A lot has been said and written in the media about the University of Botswana (UB) of recent, especially prior to and after the recent closure of the University that lasted for about one month.
The decision to close the University came from the Chairman of the governing Council of the University. Most, if not all, of what was in the media was blame game, character assassination and an over simplification of the recurrent problems at the institution. Consequently, the media missed an opportunity to take a comprehensive analysis of the problems at UB by going beyond finger pointing and name calling and became part of the problem. The student riot that led to the closure of UB was nothing but a symptom of bigger malaise at UB.
Therefore while closing UB, appointing an acting Vice Chancellor (VC), and forming a committee to find a replacement for the former VC who resigned out of frustration with stakeholders, were all necessary, they are insufficient in themselves as far as finding a lasting solution to the problems at UB. Reactive measures instead of a more comprehensive analyses and understanding of the situation will only perpetuate the problems.
Just like the media missed the opportunity to critically analyse the situation, the government through its Ministry of Tertiary Education, Research, Science and Technology missed the opportunity to comprehensively analyse and advise government on the way forward. UB is a flagship University for which Botswana as a country and Batswana as a people have a big stake and have invested in heavily. It is therefore in the interest of government to see to it that it is well managed to provide the required human resources to drive the economic development of the country.
The problems of UB have grown dire over the past decade or so. The scope of the problems can be categorised as structural (poor policy framework), leadership (lack of visionary leadership at all levels and by all stakeholders), human capital (incompetent and poor human resources), poor funding (funding crunch), and poor discipline (irresponsible and ill-discipline of students and staff). Permit me to examine these problems one by one.
The policy framework, which was set in place by the then Vice Chancellor Profs Sharon Siverts and Bojosi Otlhogile, was premised on the assumption that UB should be run based on a business or corporate model. The basic conception of the business or corporate model is driven, often, by short term profits. Usually, vision and mission statements and strategic goals are myopic and do not capture long-term additive and multiplicative value of education.
As Prof Mahamood Mamdani (1993) would put it, a university is not a business venture. It is more of an infrastructure comparable to a bridge, power station or a road. Returns on such investments are not measured only in monetary terms. The returns are not only economic or quantitative but are social as well as qualitative and often unquantifiable and unmeasurable Mamdani (1993).
To enhance efficiency, so Profs Sharon Siverts and Bojosi Otlhogile believed, they created about 20 directorates, each with a director, deputy director, assistant directors, secretaries and office attendants. Directors are paid at the level of professors and deputy directors at the level of associate professors. This policy resulted into a bloated administrative staff and consequently huge administrative and overhead costs. Unfortunately these costs were completely unrelated to the core activities of the University (teaching, research, and community service).
Similarly, the creation of the Centre for Continuing Education (CCE) may have been appropriate at the time but unsustainable and duplicates activities of other academic centres. For instance, all courses taught at CCE can be better offered in other academic centres (faculties). This renders CCE unnecessary and expensive project. Closing CCE down will save UB a lot of money and make other academic centres more efficient. Another section that would benefit from reorganisation is the Graduate School.
Does UB really need a Faculty of Graduate Studies? Probably not. Graduate education is best handled in the respective faculties coordinated by an Associate Dean responsible for research and graduate studies. Furthermore, two thirds of Secretaries and Office Attendants have nothing to do all day long except gossip on phone and spend time in the Staff Canteen drinking tea and eating fat cakes from 9 -11 am, eating lunch from 12:00 noon to 2:30, and knocking off at 4:00 pm. The majority of workers in the Maintenance Department have nothing to do all day long.
They report to work at 9 am and play board games the whole day. As a result of these redundancies, the number of support staff is more than double the number of academic staff. Consequently, these “waste centres” (e.g., the Directorates, CCE, Graduate School, Secretaries, Administrative Staff, Maintenance Staff, etc.), are a few examples where UB can reorganise and save space and money especially during this time of funding crunch.
When Prof Thabo Fako tried to reorganise the university to make it lean and mean and focus on the core mandates of teaching, research, and community service, he met with stiff resistance and an avalanche of court cases. Without a painful and radical reform of the current structures and policy frameworks, UB will collapse under the weight of its unnecessary and expensive “super administrative structure”. It is high time the stakeholders understand that UB cannot be run by courts. Running to courts when the University has structures and fora where such issues can be addressed, is childish, an abuse of the judicial system, and a waste of time. The courts should not interfere with the running of government and its departments. This undermines the principle of the separation of powers.
The second major problem at UB is leadership: leadership at all levels from Sections, Departments, Faculties/Directorates, Senior Management, Senate, Council, and Ministry of Tertiary Education, Research, Science and Technology. UB has leaders at all levels whose understanding of the local and international higher education landscape leave alone the idea of university education is terribly lacking.
If you listen to the higher echelon of leaders at the Ministry of Tertiary Education, Research, Science and Technology talk about higher education, one cannot help but cry! They do not have a clue leave alone a vision for higher education in the country. This is evidenced in the proliferation of not only substandard but unnecessary universities in this country. Besides, apparently, there is no regulator with the capacity to assure quality of lecturers, programmes, and students admitted to the so called universities, which, in fact, are big secondary schools.
