Monday, October 18, 2021

Could Botswana’s future be Nauru’s tragic present?

An island nation in the South Pacific might give an idea of what the future might be like for Botswana.

Once upon a time, Nauru lived large off bird droppings that had calcified into phosphate, which is a very precious mineral. The money from the phosphate enabled this country to notch up the highest per capita income in the world in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Nauru had social protection programmes so generous that for the most part, what passed for work among citizens was opening one’s mouth and having the government feed you. In 1993 and on the advice of a former road manager of a 1960s pop group, the Nauru government invested 2 million from phosphate sales into a musical called “Leonardo the Musical: A Portrait of Love.” The production was a disastrous flop. The country more wisely invested phosphate money by building as an international investment, Nauru House which, between 1976 and 1978, was the tallest building in Melbourne, Australia. Another investment was the Mercure Hotel in Sydney, still in Australia.

The party ended at the turn of the century when the phosphate was mined out and a national economy that was never even minimally diversified came crashing down. Decades of corruption and financial mismanagement also caught up with Nauru. Then the country did start hustling hard. First, it became a tax haven and started selling passports to foreigners. Beginning in 2001 to date, serving as a detention centre for Australia-bound refugees is the one significant way in which Nauru makes money. Per capita, Nauru has the most overweight people in the world and the world’s highest level of Type 2 diabetes. This is largely a result of supermarket foods.

As the party ended in Nauru, one was starting in Botswana which, on the back of a billion-years old diamond deposits, would enjoy Africa’s longest and one of the world’s longest economic booms. The diamond money enabled Botswana to introduce one of the most generous social protection programmes in the world which, in some cases, benefit the rich more than the poor. A year before Africa’s first FIFA World Cup, a South African explorer called Kingsley Holgate convinced Botswana to invest P10 million in the Boundless Southern Africa Expedition that would result in a documentary film that would be shown on international TV channels like BBC and CNN. This was supposed to be a marketing campaign for the country’s conservation areas “as favourable destinations for tourism and investment ahead of the 2010 FIFA World Cup.” To date, that documentary has not been released ÔÇô nor has the government recouped its money.

The party has not ended but signs of that are evident. Officially Botswana wants to become a regional education hub but yearly pays out hundreds of millions of pula to private universities for providing sub-standard tertiary education to thousands of students. In Palapye alone, the government has spent billions of pula on scandalously unsuccessful infrastructural projects. Not only has corruption skyrocketed, the agency that fights it is being denuded of manpower and powers. Diamonds ÔÇô which have been the mainstay of the economy ÔÇô are being mined out and will contribute next to nothing in a couple of years. The economy is still not well diversified and some of the diversification has been around mining operations. Healthwise, the national prevalence rate of diabetes is twice the continental average. A supermarket pops up somewhere in the country on an almost monthly basis.

If it ever has to hustle hard, Botswana might demothball institutions and capacities it has developed and is developing. Through the International Financial Services Centre, the country tried its hand in the tax haven business. As parliament learnt recently, Botswana’s citizenship laws are so loosely applied that rich foreigners are effectively purchasing citizenship. Through illegal application of a controversial shoot-to-kill policy, Botswana is developing capacity in the business of protection racketeering for wildlife. Two conservation groups, andBeyond and Great Plains Conservation, have airlifted endangered rhinos from South Africa to Botswana in order to benefit from all the protections afforded by the shoot-to-kill policy.

The comparison is obviously cosmetic because Botswana is much bigger than Nauru, has more natural and other resources as well as a much broader investment portfolio. However, there is a context in which the similarities between the two countries is striking.

RELATED STORIES

Read this week's paper