It’s more than a little odd that Major General Jefferson Thokwane could end up on what by all accounts amounts to a tussle with government.
When he was appointed a little less than five years ago to become Chief Executive of the Civil Aviation Authority of Botswana, Thokwane was somewhat unkindly perceived as part of a military ensemble that had been put together to accompany President Ian Khama into government.
Like President Khama, General Thokwane had retired from the army after a long and illustrious career that had seen him ascend to the highest echelons of the Botswana Defence Force.
His appointment to head the country’s civil aviation authority set tongues wagging that once again President Ian Khama had taken to new heights what was then uncharitably cast as the┬á unwelcome “militarisation of the public service”.
When we sit for an interview at the CAAB headquarters, General Thokwane starts by expressing a thinly veiled frustration that the mandate of his organization is not well understood, including, he says, at strategic and political leadership. This has made him painfully aware that after five years of hard work trying to create an organisation on a shoestring budget, he might have to go back to basics.
More than once during the interview, he mentions his unwavering commitment to serve the country and says if he has to do it again he will go about it without a complaint.
“I recently addressed the parliamentary portfolio committee responsible for aviation and I realized that this self-explanation should have been done at a much earlier stage during transition. I think our biggest problem today is that there was no proper transition. During transition, there was no proper communication. ”
The transition he keeps harping on is the one under which the then called the Department of Civil Aviation was transformed into the Civil Aviation Authority of Botswana;┬á a statutory, semi ÔÇôautonomous organizations with a much wider and deeper mandate to implement on behalf of Botswana government the numerous international protocols on civil aviation as embodied in the statutes regulated by ICAO; a multi-national, United Nations affiliated organ on civil aviation that regularly grades countries’ aviation safety records and standards.
While there have been many causes for disappointments, the height of it all was that during the parliament budget session, nobody in parliament, let alone cabinet, mentioned aviation.
“Yet we have a duty to meet international standards.”
General Thokwane says that even as Botswana government has, through various aviation protocols, undertaken to see through its aviation obligations to the world, there is still reluctance in government to finance CAAB, which is a parastatal tasked with overseeing those obligations.
“We have obligations to the world. These obligations have resource implications. As things currently stand our resources are totally inadequate.┬á I have made an appeal to the minister. And I will be addressing the Board. The Permanent Secretary has asked for clarifications, which I have made. My belief is that if the answer is “NO” it should be prompt.”
In February, General Thokwane watched helplessly as money ran out of CAAB coffers.
There was a real possibility that salaries for CAAB employees would not be paid at the end of the month.
He had been knocking on locked doors, sending May Day signals to his political principals that the ship he was captaining was running out of fuel.
But no assistance was forthcoming.
It was only after president Khama intervened on the eleventh hour that disaster was averted and the more than six hundred employees of CAAB received their monthly dues.
“At times, I feel like I have been asked to drive a Rolls Royce in a road designed for a donkey cart. You have this feeling that you are in an aircraft, very clearly you see that it is going to hit Kgale Hill but you are totally unable to lift it up.”
It has been an experience he would not want to wish on anyone.
But still he says he wants to serve. And notwithstanding the fact that he has direct access to President Khama under whom he worked for close to a generation during the two men’s days in the military, Major General Thokwane says he will not be making any attempt at circumventing official channels by walking straight into the President’s office to plead his case directly to the man in charge.
“I have discipline. Once you show me who my principals are and who I report to, I follow the established channels. I never make attempts to go behind those channels,” he says, tacitly invoking the true character of what a military man he still remains at heart.
For General Thokwane, the last five years at CAAB have been very difficult, to put it mildly.
There also have been tensions and tussles, to his disappointment including the very people he had imagined would be fighting from the same corner as himself.
Officers at CAAB speak of how General Thokwane has had an almighty falling out with key members of his executive, some of whom are out to undermine and even defy him. Is that true?
“Nobody can move this organisation in this current status. People are here for money, not national service. But still I live in hope,” is an answer he gives, deliberately veering away from the murky waters that is the internal politics at CAAB.
Things came to a head when a few weeks ago when ICAO (International Civil Aviation Organisation) issued a damning report on Botswana’s aviation safety standards.
What came out of the ICAO report could break any man’s self-belief.
To make matters worse, seizing on the ICAO audit, the local media has been awash with stories of how Botswana civil aviation industry has failed the test with some going as far as to insinuate that air travel in Botswana was particularly unsafe. The blame, naturally falls on the doorstep of CAAB, or to be more precise on General Thokwane’s shoulders.
But perhaps owing to his steel determination, somehow he still manages to play a diplomat:
“What came out of that report was what as a country we had been warned of as early as 2006. Owing to resources we have not┬á been able to implement what processes we had wanted. At least not as quickly as we would have liked.”
Ever a military man, General Thokwane painstakingly takes to figures, statistics and┬á empirical data to argue his case.
The CAAB top man says that it is worth remembering that when ICAO was last in Botswana in 2006, the country’s overall audit on aviation safety and compliance with international regulations and standards stood at 27.8 percent. While media has dismissed Botswana’s civil aviation industry as a disaster zone, Thokwane reminds all who are prepared to listen that the latest ICAO report has put the country at 59.6 percent; “better than the average for Africa which is 41 percent and almost equal to the global average which is 60 percent.”
An official at CAAB says it was General Thokwane himself who created heightened expectations when he arrived. The same official says on the main, the retired General has failed on a grand scale to honour the same promises that he himself had made.
“He has nobody to blame but himself. Upon arrival he went on a road show promising heavens. Five years on, none of it has happened. It’s only natural that there is so much disappointment with him. But the truth of the matter is that he has been spurned by members of his executive, some of whom are all out to see that he fails.”
General Thokwane’s diplomatic demeanour, altogether unusual in a government dominated by abrasive and swashbuckling former military men, will no doubt be useful in the coming years.
CAAB has put a request before cabinet that its annual subvention┬á be increased from P56 million to P276 million. The sheer size of increase has got many in government stunned.
He has been instructed not just to check his figures, but to also explain himself┬á by way of providing a breakdown on how he intends to use that money.
It is an instruction he says he has since obeyed by way of putting forward proposals to his political masters.
“As Civil Aviation Authority of Botswana we are not bringing P20 billion into the economy of this country. That much we know about, but we encourage and enable other industries that put in money into the economy like trade, tourism, and foreign direct investment. That is how we must be judged.”
It is a stinging but indirect rebuke to those questioning the utility and with it the efficacy of any further substantial investments into the country’s civil aviation regulatory authority.
But typical of General Thokwane, it is a rebuke delivered without losing the slightest of what has now become his legendary composure.