UB council comprises people who have no knowledge of how institutions of higher education should be governed. When students rioted because their allowances were not paid in time, the Chairman of the UB Council decided to close the university. The students who were rioting were less than 150 in number! This number translates to only 1 percent of the total number of students enrolled at UB. Moreover, this group of students were the criminal-minded hooligans who went on to loot shops, vandalise property, and abused national symbols.
The same group of students had previously looted and vandalised property on campus. Deploying riot Police to round up this group of hooligans would have secured the university and prevented an otherwise unnecessary closure of UB and destruction of property. To close UB because of the action of one per cent of the student population was uncalled for and ill-conceived. For sure, the Chairman Council did not think of the enormous reputation damage that the closure did to UB. Industry and international research organisations funding are very sensitive to riots and strikes in universities. Has anyone ever heard of Harvard, Cambridge or Oxford closed due to student riots?
The quality of leadership among lecturers even those with PhDs, is appalling. One often hears ‘yunibesithi tse tsa rona’, especially among the citizen lecturers. The word "university" originates from the Latin phrase universitas magistrorum et scholarium, which translates to "congregation of teachers and scholars” whose main life goal is pursuit of knowledge and truth. A university is an oasis where scholars and teachers from all over the world come to quench their thirst for the truth and knowledge. Citizenship in universities is universal. To think of a University as “ours” and not “theirs” is parochial and small-mindedness. In addition, such lecturers do not have an inkling of how the human resources of this country should be trained by the best brains from all over the world.
Academic leadership at Departmental and Faculty levels is woefully lacking. The majority of lecturers, especially citizens, are what one may term as “armchair academics”. By Thursday evening most of them are already off to the Cattle Posts only to return on Monday evening. If in doubt, a visit to the University on Fridays will help clear your doubts. This “cattle post mentality” is a hindrance to teaching, supervision of masters and PhD students, and research.
No wonder, the majority of the professors shy away from supervising postgraduate students leaving one wondering what they profess! Many of the professors have not published a single article or presented at a conference for the past three or even four years. When the former Vice Chancellor, Prof Thabo Fako began to emphasise performance, the non-performers were all up in arms against him. In fact, the mechanism of mediocrity at UB is so strong that it will require a mad VC to handle. In the Faculty of Education, Department of Guidance and Counselling, there are over 100 students pursuing a degree in counselling and being supervised by less than 8 lecturers who have never published or presented at a conference in the past three or four years! The students are not only half-baked but ill-prepared to function in the world of work.
At Departmental and Faculty levels, supervision is appalling: absentee heads of departments or Deans without any inkling of academic leadership. Majority of lecturers only come to the university when they are scheduled to teach and leave immediately thereafter. Those who stay a little longer congregate in the corridors, walkways, or staff lounge to gossip and talk about anything but academics.
The majority of the Heads of Departments and Deans are mainly bent on creating a chiefdom over which they superintend and will do nothing to rock the boat. In the Faculty of Social Sciences for example, a former Deputy Dean who was relieved of his duties was promoted to Associate Professor yet he had only consultancy reports and a few low quality articles in local and some Indian-based journals! Moreover, this same deputy Dean had been sponsored by UB to pursue a PhD abroad but was unable to complete because he spent all his time abroad drinking and smoking. In many universities, even on the African continent, he would not qualify to teach at the University, if only for reasons of failing to complete his PhD despite enormous investments by the university.
Another leadership problem at UB is that it operates as if it is still the only university in the country. It requires leadership to gain an understanding of the current higher education terrain in the country, especially with the proliferation of universities in Botswana. UB acts arrogantly and insenfdsitively to all its clients including students.
Perhaps the greatest weakness at UB is poor human capital. To begin with, UB has more politicians than academics. Political activities are more pronounced at UB than academic activities. For the majority of the lecturers, especially the citizens, the main question is to which political party one belongs. Many of the lecturers talk more about politics than top journals within their fields of study, that is, if they know of any.
UB is probably the only premier university with “random professors”, that is, professors without a field of study who publish randomly on any subject in any field and get promoted for being just that, random academics. Absurdly, one does not require a PhD in order to be promoted to the rank of associate or full professor. Yet UB should be in a league of universities where a PhD should be a minimum requirement to be recruited as a lecturer.
What is even worse, many of the professors are engaged in “fake research” and are protected by their heads of Departments and Deans. The majority of UB academics publish in bogus and often poor quality journals and publishing houses with low or no impact factor at all. Moreover, only a handful of UB academics get cited at all by their peers within their scientific communities.
If you disregard self-citation, you will hardly find UB academics with more than 20 citations in a year! If in doubt, check Google Scholar citation indices and enter their names. Worse of all, plagiarism has taken root in almost all departments. For example, a Nigerian professor of Statistics who is a well-known plagiarist and was found guilty of plagiarism by the Disciplinary Committee is still in the Department of Statistics. Another Indian professor in the same Department of Statistics who is famous for plagiarism is proudly referred to as the father of the Department.
A former Dean who was relieved of his duties for misconduct and incompetence had previously brought to the Department of Psychology a “fake professor” from Nigeria who was plagiarising and recycling his publications with academic members of the Department of Psychology. The current head of Psychology had to fight hard to get rid of the Nigerian professor and his local partners with whom he plagiarised and recycled his previous publications at will and with the protection of then Dean. In the Department of Economics, for example, more than 70% of their publications are in two journal outlets (Botswana Journal of Economics and Asia-Africa Journal of Economics and Econometrics ) whose editors in chief are the two professors in the same department.
