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Balopi’s P46 million dream up in smoke

Scores of desperate investors in Botswana are facing financial ruin as a multimillion-pula tourism project on the Chobe River struggles to stay afloat amid a sharp downturn in the country’s crucial travel and hospitality industry.

The Bridgetown lodge in Kasane is the brainchild of former speaker of parliament and former minister of labour and home affairs Patrick Balopi, who in 2010 received a presidential order of honour for developing the “state of the art, self-catering holiday resort with a potential to empower over 4 000 citizens”.

Investors now accuse Balopi of failing to keep undertakings made when the resort was launched on the back of a P46-million bank loan.  

Also raising eyebrows is the fact that he offloaded his shares in 2013, and that there are now fresh moves to sell the lodge.

Balopi declined to comment, but told the Botswana Gazette earlier this year that the project was “well-intentioned” but lacked the required participation by Batswana to make it viable.

“The timing of the project was maybe wrong, with the economy taking a downturn and the [government’s] imposition of a hunting ban, which hurt tourism. We had to put in conferencing and restaurant facilities and we ran out of resources.”

An investigation by Weekend Post and the Ink Centre for Investigative Journalism has established that the resort is up for sale to a South African company for P95-million,The current owner, Botswana property mogul Ahmad Mansur Sidiqui, said he has invested P24-million in Bridgetown and is selling his stake because the business is “going down”.

Set in a wildlife paradise, Bridgetown was touted as a magnet for tourists and holidaymakers en route to the Okavango delta and the Victoria Falls. About 100 investors injected close to P30-million, with six of them purchasing two-bedroom, self-catering, self-contained “cabanas”, and 90 others time shares.

They say they were promised that those who bought units would receive a minimum monthly rental of P18 000, effective from May 2012, and that the directors pledged to involve them in the affairs of the company, including giving them access to final statements. This had not happened.

The case has been catapulted into the public eye by a High Court ruling in favour of an investor, Bookie Kethusegile, who bought a cabana worth P2.5-million and now alleges that she has not received the promised return on her investment over four years.

Kethusegile (57) said she received a payout of P45 000 after about 14 months into the investment, and another P45 000 in September 2013 after complaining about non-payment. She claims she was told the initial rental would rise to P2 000 a day after six months.

The pensioner claims to have accumulated debts exceeding P600 000 and now cannot service the P2.5-million loan she received from First National Bank of Botswana (FNBB), which has threatened to attach her Bridgetown unit and her house in Tlokweng.

In September 2015 she won an unopposed court order ordering Bridgetown to pay her P1.2-million and outstanding monthly rentals.

After securing a P46-million loan from FNBB, Balopi built 13 two-bedroom self-catering apartments and 10 one-bedroom self-catering apartments, representing a quarter of the planned project.

But the scheme appeared to struggle against stiff competition from established high-end hotels in Kasane, prompting him to call in a local investor three years later.

Virgin Enterprises, owned by Sidiqui and his family members, Jaudat and Tehniat Sidiqui, acquired a stake in Bridgetown when the family injected P9-million in to the business.

The 50/50 partnership allowed the property baron to change the land use from self-catering apartments to a hotel, slashing the room rates from P2 000 to P1 300 per night.

The hearing on Kethusegile’s application was postponed until August this year after Sadiqui’s lawyers argued that he had not received a summons because of a change of address.

Meanwhile, Sidiqui is in sale negotiations two little-known companies, Forbidden Elephant Kingdom and Ashira Investments.

Papers seen by Weekend Post and INK Centre for Investigative Journalism indicate that the acquisition of Bridgetown is at an advanced stage with a purchase price expected to be proposed to Sidiqui before the end of last month.

Forbidden Elephant Kingdom is a South African company that registered in Botswana in March this year. A source who knows it said it has offices in Swaziland and has sponsored football in Botswana.

South Africa company records indicate that it is a recently established business based in Waterkloof, Pretoria.  Its sole director, Lloyd Leokaoke said this week from South Africa that he is not aware that Bridgetown has not paid some of its investors.  

“The deal is not done yet,” he disclosed.

“It is something we take very serious and we will investigate,” he said about investors who are said to be complaining.

A company search shows that Ashira Investments was registered in Botswana in August 2012 and belongs to Kabelo and Kebonyetsala Kemoabe of Tlokweng. “We don’t know who they are,” sighed Kethusegile.

Another investor who asked not to be named said she purchased a time-share worth P84 000, giving her to access to a room for a week each year. She was not aware that Bridgetown is in financial trouble and that Sidiqui is pulling out.

“What about our investments?'” she asked, adding that she had instructed her lawyers to issue a letter of demand, but that Bridgetown had not responded.

An investor who also did not want her identity disclosed said she invested P60 000 in Bridgetown but has never met its shareholders. She has also engaged attorneys to establish why she has received no returns. “I am not aware of Forbidden Elephant Kingdom,” she said.

