Thursday, July 16, 2020

The power behind the throne?

Four years is a long time in politics. Travel back that far and you would gate crash the most high profile Christmas party of 2003. It was no dull affair. The party budget topped the P100 000 mark. The guests, exchanging Christmas wishes and clicking glasses of mature single malt whisky on the entertainment lobby of a Kasane river front mansion included President Festus Mogae, United States Congressman William Jefferson and the then Debswana Managing Director, Louis Nchindo.

Today Mogae and Nchindo are not on speaking terms; the relationship soured so much so that except in gossip talk made behind each other’s back the two cannot even publicly refer to each other by name.

Never has so much meaning been invested in a Christmas party.

The exclusive Christmas party at Nchindo’s river bank mansion fell under the spotlight of news hounds after Congressman Jefferson was charged for soliciting bribes from an American investor in return for using his influence to get the investor a satellite transmission contract in Botswana.

The high profile Christmas party also keeps cropping up in the Directorate on Corruption and Economic Crime (DCEC) investigations.

Nchindo is currently the subject of a long running DCEC investigation for, among other things, splashing P100 000 of Debswana money entertaining the president, the congressman and their families.

It all started when the government called in a group of English lawyers to audit Debswana books and investigate how LGN (as Nchindo is charitably known) ran Debswana.

Now approaching 70, for president Mogae, the 2003 Christmas party whisky must be the most expensive and embarrassing he has ever had in his long and eventful life.

Embarrassed that his name was being raised frequently in the DCEC investigations, Mogae, two years ago, went public on how he was tricked into thinking that the money was from “the rich man’s pocket.”

The rich man, of course, is Nchindo. Mogae’s statement made newspaper headlines. It provided fodder for speculations that Nchindo was the power behind the throne. For a long time, Mogae’s one-on-one relationship with Nchindo was opaque, a vital unknown in assessing Nchindo’s influence on key executive decisions.

Nchindo’s influence on the Mogae administration has always been widely presumed but hard to illustrate.
For example, it is widely believed that when the President was preparing for State House, he often turned to Nchindo for advice. Botswana Democratic Party (BDP) insiders talk of nocturnal meetings between Mogae, Nchindo and the then Botswana Defence Force Commander Lt Gen Ian Khama, at Nchindo’s mansion in the suburbs of Gaborone Central. Two days before Mogae ascended to the presidency, Lt Gen Khama announced his resignation from the army. In a trade where no one puts much faith in blind coincidences, Khama’s appointment to the Vice Presidency was credited on Nchindo.

Members of the BDP so-called “Big Two” faction also believe Nchindo was instrumental in sidelining Kedikilwe in the contest for Vice President. Although Nchindo has never confirmed this, he has dropped enough hints to suggest that it is the truth. He likes to regale friends with stories of how Mogae was toying around with the idea of making Kedikilwe Vice President “until the Tlokweng incident.” By the Tlokweng incident, he is referring to the alleged mid night meeting of the Big two faction in Tlokweng where they allegedly plotted to shore up Kedikilwe’s position.

A reconstruction of the rise and fall of Nchindo’s relationship with Mogae suggests that the Debswana Managing Director was an ingenuous power player who used Mogae’s weaknesses and his friendship with the president to strengthen his hand. Nchindo had mammoth ambitions. He wanted to cultivate a span of influence that would extend far beyond his established power base of diamond mining into agriculture, tourism and probably the power behind the presidency.

For a time, all things seemed possible as Mogae and Nchindo marched in step. Sources inside the government enclave like to tell the story of how Members of Parliament used to lobby Nchindo to appoint them to Cabinet. Even Cabinet Ministers used to refer to him whenever they wanted to know what was going on inside the president’s head. When speculation was rife about who would be Mogae’s Vice President, the then Cabinet Minister and BDP Secretary General, Daniel Kwelagobe, confided in Nchindo that he was worried David Magang was going to be the next Vice President. The reason for Kwelagobe’s apprehension was the close friendship between Magang and Mogae. Nchindo retorted that, “if that is the way you look at it, then Gobe Matenge has a better chance. He is closer to Mogae than Magang.”

Stories doing the rounds in the corridors of power reveal how Olifant Mfa first got to know about his appointment to cabinet through Nchindo.
At the time, Mfa was causing a lot of trouble for the government from the backbenches, from where he was calling Vice President Ian Khama all sorts of names.

At one point the maverick Mfa even went as far as to demand that he be given the money for his constituency to take it to where it belonged; Sebina/Gweta. Worried about Mfa’s pranks, Mogae decided to rope him into cabinet as a junior minister from where he would be restrained by collective responsibility.
But before an official announcement could be made that Mfa had finally realized his dream into cabinet, it is understood Louis Nchindo whispered to the legislator’s daughter, obviously for the benefit of the father’s ear “to behave, because we are considering appointing him to Cabinet.”

