Saturday, July 2, 2022

Mabeo refused to fire Botswana Railways’ CEO

Contrary to spirited rebuttal of a Sunday Standard story about the Botswana Railways Board of Directors seeking to eject the parastatal’s Chief Executive Officer, Dominic Ntwaagae, a very good source has not only confirmed such development but also revealed some more explosive details.

Ntwaagae incurred the wrath of the Board following what is alleged to have been a messy procurement deal with a South African company called Transnet Engineering. The company was contracted to supply BR with 37 coaches ahead of the resumption of a passenger train service between Lobatse and Francistown.

There are varying accounts of how this deal panned out. On one hand, a Directorate on Corruption and Economic Crime (DCEC) official has been quoted as saying that there is a “strong case” against some officers in the procurement department. On the other, a senior BR official contends that the deal was above board and doubts that anyone will be implicated for corruption because while there was negligence, there certainly was no corruption. While it has been reported in the media that the Transnet coaches were old, the latter says that this detail is misleading for what it doesn’t reveal: that only the base frames (which have a lifespan of up to 150 years) were not new while everything else was. Given that through its parent ministry, BR wanted to resume the passenger train as soon as politically desirable, the two parties agreed on the use of the old base frames. Where management faltered was that the latter was a gentleman’s agreement, something that the Minister of Transport and Communications, Tshenolo Mabeo is said to have frowned upon. It was only at Mabeo’s insistence, that a rider was added. Strangely for a deal that is said to have been mired in corruption (and this is what seems to bolster the BR’s source version of events), Transnet delivered the second and final batch of 15 coaches last month even as DCEC investigations were ongoing.

Mabeo is the reason Ntwaagae is still in post. The BR source says that the board did indeed take a resolution to fire the CEO. However, the government system works in such manner that the board can only make a recommendation to the minister who has the final say. This is an arrangement similar to that of the judiciary where the Judicial Services Commission can recommend to the president, the name of someone to be made judge. The president has prerogative to accept or reject such recommendation. In this particular case, Mabeo is said to have refused to endorse the board’s decision for three reasons. Firstly, the board appeared to want him to rubberstamp its decision and not exercise his discretion as minister. Secondly, he questioned why Ntwaagae had to be fired for just one case of alleged corruption which was still being investigated when there are many more such cases that DCEC is still trying to unravel. The Directorate is said to be investigating 25 cases of alleged corruption at the parastatal. The source says that in one fatefully important way, Ntwaagae’s exit would have had the effect of killing off some of those investigations. Thirdly, it became apparent that Ntwaagae’s replacement was already waiting in the wings, which fact raised serious doubts about the board’s real intentions.

In the end, Mabeo decided that he was not going to endorse the board’s decision to fire Ntwaagae. This is said to reflect the minister’s own belief about the CEO’s own role in the Transnet deal. If experience is a useful guide, for as long as both the current and Ntwaagae remain in office, there is bound to be serious friction. It is likelier still that one party may not serve out its term.

The board reacted swiftly to Sunday Standard’s story, choosing its words very carefully but not illuminating the issue by providing all relevant details. At a strictly semantic level, the board can rightly assert that it never fired Ntwaagae because it cannot lawfully do that. However, while the board never fired the CEO, it certainly made a recommendation that he be fired. The rebuttal said that the board “has not acted outside the limits of its authority on any issue.” Indeed it didn’t because making a recommendation to have a CEO fired is within its authority. On the other hand, firing him would have been outside the limits of its authority.

While DCEC may believe there is a strong corruption case, the fact of the matter is that such determination is the preserve of the Directorate on Public Prosecutions which conducts exhaustive legal stress tests before bringing up criminal charges. If DPP makes similar judgement, then individuals within BR will be singled out for prosecution.

As this saga plays itself out, the passenger train is already in service, having been reintroduced on March 22 this year with President Ian Khama officiating. In tragi-comical mirroring of the decidedly ill-advised banner maxim on BR’s website about destination never being a place, the train flat broke down a day after it was reintroduced. The full maxim is “One’s destination is never a place but a new way of seeing things.” On March 23, BR certainly kept that promise about moving from point A to point B with its Francistown-Gaborone service and the passengers would have seen the organisation in a new and not altogether favourable way.

In a weird sort of way, the media got ensnared in the procurement issue when Sonny Serite, a Sunday Standard correspondent and columnist for its sister publication, The Telegraph, was arrested alongside Abueng Sebola, a records officer at the Office of the President. Days before, Serite had written an explosive story that quoted liberally from a forensic audit report on the BR procurement deal. At the time of Serite’s arrest, it was alleged that security agents wanted him to reveal his sources for the BR story but when he appeared at the magistrate court, he was charged with receiving stolen property while Sebola was charged with stealing by servant. It also turned that the issue in question related to a personnel file belonging to Tsaone Nkarabang, one of President Ian Khama’s private secretaries. The charge against Serite was later withdrawn while that against Sebola was changed to abuse of office.

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