Bridgetown spokesperson Mohammed Badrodin said the company had applied for a hotel licence because “there was no business in self-contained apartments”. Although Balopi “had a grand idea, there was little interest”.

The occupancy rate at Bridgetown has never exceeded 32%, he said, and had even fallen to 12% during the 2014 election.

He said Sadiqui constructed bars and a restaurant, but “that did not help resuscitate the resort”. He also revealed that Sidiqui intends to sell his Oasis Motel, near Gaborone, for an undisclosed amount.

“Everyone wants out of hotel and tourism. Gaborone Sun has been sold to Avani, Lahnor sold Masa Square,” he said.
Tourism, centred on the Okavango delta and the Chobe and Moremi reserves, is a major source of jobs and wealth in Botswana, accounting for 12% of GDP.

• INK Centre for Investigative Journalism, a non-profit newsroom to develop investigative journalism, produced this story in collaboration with the WeekendPost newspaper and the amaBhungane Centre for Investigative Journalism.

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Civil Service volatility: Democracy vs Bureaucracy

19th April 2021
President Masisi

Here is how one Permanent Secretary encapsulates the clear tension between democracy and bureaucracy in Botswana: “President Mokgweetsi Masisi’s Government is behaving like a state surrounded with armed forces in order to capture it or force its surrender. The situation has turned so volatile, for tomorrow is not guaranteed for us top civil servants.

These are the painful results of a personalized civil service in our view as permanent secretaries”. Although his deduction of the situation may be summed as sour grapes because he is one of the ‘victims’ of the reshuffle, he is convinced this is a perfect description of the rationale behind frequent changes and transfers characterising the current civil service.

The result of it all, he said, is that “there is too much instability at managerial and strategic levels of the civil service leading to a noticeable directionless civil service.” He continued: “Changes and transfers are inevitable in the civil service, but to a permissible scale and frequency. Think of soccer team coach who changes and transfers his entire squad every month; you know the consequences?”

The Tsunami has hit hard at critical departments and Ministries leaving a strong wave of uncertainty, many demoralised and some jobless. In traditional approaches to public administration, democracy gives the goals; and bureaucracy delivers the technical efficiency required for implementation. But the recent moves in the civil service are indicative of conflicting imperatives – the notion of separation between politicians and administrators is becoming blurred by the day.

“Look at what happened to Prisons and BDF where second in command were overlooked for outsiders, and these are the people who had sacrificially served for donkey’s years hoping for a seat at the ladder’s end. The frequency of the changes, at times affecting the same Ministry or individual also demonstrates some level of ineptitude, clumsiness and lack of foresight from those in charge,” remarked the PS who added that their view is that the transfers are not related to anything but “settling scores, creating corruption opportunities and pushing out perceived dissident and former president, Ian Khama’s alleged loyalists and most of these transfers are said to be products of intelligence detection.”

Partly blaming Khama for the mess and his unwillingness to let go, the PS dismissed Masisi for falling to the trap and failing to outgrow the destructive tiff. “Khama is here to stay and the sooner Masisi comes to terms with the fact that he (Masisi) is the state President, the better. For a President to still be making these changes and transfers signals signs of a confused man who has not yet started rolling his roadmap, if at all it was ever there. I am saying this because any roadmap comes with key players and policies,” he concluded.

The Ministry of Health and Wellness seems to be the most hard-hit by the transfers, having experienced three Permanent Secretaries changes within a year and a half. Insiders say the changes have everything to do with the Ministry being the centre of COVID-19 tenders and economic opportunities. “The buck stops with the PS and no right-thinking PS can just allow glaring corruption under his watch as an accounting officer. Technocrats are generally law abiding, the pressure comes with politically appointed leaders racing against political terms to loot,” revealed a director in the Ministry preferring anonymity.

The latest transfer of Kabelo Ebineng she says was also motivated by his firm attitude against the President’s blue-eyed Task Team boys. “The Task Team wants to own the COVID-19 pandemic and government interventions and always cry foul when the Ministry reasserts itself as mandated by law,” said the director who added that Masisi who was always caught between the crossfire decided on sacrificing Ebineng to the joy of his team as they (Task Team) were in the habit of threatening to resign citing Ebineng as the problem.

Ebineng joins the Office of the President as a deputy Coordinator (government implementation and coordination office).The incoming PS is the soft-spoken Grace Muzila, known and described by her close associates as a conformist albeit knowledgeable.

One of the losers in the grand scheme is Thato Raphaka who many had seen as the next PSP because of his experience and calm demeanour following a declaration of interest in the Southern African Development Community (SADC) Secretary post by the current PSP, Elias Magosi.

But hardly ten months into his post, Raphaka has been transferred out to the National Strategy Office in what many see as a demotion of some sort. Other notable changes coming into OP are Pearl Ramokoka formerly with the Employment, Labour and Productivity Ministry coming in as a Permanent Secretary and Kgomotso Abi as director of Public Service Reforms.

