The media has been awash with reports of questionable business dealings of the president. There are also reports that the President has applied for a state farm, a portion of Banyana Farms.
Are these matters of public concern and if yes, what should Parliament do? What is available to Members of Parliament (MPs) to get clarity on these matters and hold the President accountable? Does Parliament have the authority and ability to probe these matters?
A quick search on the Companies and Intellectual Property Authority (CIPA) website for a business entity named Arcee Propriety Limited, reveals that the firm’s shareholders are Mokgweetsi Eric K Masisi and Ramachandran Ottapathu, the President of the Republic and a known Indian businessman respectively. A further search for Arcee Propriety Limited yields annual financial statements/reports from Choppies Enterprises Limited and The Far Property Company Limited.
These documents disclose that Arcee Pty Ltd operates from a warehouse at Gaborone Block Three industrial owned by The Far Property Company Limited. The documents show that Choppies Enterprise Limited made payments to Arcee Pty Ltd (in 2017 & 2018) for goods and or services rendered.
As stated above, Arcee Pty Ltd operates from a premises owned by The Far Property Company (at least according to The Far Property Company’ 2019 integrated annual report). A quick search of The Far Property Company on the CIPA database reveals the shareholders to be a certain Farouk Ismail, Ramachandran Ottapathu, co-founders of Choppies, and a host of institutional investors; Botswana Public Officers Pension Fund (BPOPF) and Debswana Pension Fund (DPF). BPOPF and DPF are of particular interest because they represent a bulk of employed Batswana. These pension funds invest most of the funds under their portfolios externally. In the few cases that they invest locally it is mostly in large corporations that are already doing well and do not struggle to attract private capital.
Recently, Botswana Development Corporation (BDC) acquired a stake in KAMOSO at around P200 million, allegedly contravening competition principles and the law. A quick search of KAMOSO on the CIPA website reveals that a certain Ramachandran Ottapathu is a shareholder. BDC is a government owned investment arm supposedly driving government agenda of transforming the economy for greater citizen participation. Another eye sore regarding this acquisition is that the President has direct business dealings with Ramachandran Ottapathu, no matter how one tries to sanitize the deal, it does not look pretty at all. There are many red flags for state capture.
So what can Parliament do? MPs can ask ordinary questions or questions without notice or themes or ministers questions in terms of Standing Orders 36, 37 and 40(A). Ordinary questions can be limiting for a weighty issue like this. Ministers questions or themes are better as they are allocated 45 minutes a question or half of the time if two such questions are in the order paper. They can only be asked on Fridays.
Ministers questions spark a mini-debate in which MPs can ask follow up questions or make quick comments. MPs are given 5 minutes to ask ministers questions or themes. The problem is that some ministers provide a long pointlessly detailed answer to steal MPs time, the effect being that few follow-up questions can be asked. The Speaker has to agree that a theme contains an urgent matter of importance and the Minister has to also agree to answer this question specially to indicate the time in which it can be put in the Order Paper.
MPs can write to the Speaker under Standing Order 40(B) and ask The Leader of the House/Vice President to explain these dealings and account on perceived conflict of interest and state capture. The Standing Orders, unlike in South Africa or United Kingdom where Botswana system was copied, don’t provide for President question time. Only ministers and the Vice President can answer questions in the House.
MPs can table a motion in accordance with Standing Order 44 to ask Parliament to resolve on this matter. Standing Order 50 can be utilized to move an urgent motion so that the House adjourns any Business it is dealing with at the time to urgently deal with a motion on the issue for exactly two hours. The challenge with this avenue is that first, the Speaker must agree that the motion is urgent and of public importance.
Second, if the ruling party doesn’t agree that there be an adjournment of Business to focus on the matter, the motion dies immediately. If the motion is debated, it can be negated or adopted. If negated, the process could only serve to sensitize the public with no tangible consequences. If it’s adopted, the Executive may decide to just ignore it, like it has done with many others. A motion can ask the House to resolve to probe the matter further through a Special Select Committees, or a Commission of Inquiry or to ask the House to resolve to ask the President to relinquish his business dealings. The motion can be crafted in any manner MPs deem fit to hold the President accountable.
MPs can table a Private Bill to, for instance, prohibit the President from engaging in private business ventures or to not engage in anything which may present real or potential conflict of interest. The Leader of opposition can also make a short statement, if the Speaker agrees with the contents of his speech.
Parliamentary Committees are also one way in which questions can be asked. Committees such as Statutory Bodies Committee can inquire state owned enterprises and parastatals such as BDC, Botswana Unified Revenue Services (BURS) and Competition Authority, among others to explain.