Does this ring a bell? The two journal outlets are the factories for plagiarism and recycling previously published articles. In the faculties of Business and Education, professors who are known to plagiarise are protected and shielded by their respective Deans because the Deans want to build a power base to enable them become Deputy VCs or VCs in future. Moreover, promotion at UB is based on fake publications in predatory journals without any review processes and often plagiarised and published within days upon payment. UB is choking with plagiarism and it is high time the few clean academicians stand up to challenge and change the status quo.
To make matters worse, the uncritical media refers to such disgraced professors and Deans as decorated professors and VC materials. Yet these professors have never received any accolades whatsoever. Currently, these same failed and disgraced Deans are behaving like hyenas. They are all over campus adorned in fancy suits and garbs talking to groups of lecturers trying to build support for their candidacy for the vacant VC position. Aside from the structural, leadership, and human capital problems, UB is in financial crisis.
UB gets more than 90% of its operating and capital funding from government. Globally, funding for education, especially university education from government has been declining over the years and may continue to decline for the foreseeable future. With the proliferation of tertiary institutions in the Botswana, all looking to government for funding, the future looks bleak and funding crunch is anticipated to continue.
The question then is what is the way forward? UB needs to work hard to attract industry and international research organisations’ funding. But, does UB have the calibre of academic staff that can attract funding for the university? Again, the former VC, Prof Thabo Fako tried to restructure UB management to include a division to be headed by the deputy VC for Research and Innovation with a mandate to drive the research and innovation agenda of the university and get industry funding. Again, unless the quality of human capital at UB is radically improved, achieving the mandate of this division will be difficult.
Very few professors at UB can write a proposal for a research grant leave alone win a competitive research grant from international research organisations such as National Institute of Health (NIH), Wellcome Trust (WT), the World Academy of Sciences (TWAS), CODESRIA, etc. Many universities in the region such as the University of Pretoria get 60% of its funding from industry income and research grants from research organisations and the majority of employees get paid through industry funding.
This can only happen if the quality of human capital is high. Many of the professors and senior academics at UB would rather do consultancies. The difference between research and consultancy is that in research, the researcher formulates the research questions and is driven by quest for knowledge whereas in consultancy the client frames the research question and is driven by the quest for money.
In sum, you do not need to think in order to do consultancies. UB has been turned into a consultancy factory for lecturers to get side income for themselves and not UB where they are employed. With such magnificent and world class infrastructure, UB can only make it to the league of world class 21st century universities if the quality of human capital with visionary and competent leadership, is urgently attended to.
Finally, two issues regarding students in tertiary education require urgent debate: student financing and discipline. First student financing should be opened for debate. Currently, government pays tuition, living-out allowances, book allowances, among other things. In light of the current economic reality and competing demands, isn’t it time to debate whether government should continue picking all the student bills? To begin with, which socio-economic backgrounds are these students from? Isn’t it true that the majority of the students are from Marua-Pula, St Joseph’s, Rainbow, Legae, and other private schools where their parent spend a lot of money for their education?
Is it morally right for government to continue footing the educational bill of students whose parents are well to do and could afford to send their children to elite well-resourced secondary schools that afforded them the opportunity to come to university in the first place? Instead of giving students book allowances why not use the funds to stock the library instead? Isn’t populist to even think of giving the students cash to buy books? Is Botswana creating a Nanny Society by nurturing the culture of entitlement to public resources by those who are well to do? Is it time for cost sharing? As a country, these questions should be soberly debated in a non-partisan way to be able to arrive at a credible and morally acceptable student funding formulae. Such formulae would include those who truly deserve full, partial, or no scholarship at all.
Student discipline is an important area that should be addressed. Over the years, the rate at which students complete their programmes on time has plummeted and currently stands at a paltry 58%, that is, out of every 100 students who start their studies in first year, only 58 will complete in time. What a waste of resources! Majority of the students who do not complete in time do not attend classes, are lazy, abuse drugs and substances, and are just not interested in studies.
Their perception is that they are doing a favour to the country by pursuing higher education. It is all about their rights and not responsibilities. Why should government continue to spend money on these lazy and irresponsible students? The government is nurturing a mentality of entitlement to government resources which will ultimately lead to a Nanny society or a welfare state that encourages laziness and discourages innovation and the long-standing national value of self-reliance (Ipelegeng). As Prof Fako once lamented, this is likely to lead to “… less self-discipline, less willingness to work hard, less conscientiousness, less commitment, less selflessness, and less sense of a common purpose and destiny”.
The way forward for UB: To move UB forward, all the stakeholders need to deeply reflect on the existential problems outlined above and radically reform. I will make some suggestions for reform: What Ministry of Tertiary Education, Research, Science & Technology can do:
First, immediately set up a Visitation Committee of eminent persons with sound knowledge of higher education landscape in the 21st century to critically analyse the perennial problems at UB and advise government accordingly. Membership should include persons from outside UB, if possible, outstanding academics from world class universities. The African saying that “it is the visitors who can see the cobweb in your house” may help.
