Thursday, September 24, 2020

More support, less politics: in defence of Jacob Nkate

This is a rebuttal to the statement by the Information and Publicity Secretary of the Botswana National Front, Mr Moeti Mohwasa.

The statement was carried in The Botswana Gazette and The Telegraph of last week and sought to question, amongst other things, the appointment, recently, of Mr Jacob Nkate as the new Chief Executive Officer of the Botswana Export Development and Investment Authority.

First, some preliminary points to this piece are necessary.
The first rule is that before a man can be really objective and impartial, he must approach the issue, as it were, with a tabula rasa or a clean slate, which it is my hope, in writing this article, to achieve.
I hope that this may be the opinion of my readers, too. Secondly, an objective, impartial critic must not have as his chief objective or preoccupation singling out fault or imperfections in others, but, rather, he ought to dwell on exalting their efforts and communicating to the reader such things as are worthy of their observation.

The great virtue of freedom of expression and thought is not the liberty of discussion itself but that whatever is said in regard to it is said without prejudice arising from a foregone conclusion. It is in this spirit that the present article has been written.

I must declare at once that these reflections do not necessarily imply a criticism of either the goodwill or the competencies of Mohwasa. It is clear even upon a cursory inspection that Mohwasa’s statement made on behalf of the BNF leadership is, rather, more a snapshot assessment of BEDIA and less so an analysis of Nkate’s ability and competencies to lead the organization. First, a good deal of the commentary is directed to BEDIA’s activities.

We are told, for example, that “[a] simple back of the note book calculation (operation costs and benefit that accrued from such costs) will reveal that there is a significant imbalance on cost-to benefit on BEDIA’s attempts to fulfill its mandate over the period it has been in existence.” I agree entirely, but would add, in this context, that BEDIA is by no means sui generis. Indeed, it is possible to argue that other state owned enterprises e.g. PEEPA, Air Botswana and lately Botswana Railways (to mention a few) share this dubious distinction as well, if not more so.

I agree (not without qualification) with the conclusion by Mohwasa that BEDIA has made little progress over the last decade and that any investment that may have been attracted has had little impact on growth or employment. Further, Mohwasa’s statement decrees that “BEDIA’s investment promotion efforts should be pioneered by specific ‘marketing strategy’ extending beyond information contained on BEDIA’s website that can sell investment opportunities to target investors and put the country ahead of others as an ideal place to invest.”
Whilst it may be so , this perspective is somewhat narrow in that the intense focus on a specific marketing strategy, though a good idea in its own right, will not work to pull this country out of its economic crisis. Much more will need to be done. For this reason, I am not in entire accord with the penultimate sentence.
Whenever two persons make opposite judgments about the same thing it is certain that one of them is mistaken, if not both. Who is or is not mistaken in the present debate is not clear since the debate so far has been obfuscated largely because much stress has been placed on questioning Nkate’s appointment, though without advancing cogent reasons.

For example, the BNF has expressed “serious reservations with this appointment as it is not based on merit”, without more. Be that as it may, the fact is that any new CEO of BEDIA faces a daunting challenge in clearing the decks of the trade agenda he or she inherits.

Once the decks are cleared, the CEO should focus trade policy on a new agenda that does more for our country’s economic security. As to what the new trade agenda would include, silence, I think, is de rigueur.

A question which immediately arises from the discussion so far has a bearing on the skills and training required for the leadership of BEDIA or other similar agencies. The answer is supplied by the BNF statement (without realising as much) that, “BEDIA has an immense mandate of diversifying the economy from reliance on mining particularly diamonds by promoting and assisting in the establishment of export centered enterprises.”
Thus, BEDIA is by definition an international trade institution and it follows that the deliverables of the job in question are substantially of an economic and legal nature. Examples of key deliverables, in addition to those mentioned in the BNF statement, include:

ÔÇó a good understanding of how the public sector functions; this requires a firm grasp of what the applicable policy and rules are;

ÔÇó the incumbent will be the public face of the trade agenda and therefore has to be a great communicator; political office, legal training and experience by their very nature require and nurture good communication skills;

ÔÇó the incumbent has to be a manager proficient at managing and deploying resources in the form of consultants, agency employees, etc; he or she has to have strategic planning skills to design, sell and deliver a realistic program;

ÔÇó while in the early years of trade liberalisation the justifications were largely economic, the political theme appears more recently to have pervaded official justifications, albeit this point cannot be overemphasised. Nonetheless, the incumbent needs to be able to cultivate and maintain direct access to policy makers and decision makers at the highest levels including the Head of State and Cabinet.

ÔÇó cultivating stakeholders’ support and managing stakeholder expectations over a wide spectrum of stakeholders from the common man on the street to the Head of State is essential for the success of the program. These latter two require extensive practical political experience on the part of the job holder;

ÔÇó equally important, the incumbent needs to have diplomatic tact in dealing with potentially hostile positions on the part of line ministers responsible for the entities concerned with trade, finance and international cooperation, management of state owned enterprises and politicians. Hostility to trade liberalisation or globalisation has the impetus to unite ruling party and opposition party politicians alike; this is also a conditio sine qua non at the regional and multilateral levels.

ÔÇó The head of BEDIA is (to put it simply) a “glorified salesman or saleswoman”. That means one must know intimately the product they are selling, its weaknesses and strengths and those of competing products and to present the product in such a way that people will be interested in closing the deal. Incidentally the parties on the other side will be looking at any chance or excuse to extract any concession or get a better bargain. A good understanding of the global market and economic trends is also valuable.

Surely, as a former trade minister, party secretary general and legal practitioner, Nkate, by all accounts, has “convening” power. This is what boggles the mind about doubts raised by some against his recent appointment.

With this observation it is surprising to find how the BNF then contradicts itself by stating: “We do not doubt Jacob Nkate’s competence but by all standards he is not the best person for the job and this is one of the worst appointments made in 2009.” Mohwasa’s deliberate failure to take the public into his confidence by disclosing whom it is thought can best do the job is tantamount to subterfuge.

This is not cured by resort to questions about the manner of Nkate’s appointment and references to “corporate governance” and “Independent Board” (whatever this phraseology may mean). The fact is that at this level such appointments are necessarily political the world over and the President cannot be faulted for exercising his powers lawfully. Consequently, the contention about “disregard for credible appointment processes” is spurious and surely must be rejected on the score of absurdity.

I cannot conclude without recounting a story as told, in 1712. It is said of a famous critic, that having collected all the faults of a poet of no less repute, he had these presented to Apollo, the sun-god, who, on receiving them, promised to bestow largesse in order to reward the critic for all his troubles. The storyteller continues: To do this, Apollo set before him a sack of wheat, as it had been just threshed out of the sheath. He then bid him pick out of the chaff from among the corn, and lay it aside by itself.

The critic applied himself to the task with great industry and pleasure, and after having separated the chaff, was presented by Apollo with the chaff for his pains!

*Michael Mothobi teaches International Trade Law in the Law Department, Company Law in the Faculty of Business, and Advanced Company Law in the School of Graduate Studies, University of Botswana.

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