When one examines the annual Financial Reports/Statements of Choppies Enterprises pty ltd, there exists a pattern of numerous transactions between it and a host of other companies whose Directors are either Ram or Farouk. Can BURS say with absolute certainty that the amounts declared as value of goods and or services provided by the multiple entities to Choppies enterprises are accurate? Is there transfer pricing going on here?
What specific pieces of legislation can be applied to deal with these likelihoods of transfer pricing and are these laws adequate and effective? This is what the Committee should investigate. A lot of the said transactions between Choppies Enterprises pty ltd and entities directly owned by either Ram and or Farouk, are reported as real expenditure and or income depending of the direction of the transaction, creating a situation where the balance sheet can easily be overstated.
Can the Botswana Stock Exchange (BSE) assure the public that the value at which Choppies Enterprises pty ltd stock trades is accurate and that potential investors and or current stock holders are not being deceived? It could be that Choppies pays tax amount of their liking because BURS cannot guard against transfer pricing that happens there. It is possible that the BSE cannot determine the true value of Choppies stock.
It is up to Parliament to find out. Is there a need for effective legislation to curb the ostensibly crooked Choppies business model? It is possible to short change other Choppies holders by cooking the books to reflect very small profits and move money to the suppliers Ram and Farouk own. Choppies, it is highly probable, operates in the wild wild west. Are these businessmen and entities getting protection for the President who is also their business partner? Is the state captured?
Whatever MPs chose, one thing is clear that MPs should focus on. The President of Botswana cannot be in private Business in a country where the state plays an important role in the economy. It is morally wrong, a recipe for corruption and bad corporate governance.
The state is a regulator, it collects taxes, it is the biggest buyer of goods and services, directly and indirectly, the economy revolves around the state. The President can’t compete fairly, as a businessman, with Batswana or foreigners doing business because the power to govern vest in him in terms of sections 47 of the Constitution.
The constitution provides that the President exercises his powers directly or indirectly through officers subordinate to him. How will his subordinates, at competition authority or any industry’s authority, regulate his businesses without fear or favour? He has immunity from civil and criminal proceedings according to Section 41 of the Constitution, so it’ll be difficult for business partners, competitors or regulators to litigate and enforce contractual matters. They may also just fear the President.
Those who offered shares to the President or ae in businesses with him should be prosecuted for bribery. They’ve offered and provided a valuable consideration to the President by being in business with him. They know that being with him in Business means public policy will be manipulated to favour their businesses. It is Parliament which should investigate the extent of the capture. Other businesses may be compelled to do business with a company that has the President as a shareholder.
Moreover, The President knows future government plans, he gets intelligence briefs and other vital economic related information that could advantage him and his business associates and disadvantage real or potential competitors. What the business people are doing by being with the President in a boardroom as a Director is what is called state capture-public policy decisions are made with clear intentions to benefit the politically connected elites in Business, political leadership and bureaucracy but not ordinary people. These business dealings are elite corruption at a grand scale, simple.
The great Thomas Edison, who logged a total of 1093 patents singly or jointly in his 84-year lifespan and who was the driving force behind a whole host of innovations which included the incandescent light bulb, once said, “I’d put my money on the sun and solar energy.
What a source of power! I hope we don’t have to wait until oil and coal run out before we tackle that.” At the onset of the still-in-force NDP 11, which runs from April 2017 to March 2023, government hived off P2.25 billion (a move engendered by the irregular, if not corrupt, depletion of the National Petroleum Fund) from the BPC subsidy budget pertaining to that time horizon and re-oriented it toward the development of the bulk petroleum product storage terminal at Tshele Hills near Rasesa village in Kgatleng District.
Both the two contenders for the Egyptian throne, General Atiku, had made their case and it was now up to the Wise Men to pass a vote indicating whose deposition had convinced them.
To Ramesses’ surprise, General, the Wise Men all voted for Moses. The vote was indicated by bowing their knees in front of Moses, thus confirming that he had a superior claim to the throne. Sadly, Ramesses was not having any of that. He immediately put his army on the alert and when word seeped through that Moses was to be the new Pharaoh, Zaru erupted into jubilation on the streets.
The Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) was first detected in Botswana in 1985. The coronavirus that causes Covid-19 was detected in 2020. Both viruses were new, and it was their global occurrence that led to their classification as pandemics.