Mfa, who was given to abrasive outbursts in parliament piped down. A few weeks later he was appointed Assistant Minister of Presidential Affairs.
Nchindo’s brash style often clashed with the culturally conservative government enclave. Although he was not exactly the power behind the throne of popular lore, many people were drawn to his moxie and apparent influence.

His bravery and abrasive disposition, his knack for risk, not to speak of an exuberant lifestyle and hearty laughter combined with street charm and fondness for detail made him an asset in a president still groping for a footing in a party literally baying for the leader’s blood.

Mogae and Nchindo were an odd combination ÔÇô here was an introverted and clearly reluctant master who always shied away from a fight flirting with an extroverted aide, an outspoken power player who took no hostages and insisted on the master hitting the ground running. But it worked, for sometime. Although it’s probable that Mogae may have set his own course, it was always in the direction that Nchindo preferred.
It is, however, true that enjoying his influence and perhaps owing to his immodesty, Nchindo always made an impression, perhaps too much that he was the brains and power behind the throne.

When the country started agitating for diamond beneficiation, Mogae went against the advice of his friend of long standing and Minister of Mineral Resources and Water Affairs, David Magang, and took sides with Nchindo.

Magang was championing the national campaign for beneficiation, while Nchindo, the De Beers point man in Botswana, was dead set against bringing diamond cutting and polishing to Botswana.

As a minister, Magang tried to sell beneficiation to Cabinet, but there were no buyers. The then president, Sir Ketumile Masire, and his deputy Festus Mogae had been sold onto the De Beers propaganda machine and “were in no mood to establish a cutting industry in Botswana. I had no support from top to bottom, however much I tried. My President and Vice President thought I was mad”, Magang recalls.

Treated to generous quantities of wine and champagne, even local newspaper headline writers who attended regular briefings from Debswana Managing Director, who rubbished the beneficiation lobby as madness were convinced that Magang was insane.

“At the time, I felt terribly lonely. Very few Batswana knew about diamonds. It was me, the President, the Vice President, the Attorney General, Minister of Finance and their officials. These were key ministers involved in negotiations with De Beers. We were supposed to be the leading diamond producer in the world. It made sense that we should understand diamonds just as we understand cattle. But De Beers had deliberately kept Batswana in the dark.”

Magang became the Cabinet laughing stock. “I became the butt of Cabinet jokes when discussions turned to diamonds. Mogae used to laugh saying that at least I had been consistent for years in my beneficiation campaign.”

Frustrated and almost broken, one day, in a fit of madness Magang walked into De Beers offices in Johannesburg and started railing about how De Beers had deliberately kept Batswana ignorant about the diamond industry. He pointed out that in the 25 years that De Beers had been operating in Botswana; it had not trained a single citizen on the workings of the diamond industry.

Magang’s campaign for beneficiation poisoned his relationship with Nchindo. When Mogae took over as president he moved Magang from the Ministry of Mineral Resources and replaced him with Nchindo. Magang was the only minister who was moved.

Nchindo, who was riding the wave of influence, would go on and on about how the new replacement Boometswe Mokgothu was the best choice for the ministry, fuelling speculation that he had influenced Mogae’s decision.

Magang would later step down from politics frustrated and wagging his finger at De Beers. About the same time, Mogae and Nchindo’s relationship started unraveling. Coincidentally, this happened when the relationship between De beers and the Botswana government was also strained and Mogae was warming up to beneficiation.

It also happened at around the same time that De Beers was being restructured, an exercise that would see the centuries old diamond juggernaut delisted and moved into the full armpit of the Oppenheimer family with Botswana government holding 15%.

It was a noisy and somewhat untidy corporate restructuring. While the Botswana government hopelessly and somewhat shamelessly ran behind the Oppenheimer family, some shareholders, especially in the United States, attempted to torpedo the deal, resisting to the end until it was further sweetened with significantly increased share prices.

There are many blurred accounts of what role Louis Nchindo could have played on behalf of Mogae’s government during the De Beers restructuring exercise. But it is agreed that the outcome was a big fallout between two old friends which resulted in open animosity that festers to this day.

With time South Africa, Namibia and Angola embraced beneficiation and the De Beers campaign that beneficiation is not viable in diamond producing countries ran out of road.
With time, Louis Nchindo also lost his direct, around the clock access to State House.

His departure from Debswana also proved an unhappy ending as, with the blessing of Mogae, the government ordered an investigation into how exactly he had run Debswana.

The result of the investigation continues to torment Nchindo to this day.

To humiliate the once powerful kingmaker, his brainchildren citizen empowerment schemes through the use of Debswana money were decidedly and summarily scrapped.

The two friends, Mogae and Nchindo, who came back forty years ago from their Oxford days, are not on talking terms.
Except for a few senior officials in government, like Permanent Secretary to the President Eric Molale and the then Attorney General Ian Kirby, no one really knows what could have happened to contaminate the relationship so much so that Mogae would today only refer to his once close bosom buddy, not by name but only as a “certain rich man.”

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