Masisi: For intra-Africa trade to work, let’s have our own payment system

Sunday December 10 2023

Botswana President Mokgweetsi Masisi. PHOTO | NMG


Botswana President Mokgweetsi Masisi spoke with James Smart ahead of the Kusi Ideas Festival in Gaborone about politics, economy, and the key to Africa’s growth.


I'm interested in the Botswana kind of democracy. I've had a little taste of it, seeing you, with your ministers, explain yourself to the public…

Well, what you saw is an example of who we are. We have always cherished the kgotla institution, which is where we were today. There are rules that govern it. One of the first rules is you submit yourself to the people. So the minute you enter there, whatever rank you hold, you become the servant, and you are accountable. And so this dialogue is unparalleled in its commitment to quality and an opportunity for those who are there to put their case across in the public interest.

That is the foundation of our multiparty democratic system. And one of the foundational rules and principles of a kgotla is all words spoken at the kgotla are acceptable. And so, in this context, we modernised and formed political parties to contest elections, we adopted a constitution that prescribed that a term of government be five years. And we cherish a multiparty democracy, consistent with how we display our discussions in a kgotla.

Read: Traditional systems could guide leadership: Masisi


How have the past five years been?

Our plan was premised on the manifesto on which we were elected. And lo and behold, we were in for a shock as the whole world was because we were elected in 2019. In 2020, nobody knew there would be anything like Covid.

That disrupted our plans. And that's how we came up with a second plan, which is really a refinement of strategies to achieve the very manifesto that we had. So we didn't alter the manifesto, we adjusted to it. And we put in the reset agenda and reclaim agenda. And that was really from a position where we were getting zero income, when the economy was stifled to a time where we accelerated faster than we ever had to rebuild back better. And we're still recovering.

So, we have underachieved in terms of what we pledged to do, because of the two and a half years taken away by Covid. But I'm proud that in the time we started recovering, we recovered hard, fast and laser focused.

For those who are looking Botswana from outside, seeing it came from a very poor country to what it is now, one of the richest countries… How has Botswana achieved this remarkable growth?

Well, to put bluntly, it's really a story of rags to near riches, I wouldn't classify ourselves as rich. But we certainly have done much better than we could otherwise have. A lot of it is attributable to stability, good governance, and undying and unyielding commitment to a democratic dispensation, because therein lies the opportunity for those who criticise what you do, to voice it, not just the voice, but in the vote.

And any sensible leader will take cue from the pattern of the vote. And then this consistent, constant iteration with the public all over the country; you get a sense of the pulse of the population.

And so, we put in place very strong institutions of government — that is a clear separation of roles and powers; we put in strong systems of an elective process; we put in strong legislative instruments to prevent, as best we could, corruption, and therefore the promotion of service and the public good.

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Among the most remarkable pieces of legislation was when we developed our mineral legislation, which essentially took away private rights of any mineral deposit or any natural wealth from individuals or state, private entities, to the public.

That was a massive equaliser. Then we put in policies that unified us. For instance, as a citizen of Botswana, you are entitled to settle in the part of the country, where you apply for a piece of land. We developed a system as we gathered many more resources than we had before — financially that is — to educate our people.

And, over time, we provided education at no cost to the individual. We expanded our road network, we invested, transformed the capital; we raised so my natural resources, primarily diamonds, into infrastructure investment, into human capital investment.

And, yes, we're acutely aware that natural resources such as diamonds are not sustainable. They're finite and, over time, and the last, which was fortunately my time, when we took a very bold stance to tackle our partner in the reconfiguration of our relationship when we had a negotiation with De Beers, and I'm very proud of what we came out with.

Many countries that are resource-rich, mineral-rich, across the continent have fallen into a trap, you know, the curse of the minerals. And you're perhaps one of the few one can point out and say has avoided this curse. Are you out of the woods?

Well, so far and we have every intention to remain out of the woods. A lot of it is attributable to an unyielding commitment to good governance. Unyielding, uncompromising commitment.

You develop an ethos, a national value proposition that promotes the public good, particularly when it comes to matters that concern natural resources. These are national assets. You put in place policies that promote those ideals. And that's why we transform our wealth from diamonds to medication delivered through a public health system, roads, telecommunication, education, private sector development and empowering citizens, which is where we are today.

Read: Botswana's new president vows to tackle unemployment

When people get rewarded, incentivised by a government that focuses on their wellbeing, they continue returning it to power, as we have been returned to power over the last 57 years. We’re going to election next year and we remain hopeful and committed to ensuring that we earn our return to power. But because it's a democracy, there's every opportunity for a surprise.

And part of it is embracing the surprise that might come. So the values that we developed in our people is an acceptance of the rules of the game. When you get into a contest, a democratic contest, you either win, or lose. So I'm at ease, I am quite content, ready for an election at any time.

I'd like to follow up on your party being returned to power... But it's just one party; the opposition has very little space to operate here. Isn’t it undemocratic?

Well, if there was anything undemocratic, it may be the democracy itself, because it's that democracy that we have verified, that yields this result. And the results of the ruling party have been variable over elections, it's not been constant. So how you fault democracy for yielding a result that you expect a democracy to yield in terms of the popularity or the vote, I don't see how undemocratic that is, tell me what is not.