They have both been traced to animals, something not surprising as most new viruses are actually cross-overs from animals. A virus crosses species, in this case to humans, and its subsequent behaviour depends on how it adapts to the new species. Many are “dead-ends”, the virus cannot multiply or be transmitted between members of the new species.
In the case of the two which are our subject in this paper, the viruses adapted to the new species (human) and underwent mutations that allowed them to be easily transmitted between humans, hence the rapid spread.
The two viruses, HIV and the Covid-19 virus are very different, hence their mode of spread is different and their mechanisms of disease causation and epidemiology are very different. The approach to their control is of necessity very different. To illustrate their difference, HIV is transmitted mainly by sexual intercourse, Covid-19 virus mainly by the droplet method through the respiratory tract.
HIV causes ill health a long time after infection, which can run from about two years to many years (incubation period); the incubation period of Covid-19 is a few days, estimated at between 10 and 14 days. HIV infection leads to the destruction of the immune system, and when the victim gets ill, it can be from any of a wide variety of diseases caused by “opportunistic infections or even cancers”, hence the name Acquired Human Immunodeficiency Syndrome (AIDS).
Covid-19 on the other hand presents generally as an upper respiratory tract infection (URTI) although there are some presenting differently, especially with lower respiratory infection (lungs affected) in the more severe cases. Another but very important difference is that, while Covid-19 is generally an acute, self-limiting illness, with most patients recovering fully within a few weeks, and in fact many showing no symptoms, HIV/AIDS is a chronic condition; once the patient starts signs and symptoms, usually years after infection, this leads invariably to death from one of the opportunistic infections or diseases.
This last scenario used to be the case in the first decades of HIV/AIDS, but has fortunately changed after the development of drugs that in combination are referred to as Highly Active Anti-Retroviral Therapy (HAART, now known as ART).
HIV/AIDS is now treatable and no longer a death sentence, although treatment lasts for life as the drugs do not eliminate the virus from the body but suppress it. As for Covid-19, there is currently, as is the case generally with viral infections, no effective antibiotic or antiviral drug that kills the virus or eliminates it from the body.
Where does this put us? We are essentially dealing with two diseases or pandemics that are very different from each other. I did my post-graduate studies in Public Health during the last years of smallpox eradication, actually I finished the studies in 1978, the year Smallpox eradication was certified in Botswana.
What used to be emphasized, why the world succeeded in eradicating Smallpox was that it had epidemiological characteristics that supported eradication: it was easy to diagnose, even by lay people; it had a consistent incubation period of about 10 days; it virtually had a 100% manifestation rate (everybody infected showed typical signs and symptoms); there was a vaccine against it that was virtually 100% effective. Unfortunately, there have been few diseases with such favourable characteristics for eradication. Hence the next disease targeted for eradication, Polio, is almost done but still causing some problems.
Response to the HIV/AIDS and Covid-19 pandemics in Botswana
When HIV was detected in Botswana in 1985, the world had been aware of the existence of AIDS for about five years, that is, since the outbreaks among gays in America in 1981. By 1985 the virus had been identified but little was known about it; it was still a subject of intense research. However we knew that it caused AIDS and was no longer just transmitted in gay sex, but that most transmission in Africa was through heterosexual sex, and that sexual transmission was responsible for more than 90% of transmission occurring in Africa.
Some African countries were already experiencing severe HIV/AIDS epidemics, especially in Central and East Africa. In some of them (Uganda is sometimes quoted) people started dying in large numbers before the cause was known, only for people to move to neighbouring villages and infect others there!
The Botswana HIV epidemic, as well as those of SACU countries generally, was later than those of Central and East Africa. The latter had already experienced high disease and mortality rates for some years. In the late 1980s, Botswana was experiencing a big economic boom, and this attracted professionals, technicians and artisans from African countries badly affected by HIV/AIDS, and this really speeded up transmission in the country.
When the first seropositive people were identified in 1985, I was Assistant Director of Health Services responsible for Primary Health Care. So, Disease Control fell in my Department, and I had the responsibility of reporting to my seniors at the Ministry and hence to the country that we now had HIV.
Control measures were started immediately, such as screening all blood donated for transfusion and putting together with the help of WHO, the first short-term control plan. A unit was created which was headed by an appropriate professional. In 1986 I became Director of Health Services and Deputy Permanent Secretary, and in January 1990 I became Permanent Secretary.
In all these positions I was intimately involved in HIV/AIDS control, working intimately with those directly responsible for the unit/programme, and also doing at least one assignment with Global Programme on AIDS (GPA) when it was still with WHO before UNAIDS was created to share the AIDS programme with other UN Agencies. In the same manner, here at home we started pushing for the multisectoral approach to HIV/AIDS control in the early 1990s, that resulted in the formation of the National AIDS Council and eventually NACA.
