Is Botswana’s President in Pursuit of Personal Profit?
THE POLEMIC CORNER
Lekgowe, Mogapi & Kgosi
Putting his assets in escrow management and making a clean breast of things is the way to go for the President. The worst course is for Masisi to leave matters to effluxion of time because unlike America’s Donald Trump, he is not a blithering fool.
This is one of those occurrences in life where one does not need to read the whole story or have all the facts in order to have an opinion. The Ottapathu-Masisi shareholding in Acree (Pty) Ltd has grave implications. To an ordinary Motswana who stood in long queues to vote for President Mokgweetsi Masisi, the mere association of the President, in his personal capacity, with business tycoons in the country is sufficient to question his loyalty to the oath of office. To the alarmists, it engenders fears of state capture.
Neither a belated declaration of that association nor a positivistic clarification of the business deals will do anything to quell the disappointment and anger that erupted upon the first mention of these dealings. That the President of the Republic is a man who doubles as a wheeling, dealing and scheming and dealing ‘businessman’ is disconcerting. During what part of the day does he devote time to understanding the struggles of small business owners, of ordinary workers ill-treated and underpaid by unscrupulous employers, of civil servants worried that their pensions are being plundered, of students dreading the period after graduation, of the farmer marginalised by big monopoly companies and of the unemployed languishing at home or exposed to the elements in government-imposed quarantines?
It matters not how genuinely engaging and articulate the President may be at kgotla meetings with the people if their standard of living is not improving and all they hear are promises and then learn and every week of his new business plans and deals to enrich himself. His honesty will decline in their minds, his popularity will wane and their faith in him will wither as the opposition’s once outlandish assertions about him begging to make good sense. It may not be against the law for the President to engage in business with private citizens. However, it is the perception it conjures up of a distracted and detached President intent on profiting from the lofty position of the presidency measured against ethics of leadership that matter. The point is that unlike America’s Donald Trump, President Masisi is not a blithering idiot, and he knows this.
However, if this problem is to be confronted, we must not do selective justice and focus only on the President. It is a governance problem that permeates all the structures of our government. We know this from COVID-19 tenders, for instance. As it currently stands, the President, his cabinet and the entire Parliament can participate in the private sector with no hindrance. Thus, we must pose the question to all members of the three branches of government who have the option of going into business if they choose to exercise that right. While it is legal for President Masisi to hold shares in any company, the President has failed to live up to the standard of the upright leader that he so eloquently brandished himself to be in the lead up to the general elections. This cloud of disappointment in Masisi is haunting and for many people conjures up an apparition of the previous administration whose legacy they swore a blood oath against. It undermines the President’s stated fight against corruption and his moral leadership.
To quarrel about President Masisi going into business is good citizenship. And the questions, to be fair, are legitimate. But what can be done is now where all the focus must fall. Already, our legal framework for fighting corruption has added to its arsenal the Declaration of Assets and Liabilities Act. There are still cracks in the framework because some urgent attention needs to be given to the institutional framework. The tussle between DCEC and the DPP needs to be resolved in favour of giving the DCEC powers to prosecute. The DISS is all over the place and its mandate needs to be more clearly defined and perhaps pruned efficiency. We cannot have a whole intelligence and security organisation chasing chicken thieves.
We also need a framework for dealing with the business interests of the President, his cabinet and other public officers such as judges and magistrates. There is need for a Code of Ethics supported by legislation. The framework must succinctly require that all business interests be registered in a public register and must deal with declaration solicited and unsolicited gifts and the thresholds and limits on gifts that can be received. It must consider and decide whether such officers can serve on Boards of Directors of private entities, if and when such officers may receive compensation from side hustles and a list of those pursuits, as well as provide guidance on financial disclosures. Such a framework would raise the stakes of accountability.
For the President not to profit unduly from his position, his assets can be placed in a blind trust or escrow management. This is the practice in some jurisdictions such as Britain, as former President Festus Mogae observed. In this case, the President would hand over his assets and holdings to a financial services firm for management and would thus have no idea of portfolio composition at any point in time. This would free up his time and energy for the demands of the presidency while ensuring that he is not denied the opportunity to pursue wealth. Furthermore, it would enable and free the President’s capacity to guide and lead without being compromised by his own holdings and investments. This should apply throughout to all members of the branches of government.
To ignore this quarrel and leave it to the effluxion of time would be counted as one of President Masisi’s greatest mistakes. Based on the little that he has done so far, there are Batswana who still have some faith in his leadership and who therefore expect more. As he has done before, he must show his moral leadership, be open to us about his business affairs, and tell Batswana what he intends to do about it.