Second, a rigorous independent oversight and monitoring agency should be put in place to provide oversight function to all tertiary education institutions. The agency should have the capacity to deliver and ensure high quality academic programmes and human resources in line with national development goals. Both Botswana Qualifications Authority (BQA) and Human Resources Development Council (HRDC) do not have the capacity to regulate all the universities and tertiary institutions in the country.
Third, diversify tertiary education. Not everyone who completes form five or high school should go to university! Wherever you go in this country, you will not find a citizen mechanic, electrician, plumber, and all other types of technicians and artisans. Government should make these and other trades attractive by offering full scholarships for them and partial scholarship for courses such as Media Studies, Economics, Law, Political Science, and other programmes in Social Sciences, Humanities, and Education.
In sum, government should put its money where its mouth is. Similarly, government should revisit the policy of ever increasing number of universities in this country while at the same time crying that there is no money. Increasing the number of universities leads to increased overhead administrative costs and loss of talents to administrative positions. For example, UB lost Prof Otlogetswe Totolo, a renowned scientist to Botswana International University of Science and Technology (BIUST).
Prof Otlogetswe Totolo should be heading a research consortium on Climate Change in Botswana instead of being wasted to administration. Many professors and technocrats at UB left for BIUST as well. Yet, there are no courses at BIUST that could not be offered at UB. In fact, UB has better infrastructure than BIUST to offer all the courses currently offered at BIUST. Moreover BIUST sends their students to UB to access facilities and equipment they require for their studies. This is not a wise use of limited resources.
Fourth, government must come up with a credible and well thought out funding model for universities including UB. Parameters should include relevance of courses to national development, research output, patents, graduation numbers, maintenance of infrastructure, foundation courses such as Mathematics, Physics, Languages, Health, and not just student numbers. Ten students in a physics class may be more important to the national development goals of the country than 100 in Law, Economics, History, or Divinity.
Fifth, the university Act is not only outdated but out of synch with the exigencies and realities of the current higher education landscape. For example, the appointment of top officials of the University like the Vice Chancellor and deputy Vice Chancellors should be revised to safeguard the process from murky and often dirty institutional politics. For example the appointment of a VC could be done with the approval of Parliament. Similarly, members of the University Council should be nominated and approved by Parliament and should include eminent persons of repute and not carpenters or local mechanics with no clue of how a university should be run.
Sixth, there should also be legal clarity on the powers of staff and student unions. Currently, the staff union with only about 100 members and student SCR appear to be supreme over the University Council and are the cause of perennial riots and strikes. For example the current acting VC was one of those who signed a memorandum to Council against the former VC.
If the UB Council was not dancing to the tune of the staff Union, why was she appointed the acting VC when she was complicit and part of the problem at UB? The current search for a VC should exclude any professor from UB if the university is to radically and meaningfully transform because the majority are involved in dirty institutional politics to undo each other as they jostle for the offices of the deputy VC or VC. All what these professors are interested in is to be deputy VC or VC without any vision for the institution.
Finally, for equitable distribution of wealth and resources of the country, the government should decentralise student financing to districts through a quota system. This will go a long way in reducing the ugly inequality that is a time bomb for this country. Moreover, decentralising student financing will, in the long term, improve performance in the districts and tap the potentials of rural districts and reduce unemployment through access to higher education.
What UB can do?
First, UB needs to recalibrate and define its niche within the current tertiary education landscape in Botswana. UB currently faces an identity and existential crises with the proliferation of universities in the country. It has been an only child for far too long and now the parents have decided to have more children. With very young siblings to play with, UB looks awkward. At 35 years of age, UB should be in middle age and mature enough not to compete for undergraduate students with four- or five-year old Ba-Isago or Botho universities.
Currently, more than 90% of students at UB are at undergraduate level 99% of whom are citizens. UB has to change from a mainly undergraduate and instructional to a postgraduate and research university. The number of undergraduates should gradually reduce to make way for graduate students. Botswana as a country needs more well trained people with masters and PhD degrees in key sectors to manage and maintain the high middle income status.
Second, UB needs to develop its research capacity and become the “think tank” of the country. This will help drive the national research agenda for Botswana. These research agenda would include: climate change; economic diversification; water, energy, and food security; health; drug and substance use; and poverty alleviation among others. Training solid researchers, developing research themes, collaboration with and across disciplines, should be core activities of the research and innovation department.
Third, UB should open its doors to more self-sponsored students to reduce the number of government sponsored students. By doing so, UB will attract students from other countries within the SADC region and beyond. Similarly, since UB is operating a semester system, admission should be done every semester and not only once as it is the case now. All core courses should be offered every semester. This will make admissions more efficient and the system more flexible.
Fourth, universities in Botswana still operate like the public service. For instance, single spine salary structures, age limit requirements, localisation policy, permanent and pensionable employment terms, etc., do not belong to modern universities. Academics in a university should not be treated like public servants in a public service. Universities are universal institutions that should be globally structured while responding to national needs. Permanent and pensionable contracts make getting rid of deadwoods difficult and not an incentive for hard work and productivity. Localisation and age policies belong to public service and not universities.
Fifth, UB has redundant staff at all levels. There is need for a forensic human resource audit of all categories of staff including academic, administrative and support staff to establish whether they have adequate duties or workload to undertake during official working hours. All deadwoods must go! For instance, a grace period of between two to five years should be given to all lecturers without a PhD to upgrade or be fired.