One of the ousted senior officers in the Office of the President warned that there are no signs that the changes and transfers will stop anytime soon: “If you are observant you would have long noticed that the changes don’t only affect senior officers but government decisions as well. A decision is made today and the government backtracks on it within a week. Not only that, the President says this today, and his deputy denies it the following day in Parliament,” he warned.

Some observers have blamed the turmoil in the civil service partly to lack of accountable presidential advisers or kitchen cabinet properly schooled on matters of statecraft. They point out that politicians or those peripheral to them should refrain from hampering the technical and organizational activities of public managers – or else the party (reshuffling) won’t stop.

In the view expressed by some Permanent Secretaries, Elias Magosi, has not really been himself since joining the civil service; and has cut a picture of indifference in most critical engagements; the most notable been a permanent secretaries platform which he chairs. As things stand there is need to reconcile the imperatives of democracy and democracy in Botswana. Peace will rein only when public value should stand astride the fault that runs between politicians and public managers.

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Morupisi fights for freedom in court

19th April 2021
morupisi

Former Permanent Secretary to the President, Carter Morupisi, is fighting for survival in a matter in which the State has charged him and his wife, Pinnie Morupisi, with corruption and money laundering.

Morupisi has joined a list of prominent figures that served in the previous administration and who have been accused of corruption during their tenure in office. While others have been emerging victorious, Morupisi is yet to find that luck. The High Court recently dismissed his no case to answer application.

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Pressure mounts on Biden to suspend Covid-19 vaccine patents

19th April 2021
Joe Biden

United States President, Joe Biden, is faced with a decision to make relating to the Covid-19 vaccine intellectual property after 175 former world leaders and Nobel laurates joined the campaign urging the US to take “urgent action” to suspend intellectual property rights for Covid-19 vaccines to help boost global inoculation rates.

According to the world leaders, doing so would allow developing countries to make their own copies of the vaccines that have been developed by pharmaceutical companies without fear of being sued for intellectual property infringements.

“A WTO waiver is a vital and necessary step to bringing an end to this pandemic. It must be combined with ensuring vaccine know-how and technology is shared openly,” the signatories, comprising more than 100 Nobel prize-winners and over 70 former world leaders, wrote in a letter to US President Joe Biden, according to Financial Times.

A measure to allow countries to temporarily override patent rights for Covid related medical products was proposed at the World Trade Organization by India and South Africa in October, and has since been backed by nearly 60 countries.

Former leaders who signed the letter included Gordon Brown, former UK Prime Minister; François Hollande, former French President; Mikhail Gorbachev, former President of the USSR; and Yves Leterme, former Belgian Prime Minister.

In their official communication, South Africa and India said: “As new diagnostics, therapeutics and vaccines for Covid-19 are developed, there are significant concerns [about] how these will be made available promptly, in sufficient quantities and at affordable prices to meet global demand.”

While developed countries have been able to secure enough vaccine to inoculate their citizens, developing countries such as Botswana are struggling to source enough to swiftly vaccine their citizens, something which world leaders believe it would work against global recovery therefore proving counter-productive.

Since the availability of vaccines, Botswana has been able to secure only 60 000 doses of vaccines, 30 000 as donation as from the Indian government, while the other 30 000 was sourced through COVAX facility.  Canada, has pre-ordered vaccines in surplus and it will be able to vaccinate each of its citizens six times over. In the UK and US, it is four vaccines per person; and two each in the EU and Australia.

For vaccines produced in Europe, developing countries are forced to pay double what European countries are paying, making it more expensive for already financially struggling economies.  European countries however justify the price of vaccines and that they deserve to buy them cheap since they contributed in their development.

It is evident that vaccines cannot be made available immediately to all countries worldwide with wealthy economies being the only success story in that regard, something that has been referred to as a “catastrophic moral failure”, head of the World Health Organisation (WHO), Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.

The challenge facing developing countries is not only the price, but also the capacity of vaccine manufactures to be able to do so to meet global demand within a short time. The proposal for a patent waiver by India and South Africa has been rejected by developed countries, known for hosting the world leading pharmaceutical companies such US, European Union, the United Kingdom, and Switzerland.

According to the Financial Times, US business groups including pharmaceutical industry representatives, have urged Biden to resist supporting a waiver to IP rules at the WTO, arguing that the proposal led by India and South Africa was too “vague” and “broad”.

The individuals who signed the letter, including Nobel laureates in economics as well as from across the arts and sciences, warned that inequitable vaccine access would impact the global economy and prevent it from recovering.

“The world saw unprecedented development of safe and effective vaccines, in major part thanks to US public investment,” the group wrote. “We all welcome that vaccination rollout in the US and many wealthier countries is bringing hope to their citizens.”

“Yet for the majority of the world that same hope is yet to be seen. New waves of suffering are now rising across the globe. Our global economy cannot rebuild if it remains vulnerable to this virus.”
The group warned that fully enforcing IP was “self-defeating for the US” as it hindered global vaccination efforts. “Given artificial global supply shortages, the US economy already risks losing $1.3tn in gross domestic product this year.”

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