The Ministry of Health undertook a very intensive public education from early in the HIV epidemic. The Ministry warned the people of Botswana (through and including the political, traditional and community leaders) about what was going to happen, the impending doom of high morbidity and mortality. What was needed was change is sexual behaviour.
Everyone knows that the main message from the Ministry was “ABC” (abstain, be faithful, condomise), which had become a universal message especially in Africa was used by the Ministry. Put in other words, the message aimed at three things; i) delaying sexual debut, ii) avoiding multiple concurrent partners and iii) consistent condom use.
This message never made an impact on the Botswana population, so when the clinical cases started hitting the country after the several years of silent spread (the silent phase of HIV spread), the effect was disaster. We had a nasty surprise in the health system that while the countries in central Africa that had early HIV/AIDS epidemics had their HIV prevalence plateauing at 15% and we thought the same would happen here, in Botswana and Southern Africa prevalence rates went past 30%.
This was due partly to the sexual practices of our people but also to the HIV sub-type that was prevalent in our part of the world. By 1966 Botswana was declared as having the highest prevalence of HIV in the world.
The real heavy load of cases in Botswana started in the mid-1990s, and everybody remembers it; funerals and funerals and funerals. That time ARVs were still under development, and it was only at the end of the 1990s that they became available but very expensive, so most poor and middle income countries could not immediately afford them.
Thanks to India, Thailand and Brazil who broke the patents and manufactured the drugs, their availability to many developing countries would have taken a long time. Here in Botswana, it was due to the initiative of the then President that HAART became available for general use in Government facilities in 2002, with massive aid from PEPFAR and ACHAP (supplied by Merck Foundation and the Bill and Gates Foundation).
Otherwise there was talk of extinction, and the expected population pyramid produced by UNAIDS was frightening. Luckily because of ARV’s that scenario did not occur. The rest of Botswana’s HIV/AIDS trajectory up to now is history. I left Government service on 31st December 1996 after seven years as P.S. and joined WHO.
I had almost joined WHO in 1989 but deferred it when I was appointed PS and did not want to appear unpatriotic and disappoint President Masire and PSP Legwaila with both of whom I had very excellent relations. My initial job with WHO was in Tuberculosis, a disease that had been my passion since I did Public Health and took over its control as head of disease control in 1979.
No matter what post I held in the Ministry thereafter, I participated directly in Tuberculosis control. And as we all know. Tuberculosis became and is still one of the manifestations of HIV globally and in Botswana.
HIV/AIDS was and is a slow epidemic. So, the public did not really perceive it as a threat in Botswana, except perhaps in the late 1990s and early 2000s when it caused very high mortality in the country. The Covid-19 epidemic/pandemic is different. Although it doesn’t kill everybody who gets it like HIV-related disease did, we have seen in highly affected countries that the 2-5% it kills translate to large numbers, because this is an acute infection that spreads very quickly. So, it should be easy for the public to perceive its danger.
The surveillance and containment that has been employed so far in Botswana to control the spread of Covid-19 has been very effective. Those responsible, the Ministry of Health and Wellness and the Task Force deserve to be acknowledged and thanked for a job well done. I am confident that the health care system can also adjust itself and not be disrupted by this new threat.
Since the chances of developing a drug against such a virus seems a bit remote, we are all putting our hope on a vaccine. Many viral diseases have very effective vaccines, so this keeps our hope up. We also need to know if one attack of this disease results in life-long immunity (like measles, mumps, chicken pox etc.) or if one can be attacked more than once, implying that the virus keeps mutating and bringing up new sub-types.
We are still to see if the public will do better than they did with HIV/AIDS and follow the health education. Experience is what usually persuades people to change; that is why many believe the celebrated change in Uganda when people changed and HIV infections dropped was due to the large mortality they had experienced before they even knew what was killing them.
Regarding Covid-19, we are seeing in a number of badly affected countries, people ignoring or resisting social distancing measures and masks, sometimes encouraged by politicians! Here in Botswana we have not yet experienced large losses of lives from Covid-19, so it is still to be seen how the public will really conform to advice, especially on social distancing and other measures like masks and hand washing.
What one sees so far is not very encouraging -in combis, bars etc., and during weekends in homes. In health we talk of KAP (Knowledge, Attitude, Practice). We know that K does not always lead to change in A, and to P. We saw this plainly in HIV/AIDS, what is going to happen in Covid-19?