All those with master’s degree only should be turned into Graduate Assistants and should be appointed on a two-year renewable contract and paid a stipend instead of a salary. Without this, UB will remain an undergraduate teaching institution without the academic cores to live up to the expectations of its vision statement: to be a leading centre of academic excellence in Africa and the world and join the league of world class universities.
In conclusion, UB has a 21st century infrastructure but the leadership, human resources, and legal framework belong to the 19th century, the reason the University is out of synch and currently facing an existential and identity crises. At the moment, UB is yearning for radical reform. It is difficult to see whether this yearning for radical reform can come from within UB since that is where reform needs to happen in the first place. A visitor with a new broom is in a better position to see the cobweb of problems and the quagmire UB is in. While lack of money is a problem, it is certainly not the most important problem. The main problem to the perennial problems at UB is not funding, it is poor human capital.
The 490-hectare campus researches the world’s deadliest pathogens, including Anthrax (in 1944, the Roosevelt administration ordered 1 million anthrax bombs from Fort Detrick), Ebola, smallpox, and … you guessed right: coronaviruses. The facility, which carries out paid research projects for government agencies (including the CIA), universities and drug companies most of whom owned by the highly sinister military-industrial complex, employs 900 people.
Between 1945 and 1969, the sprawling complex (which has since become the US’s ”bio-defence centre” to put it mildly) was the hub of the US biological weapons programme. It was at Fort Detrick that Project MK Ultra, a top-secret CIA quest to subject the human mind to routine robotic manipulation, a monstrosity the CIA openly owned up to in a congressional inquisition in 1975, was carried out. In the consequent experiments, the guinea pigs comprised not only of people of the forgotten corner of America – inmates, prostitutes and the homeless but also prisoners of war and even regular US servicemen.
These unwitting participants underwent up to a 20-year-long ordeal of barbarous experiments involving psychoactive drugs (such as LSD), forced electroshocks, physical and sexual abuses, as well as a myriad of other torments. The experiments not only violated international law, but also the CIA’s own charter which forbids domestic activities. Over 180 doctors and researchers took part in these horrendous experiments and this in a country which touts itself as the most civilised on the globe!
Was the coronavirus actually manufactured at Fort Detrick (like HIV as I shall demonstrate at the appropriate time) and simply tactfully patented to other equally cacodemonic places such as the Wuhan Institute of Virology in China?
THE FORT DETRICK SCIENTISTS’ PROPHECY WAS WELL-INFORMED
About two years before the term novel coronavirus became a familiar feature in day-to-day banter, two scientist cryptically served advance warning of its imminence. They were Allison Totura and Sina Bavari, both researchers at Fort Detrick.
The two scientists talked of “novel highly pathogenic coronaviruses that may emerge from animal reservoir hosts”, adding, “These coronaviruses may have the potential to cause devastating pandemics due to unique features in virus biology including rapid viral replication, broad host range, cross-species transmission, person-to-person transmission, and lack of herd immunity in human populations … Associated with novel respiratory syndromes, they move from person-to-person via close contact and can result in high morbidity and mortality caused by the progression to acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS).”
All the above constitute some of the documented attributes and characteristics of the virus presently on the loose – the propagator of Covid-19. A recent clinical review of Covid-19 in The Economist seemed to bear out this prognostication when it said, “It is ARDS that sees people rushed to intensive-care units and put on ventilators”. As if sounding forth a veritable prophecy, the two scientists besought governments to start working on counter-measures there and then that could be “effective against such a virus”.
Well, it was not by sheer happenstance that Tortura and Bavari turned out to have been so incredibly and ominously prescient. They had it on good authority, having witnessed at ringside what the virus was capable of in the context of their own laboratory. The gory scenario they painted for us came not from secondary sources but from the proverbial horse’s mouth folks.
CDC’S RECKLESS ADMISSION
In March this year, Robert Redfield, the US Director for the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), told the House of Representatives’ Oversight Committee that it had transpired that some members of the American populace who were certified as having died of influenza turned out to have harboured the novel coronavirus per posthumous analysis of their tissue.
Redfield was not pressed to elaborate but the message was loud and clear – Covid-19 had been doing the rounds in the US much earlier than it was generally supposed and that the extent to which it was mistaken for flu was by far much more commonplace than was openly admitted. An outspoken Chinese diplomat, Zhao Lijian, seized on this rather casual revelation and insisted that the US disclose further information, exercise transparency on coronavirus cases and provide an explanation to the public.
But that was not all the beef Zhao had with the US. He further charged that the coronavirus was possibly transplanted to China by the US: whether inadvertently or by deliberate design he did not say. Zhao pointed to the Military World Games of October 2019, in which US army representatives took part, as the context in which the coronavirus irrupted into China. Did the allegation ring hollow or there was a ring of truth to it?
THE BENASSIE FACTOR
The Military World Games, an Olympic-style spectrum of competitive action, are held every four years. The 2019 episode took place in Wuhan, China. The 7th such, the games ran from October 18 to October 27. The US contingent comprised of 17 teams of over 280 athletes, plus an innumerable other staff members. Altogether, over 9000 athletes from 110 countries were on hand to showcase their athletic mettle in more than 27 sports. All NATO countries were present, with Africa on its part represented by 30 countries who included Botswana, Egypt, Kenya, Zambia, and Zimbabwe.
