immunity is used by those who could otherwise be found guilty to evade criminal culpability, and this drastically changes the destiny of any given nation. It consolidates power in the hands of the few, undermines the rule of law, as we saw with the case of the National Petroleum Funds, all the star culprits were dismissed without charges. Justice Kebonang has resumed his duties, Bakang Seretse is now set to paid back millions by the State. There was a clear case of wrong doing, the nation is paying for the misdeeds of the elite few, through the ever increasing taxes and levies. There is an array of other cases that still haunt our democracy to date, the extra judicial killing of John Kalafatis, the Economic Stimulus Package program and Bot50 celebrations spending and the COVID 19 consignments.

Transition of power

By 1999 and ailing Boris Yeltsin was nearing the end of his presidency and was looking for a savior himself. His administration was the focus of a massive corruption investigation. Having parceled out much of Russia’s wealth to a band of oligarchs and allowed aids and family members to enrich themselves, there was fear in the Yeltsin camp of what might happen if his successor was to prove less than understanding. 

Talk about how when President Khama left, I am inclined to believe that he too picked then Vice President Masisi for the exact same reason as Boris Yeltsin tapped the shoulder of Vladimir Putin. He would retire knowing he will be protected. He went from town to village anointing him as his successor, and as he famously said, “gona le Mokgatla o tileng go nna Tautona”. A lot of people celebrated because they thought better days were coming, we had just had ten years of fear. The Khama regime was plagued by massive scandals of corruption, the almost sale of Air Botswana to Khama Interests, the extra judicial killing of John Kalafatis, muzzling of the press through his Directorate of Intelligence and Security Services

In the early days Vice President Masisi went on an offensive charm declaring himself as a “lelope” and that he is willing to do anything to get the Presidency for our sake. He is famously quoted saying “nna ke lelope, ke ipotsa gore lona ha lesa lopele le baga mang.” This worked like a charm on Batswana who were honestly tired of the Khama Administration in which we lived under fear. President Masisi promised to uproot massive corruption that had plagued our country. We got the impression that he was a person of our generation, he wore flap caps and used words like “you dig”. This was followed by the “re baakanya lehatshe” campaign in which President Masisi was reversing most of the changes Former President Khama had made prior to leaving office.

President Khama’s power was fading, you could almost feel the release on the grip he had over us for almost a decade. But the transfer of power almost immediately compounded the idea that our democracy was under threat due to the shift of power from one elite group to the next, out went President Khama and his allies, and in came President Masisi and his band.

How institutions were eroded

When Putin became president, case 144128 quietly went away as Lt Col Zykov was told that criminal proceedings cannot be pursued in relation to the president. For Botswana too, on all the major accounts mentioned above, all the major accused were never called to the stand, some even walked free even though there was overwhelming evidence of their wrong doing. The ability of our oversight institutions to bring the perpetrators to justice is compromised, simply because they have so much power and influence over them.

Even our parliament, isn’t capable of making independent decisions because those with the numbers always prevail. The ruling party does not care about the merits and demerits of motions being debated, they just vote as they are instructed to. I will take you back to the first debate on State of Public Emergency, both the President and Vice President didn’t articulate any sound arguments as to why they were proposing a SOE 6 months long, we are now closing in on a year of SOE that will definitely be extended. Our parliamentarians must know that their job is not to give the president what he wants, it is to act in the best interests of Batswana.

How different could things be if the former and current had been indicted, pursing criminal cases in relation to the president can make people respect the law, they would realize that no one is above the law and if the president can be prosecuted and that our officials would realize that the law should be protected at all costs. Now as it stands, the law is selective and there are those who are immune to prosecution and even after they vacate the Presidency they are never called to account.

The President’s Men

After he was declared an undesirable immigrant and deported in 2005, Professor Kenneth Good claims in Diamonds, Dispossession and Democracy in Botswana, published in 2008, that “the defense force bought equipment from Seleka Springs, a company of which Tshekedi and Anthony Khama were directors” and enjoyed incredible returns from the industrial military complex they had created. Dumelang Saleshando, back then accused Khama of “wanting to reduce Botswana to a “private entity”.

In his article Behind every Botswana President There is a Ram, Kgosi Ngakaagae articulated that “Yet another Botswana president, has a business relationship with the serial presidential business suitor. Either Ram, as he is affectionately known, has a deep fascination with the presidency, or there is something about him or his business enterprises that our Presidents are tripping all over each for. It was President Festus Mogae. Then followed President Ian Khama’s right hand man, Isaac Kgosi. Now it is President Mokgweetsi Masisi. Whoever the next President or Vice President is, they must proceed to Ram to demand their shareholding as a presidential entitlement. Better still, let’s just put Ram’s business enterprises in the green book.”

This demonstrates how business interests are able to establish a hold on our government The spillover of this has been the creation of a monopoly that further entrenches their power. Whether it’s the chicken industry, automobile to retail, Batswana suffer at the hands of such monopoly and are not able to compete fairly for opportunities. That is why now Choppies outlets are offering nzamela services and selling dibonzi, it is a result of the greed of those who wish to monopolize everything because of the power they wield.

The men who occupy the presidency don’t seem to be bothered about avoiding the appearance of impropriety. They are solely focused on furthering the oligarchy they inherit while the country they rule over is in deepening trouble, in the capital, there is a venire of prosperity left over from the old days of soaring diamonds prices, but the economy has been pillaged, and in the vast reaches where the majority of Batswana live, deep poverty stubbornly prevails. For the longest time, we have referred to our country as a democracy, a government of the people by the people and for the people. Maybe we are not just a democracy in the process of failing, it appears that those we entrust with this precious gift that is our country seem to not have any interest in preserving it, we should start seeing ours as an oligarchy in the process of succeeding.


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