Monday, October 18, 2021

If Branson gets Okavango Delta land, he could keep it forever

Barrelfuls of ink have been spilled on the drama involving the former minister responsible for land, Prince Maele, the Tawana Land Board and a British multi-billionaire called Sir Richard Branson. So far, none has been spilled on the second part of the story: what happens if Branson manages to get the concession area he wants in the Okavango Delta – Botswana’s prime tourist asset?

The answer is that, like other luxury safari tourism operators in the Delta, it is highly unlikely that the land will be passed on to somebody else. The reason for that can be traced to the manner in which the lease agreement has been crafted. 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 a period of time.

Branson has expressed interest in concession area in the Delta and as Minister of Land Management, Water and Sanitation Services, Maele is said to have been determined to thwart all opposition to ensure that the British multi-billionaire gets the concession. The new president, Mokgweetsi Masisi, dropped Maele from cabinet but Branson is said to have the support of the Minister of Environment, Natural Resources Conservation and Tourism, Tshekedi Khama, who is the younger brother of former president, Ian Khama. If the Khamas still have power, Branson will definitely get that concession.

If nothing else, the Okavango Delta situation attests to the Machiavellian genius of the people who have run Botswana since 1884. Soon after present-day Botswana became a British protectorate, colonial settlers gobbled up (and today still retain) the most agriculturally productive land in the country. Then, the Delta didn’t have as much commercial value as it does today and was designated tribal land. When it became a high-value tourist asset, intense lobbying behind the scenes produced a lease agreement whose practical effect has been to detribalise the Okavango Delta.

If it has been impossible to essentially buy back concession areas from mere multi-millionaires who do roaring trade in the Delta, what about a multi-billionaire? Branson is a businessman and will use the same strategy that all other businessmen in the Delta have used to hold on concession areas for decades. There have been instances when some of those businessmen have retained the services of high-priced South African advocates to ensure that they stay put. All in all, this has made it impossible for indigenous Batswana to get into luxury safari tourism in the Delta.

In the 15 years that he will hold the lease, Branson will definitely spend a lot of money developing the concession area in question and if he loses the tender, the clause in question would be invoked. If the matter has to go to court, Branson would mobilise a crack unit of the best legal minds British pounds can buy and if history is any guide, will emerge victorious.

Interestingly, the African Natural Resources Centre (ANRC) has made a problematic recommendation. On account of the Delta being largely foreign-owned, profits made from it are repatriated abroad, resulting in leakages as high as over 70 percent ÔÇô at least according to the Centre’s estimates. To deal with this particular problem, the ANRC, which is a non-lending arm of the African Development Bank, has recommended that Botswana should take fiscal measures to encourage re-investment rather than repatriation of profits.

“Reinvestment of profits in wildlife concession areas is however constrained by the 15 year leases,” the Centre says in one of its reports.

However, such reinvestment would ensure that it becomes a million times more difficult for indigenous people to get into Okavango Delta tourism.

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