Besides the singular number of participants, the event notched up a whole array of firsts. One report spelt them out thus: “The first time the games were staged outside of military bases, the first time the games were all held in the same city, the first time an Athletes’ Village was constructed, the first time TV and VR systems were powered by 5G telecom technology, and the first use of all-round volunteer services for each delegation.”
Now, here is the clincher: the location of the guest house for the US team was located in the immediate neighbourhood of the Wuhan Seafood Market, the place the Chinese authorities to this day contend was the diffusion point of the coronavirus. But there is more: according to some reports, the person who allegedly but unwittingly transmitted the virus to the people milling about the market – Patient Zero of Covid-19 – was one Maatie Benassie.
Benassie, 52, is a security officer of Sergeant First Class rank at the Fort Belvoir military base in Virginia and took part in the 50-mile cycling road race in the same competitions. In the final lap, she was accidentally knocked down by a fellow contestant and sustained a fractured rib and a concussion though she soldiered on and completed the race with the agonising adversity. Inevitably, she saw a bit of time in a local health facility. According to information dug up by George Webb, an investigative journalist based in Washington DC, Benassie would later test positive for Covid-19 at the Fort Belvoir Community Hospital.
Incidentally, Benassie apparently passed on the virus to other US soldiers at the games, who were hospitalised right there in China before they were airlifted back to the US. The US government straightaway prohibited the publicising of details on the matter under the time-honoured excuse of “national security interests”, which raised eyebrows as a matter-of-course. As if that was not fishy enough, the US out of the blue tightened Chinese visas to the US at the conclusion of the games.
The rest, as they say, is history: two months later, Covid-19 had taken hold on China territory. “From that date onwards,” said one report, “one to five new cases were reported each day. By December 15, the total number of infections stood at 27 — the first double-digit daily rise was reported on December 17 — and by December 20, the total number of confirmed cases had reached 60.”
TWO CURIOUS RESEARCH HALTINGS
Is it a coincidence that all the US soldiers who fell ill at the Wuhan games did their preparatory training at the Fort Belvoir military base, only a 15-minutes’ drive from Fort Detrick?
That Fort Detrick is a plain-sight perpetrator of pathogenic evils is evidenced by a number of highly suspicious happenings concerning it. Remember the 2001 anthrax mailing attacks on government and media houses which killed five people right on US territory? The two principal suspects who puzzlingly were never charged, worked as microbiologists at Fort Detrick. Of the two, Bruce Ivins, who was the more culpable, died in 2008 of “suicide”. For “suicide”, read “elimination”, probably because he was in the process of spilling the beans and therefore cast the US government in a stigmatically diabolical light. Indeed, the following year, all research projects at Fort Detrick were suspended on grounds that the institute was “storing pathogens not listed in its database”. The real truth was likely much more reprehensible.
In 2014, there was a mini local pandemic in the US which killed thousands of people and which the mainstream media were not gutsy enough to report. It arose following the weaponisation at Fort Detrick of the H7N9 virus, prompting the Obama administration to at once declare a moratorium on the research and withdraw funding.
The Trump administration, however, which has a pathological fixation on undoing practically all the good Obama did, reinstated the research under new rigorous guidelines in 2017. But since old habits die hard, the new guidelines were flouted at will, leading to another shutdown of the whole research gamut at the institute in August 2019. This, nonetheless, was not wholesale as other areas of research, such as experiments to make bird flu more transmissible and which had begun in 2012, proceeded apace. As one commentator pointedly wondered aloud, was it really necessary to study how to make H5N1, which causes a type of bird flu with an eye-popping mortality rate, more transmissible?
Consistent with its character, the CDC was not prepared to furnish particulars upon issuing the cease and desist order, citing “national security reasons”. Could the real reason have been the manufacture of the novel coronavirus courtesy of a tip-off by the more scrupulous scientists?
President Mokgweetsi Masisi may have breathed a huge sigh of relief when he emerged victorious in last year’s 2019 general elections, but the ultimate test of his presidency has only just begun.
From COVID-19 pandemic effects; disenchanted unemployed youth, deteriorating diplomatic relations with neighbouring South Africa as well as emerging instability within the ruling party — Masisi has a lot to resolve in the next few years.
Last week we started an unwanted cold war with Botswana’s main trade partner, South Africa, in what we consider an ill-conceived move. Never, in the history of this country has Botswana shown South Africa a cold shoulder – particularly since the fall of the apartheid regime.
It is without a doubt that our country’s survival depends on having good relations with South Africa. As the Chairperson of African National Congress (ANC), Gwede Mantashe once said, a good relationship between Botswana and South Africa is not optional but necessary.
No matter how aggrieved we feel, we should never engage in a diplomatic war — with due respect to other neighbours— with South Africa. We will never gain anything from starting a diplomatic war with South Africa.
In fact, doing so will imperil our economy, given that majority of businesses in the retail sector and services sector are South African companies.
Former cabinet minister and Phakalane Estates proprietor, David Magang once opined that Botswana’s poor manufacturing sector and importation of more than 80 percent of the foodstuffs from South Africa, effectively renders Botswana a neo-colony of the former.
Magang’s statement may look demeaning, but that is the truth, and all sorts of examples can be produced to support that. Perhaps it is time to realise that as a nation, we are not independent enough to behave the way we do. And for God’s sake, we are a landlocked country!
Recently, the effects of COVID-19 have exposed the fragility of our economy; the devastating pleas of the unemployed and the uncertainty of the future. Botswana’s two mainstay source of income; diamonds and tourism have been hit hard. Going forward, there is a need to chart a new pathway, and surely it is not an easy task.
The ground is becoming fertile for uprisings that are not desirable in any country. That the government has not responded positively to the rising unemployment challenge is the truth, and very soon as a nation we will wake up to this reality.
The magnitude of the problem is so serious that citizens are running out of patience. The government on the other hand has not done much to instil confidence by assuring the populace that there is a plan.
The general feeling is that, not much will change, hence some sections of the society, will try to use other means to ensure that their demands are taken into consideration. Botswana might have enjoyed peace and stability in the past, but there is guarantee that, under the current circumstances, the status quo will be maintained.
It is evident that, increasingly, indigenous citizens are becoming resentful of naturalised and other foreign nationals. Many believe naturalised citizens, especially those of Indian origin, are the major beneficiaries in the economy, while the rest of the society is side-lined.
The resentfulness is likely to intensify going forward. We needed not to be heading in this direction. We needed not to be racist in our approach but when the pleas of the large section of the society are ignored, this is bound to happen.
It is should be the intention of every government that seeks to strive on non-racialism to ensure that there is shared prosperity. Share prosperity is the only way to make people of different races in one society to embrace each other, however, we have failed in this respect.
Masisi’s task goes beyond just delivering jobs and building a nation that we all desire, but he also has an immediate task of achieving stability within his own party. The matter is so serious that, there are threats of defection by a number of MPs, and if he does not arrest this, his government may collapse before completing the five year mandate.
The problems extend to the party itself, where Masisi found himself at war with his Secretary General, Mpho Balopi. The war is not just the fight for Central Committee position, but forms part of the succession plan.
If we are to go by what I can term as conventional wisdom, the coronavirus arose in China’s Hubei province in the city of Wuhan. According to the WHO, the Chinese government filed the country’s first confirmed Covid-19 case with the international health regulator on December 8, 2019, with the first case outside of China’s boarders reported in Thailand on January 13, 2020.
We now know, however, courtesy of a paper in The Lancet that was authored by doctors from Wuhan’s Jinhintan Hospital, that the first such case was logged on December 1. We have also come to learn that in point of fact, the first patient, the so-called Patient Zero, may have presented with the as yet unfathomed Covid-9 symptoms in a public health facility on November 17. This is according to a report in the South China Morning Post, which claims to have seen classified medical government reports.
The Post report says nine cases of Covid-19 sufferers, aged between 39 and 79, were attended to during the month of November alone and that a total of 266 people officially had the disease by December 31st. Clearly, the disease had been sedately circulating for some time before it exploded towards the end of the year considering that a great number of people do not present symptoms at all.
Yet the fact the disease was first announced in China and even laboratory-spawned in that country does not necessarily mean China was its veritable place of origin. It almost certainly had multiple origins and may have occurred much earlier in other places on the globe.
AMERICA’S FLU ILLNESS TSUNAMI
Unbeknownst to much of the world, Covid-19 struck in Europe and the USA about the same time it did so in China, if not much earlier, it has now emerged. This is not tabloid hogwash or simply idle gossip folks: it was reported by the highly estimable news outlets such as NBC News and The New York Times. Even Newsweek, which along with Time magazine constitute America’s leading two weekly political magazines, was adamant that the coronavirus outbreak must have occurred as early as September 2019 and that Wuhan was possibly not its birthplace as such. For some reason (or is it for partisan reasons?), the globally renowned broadcast media networks like CNN, BBC, and Sky News have chosen to self-gag on the matter.
If there’s one disease which is so notoriously recurrent and even death-dealing in the US, it is influenza – commonly referred to as the flu or common cold. Here in Africa, flu is no much of a big deal: it is so mild I personally do not know – nor have ever heard of – a single one person who died of flu. In the US, flu is some menace. For instance, in the 2017-18 season, over 61,000 deaths were linked to flu, and in the 2018-19 season, 34,200 succumbed to the disease. Every year, 10 percent of the US population, or 32 million people, contract flu, though only about 100,000 end up being hospitalised anyway.
In the US, the flu season ordinarily runs from October to May, straddling three of the country’s four-season set, namely fall (September to November), winter (December to February), and spring (March to May). The disease is particularly widespread in 16 states. Last year, the winter flu season began atypically early and with a big bang that had never been seen in 15 years according to a December 6, 2019 report by Associated Press (AP), a wire news agency. By the beginning of December or thereabouts, 1.7 million flu illnesses, 16,000 hospitalisations, and 900 flu-related deaths had taken place.
The Centre for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC) put the number of people already dead from flu-related illnesses as of mid-March 2019 at between 29,000 and 59,000. This was in addition to the misery of hundreds of thousands of flu-related hospitalisations and millions of medical visits for flu symptoms that have raged in the course of the season. Some hospitals in New Orleans have reported the busiest patient traffic ever at their emergency departments.
Health authorities in Louisiana, which was the first to be impinged, said flu-like illnesses began to rocket in the month of October. Said the AP report: “There are different types of flu viruses, and the one causing illnesses in most parts of the country is a surprise.” Dave Osthus, a flu statistician at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, was quoted as saying, “This could be a precursor to something pretty bad. But we don’t know what that is.” Well, maybe we can venture an answer to the conundrum: the flu situation was exacerbated by the coronavirus.
THE CASE OF A NEW JERSEY MAYOR
The story of Michael Mellaham, the mayor of the New Jersey city of Belleville, has been widely reported in the Western world, albeit in the comparatively fringe media houses primarily lest the finger of indictment shift from China to the US. Sometime in November last year, Mellaham came down with an ailment that presented with Covid-19-like symptoms such as aches, high fevers, chills, and a sore throat, the latter of which went on for a full month. Right at the onset of his diseased condition, Mellaham went to see his doctor, who told him not to worry as it was little more than flu and would peter out in a matter of days. The illness lingered for much longer though he at long last fought it off. It was the sickest he had ever been in his adult life.
In April this year, Mellaham took a Covid-19 test and he was found not with Covid-19 per se but its antibodies, which crystal-clearly evinced he had the disease at some stage in the recent past. This is what he told China Global Television Network (CGTN) in May: “We’re told that they (people with Covid-19-like symptoms) don’t have the flu. They just have bronchitis. They just have a bad cough or it’s a bad cold. I think that we just weren’t expecting Covid-19 then, so therefore the doctors didn’t know what to call it or what to expect.”
Of the credibility of the test he took, known as IgM (Immunoglobulin M Test), the first antibody a body makes when it fights a new infection, Mellaham said, “The IgM is the more recent antibody, which would have shown that that antibody is more recent in my system, that my body more recently fought the coronavirus.”
The first publicly admitted case of coronavirus-triggered morbidity in the US was announced in January this year and involved a Californian who had recently returned from Wuhan, but as Mellaham pointedly put it, “that doesn’t mean it wasn’t here (on US soil) before that”.
SUDDENLY “MANY PIXELS”
On May 7, 2020, The New York Times reported of two men aged 57 and 69 who died in their homes in Santa Clara, California, on February 6 and 17 respectively, and this was 23 days before the US announced its first Covid-19 fatality in Kirkland, Washington, on February 29. Their demise was attributed to flu post-mortem but it later emerged that they had been victims of the novel coronavirus. Since they had never travelled outside their community for years, they must have contracted the disease within the locality.
The Santa Clara county’s chief medical office Sarah Cody said the deaths of the two was probably the tip of the iceberg of unknown size. Dr Jeffrey Smith, the Santa Clara county executive, he too a medical doctor, opined that the coronavirus must have been spreading in California unrecognised for a long time now.
Indeed, if we take stock of the fact that passengers on board the Grand Princess cruise ship, which departed California on February 11, developed Covid-19 whilst on board, the odds certainly are that Covid-19 hit much earlier in the US than it hit the headlines. As Cody pointedly put it, “We had so few pixels you could hardly pick out the image. Suddenly, we have so many pixels all of sudden that we now realise we didn’t know what we were looking for.”
THE FRENCH CONNECTION
In Europe, a radiology research team at the Albert Schweitzer Hospital in Colma, France, has traced the first Covid-19 case in that country to November 16, 2019 according to reports by NBC News and The New York Times. The researchers came to this finding after examining 2500 chest X-rays taken from November 1, 2019 to April 30 this year.
French authorities declared the first Covid-19 case on January 24 having detected it in three nationals who had recently been to China, though it has now transpired that whilst one finger was point to China, four were point back at France itself.
It came to light last month that a sample taken from a French patient with pneumonia on December 27 subsequently tested positive for the coronavirus. “There’s no doubt for us it was already there in December,” Dr Yves Cohen, head of intensive care at the Avicenne and Jean Verdier hospitals in the northern suburbs of Paris, told The New York Times on May 4 this year. “It is quite possible that there were isolated cases that led to transmission chains that died down.”
Weighing in on the matter too, Michel Schmitt, who led the Albert Schweitzer Hospital research, said, “The testimonies are really rich; they show that people felt that something strange was going on, but they were not in a capacity to raise the alarm.”
THE CAMBRIDGE AND UCL FINDINGS
Meanwhile, two independent research projects by two of Britain’s premier institutions of learning have turned up evidence that Covid-19 was in Europe as early as the third quarter of 2019. Following a study to understand the historical processes that led to the Covid-19 pandemic, the University of Cambridge found that the coronavirus outbreak appears to have started between September 13 and December 7 in 2019.
The University College London’s Genetics Institute (UCL) analysed genomes from the Covid-19 virus in over 7,500 people and deduced that the pandemic must have started between October 6 and December 11 in 2019. The UCL team analysed virus genomes, using published sequences from over 7,500 people with Covid-19 across the globe. Their report, titled HYPERLINK “https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1567134820301829” \l “s0045” \t “_blank” Emergence of Genomic Diversity and Recurrent Mutations in SARS-CoV-2, was published in the May 6, 2020 edition of the journal Infection, Genetics and Evolution.