You have critical minerals; copper, cobalt, nickel… and there’s a whole question around the governance around these minerals that are essentially used for these electric batteries. How are you managing these ‘new’ minerals?

As recently as 2022, we promulgated a new minerals policy. And right now, we are reviewing the Minerals Act, which defines for us how mines are developed to mines, who mines and what they get charged, what minerals leave the country in what form and the levies, taxes and royalties, etc.

And in this review, we are informed by our commitment as a government, which is a refreshed approach to our development. We are committed to transforming our country from being heavily reliant on natural resources to increasingly, and as quickly as possible to be reliant on intellectual capital.

Increasingly, we are demanding and causing to be a beneficiation of those minerals, to the extent that our economy and industry can afford, and the extent to which we can bend our partners or investors to so do. And that was at the heart of the renegotiation of De Beers. And we succeeded, increasing the proportion that the government gets allocated to a whopping 50 percent.

Never has that been done.

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Two, we succeeded in causing our partner, who would eventually have the other 50 percent, to beneficiate $1.25 billion of the value of those diamonds locally. What does this mean? It means industries set up, it means there’s going to be more diamond cutting and polishing factories, more jewellery manufacturers… And if you look at the difference in incomes, I'll give you a global perspective and you'll get a sense of the impact this will have.

Botswana is the second-largest producer of diamonds globally by volume. Botswana is the number one producer of diamonds in the world by value. The business size of all global business of all rough diamonds and polished, non-beneficiated diamonds is $15 billion per annum. The business size of the very same quantum per annum of diamonds globally, once beneficiated, jumps to $100 billion per annum — $85 billion difference due to beneficiation.

And that's why we want more beneficiation here; we want more of the volume kept here. Now, to beneficiate, you need technology, you need skills. So, the incomes of those artisans, those professionals, are higher than those who manage the rough diamonds alone. That's magic, isn't it? That's how we are positioning ourselves.

And we want to do this for every mineral that we get, including the critical, rare minerals that we use for the benefit of manufacturing electric mobility batteries; including the harnessing of our sun rays to produce solar energy, and the research and development that goes with this.

That's why we're pumping money — and I did announce today at the meeting that in next budget we're going to pump more money into R&D, into innovation, into agriculture. And that's why we're getting into artificial insemination, embryo development, into flushing of eggs from female cows, cloning zygote splitting, and trading in those derivatives, more than just tasty beef, of which that we have the best in the world.

You've put up a massive beef industry, very consistent with the markets across the world. I am aware that everywhere you go into the meetings, you donate bulls…

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Not just bulls, good quality bulls. Good quality bulls, I beg your pardon, Mr President. Is donating this good quality bulls trying to reposition the market, take the business closer to the people?

Yes. Well, it's premised really on our national long-term ideals, among which would be to reduce the differences between high-income earners and low-income earners. So a majority of the farmers that we donate these to — who are identified by the Ministry of Agriculture extension staff — are not so resource-endowed. But they are zealous, committed and focused on growing their herds and their quality. So they look after them. So they earn them.

It's not from government. I started this donation exercise from bulls that I produced myself, I'm a farmer, very proud farmer — I produce food. Then I asked my Cabinet to also donate and there was the process to donate. And there's been an overwhelmingly gratifying response. And so the bull we donated today was from a senior public servant. It's a role I play as a champion of this vision.

Then I also go on to expound on the policies and the programmes to do those bulls, to enhance and stretch the value. So it doesn't just go and mate with the cows, the bull can be tapped for semen.

And there's a programme, where a farmer can take the bull to a station and for a really low fee, they get store it, which stores can choose to use on their own herd or sell. So, I'm trying to promote the expansion of the value of quality bulls, and make these farmers enterprise with their cattle, and store them in these cans, which can last up to 40 years.

You're president of a country that has more livestock than human beings. You need the workers… Are you not stagnating in terms of your population?

No, we're not stagnating. If we grow too fast, the burden of care placed on those who can produce is increased and the quality of life declines. That's one, two, yes, we do have more cattle or livestock than people. But we certainly don't have the greatest variance if you get to other countries such as yours.

If you went to Chad, you know, if you went to Ethiopia, even Tanzania, they have a lot of cattle. And we're not even trying to compete with that, by the numbers or cattle. We don't have the capacity, the range land we have would not carry the numbers that those countries can.

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What's most prominent for us is the quality — and the price. Look at the price we get for our cattle relative to others, that's what should matter. So, these cattle and goats and sheep are our little diamonds that we can reproduce.

But there's a health challenge here. You’re among the top four countries with the highest HIV prevalence in the world. What are you doing to stem this?

First is to admit the problem: Detect, analyse the problem, which we have. We know the numbers, we know who is HIV-positive. And with what we've been able to do with science and biomedical technologies, is to result in a very high achievement of enrolment of antiretroviral therapy.

How many people are on that programme today?

We have approximately 340,000 people who are known to be positive and approximately 337,000 who are on ART therapy. And that's why we hit the silver tier of the prevention of mother child transmission of 9,595 target of the UNAids. Right now we're at 9,598, and we're aiming for the gold. And that brings about a possibility of reversing this. We spend approximately $700 million per year on this, but it's well worth spending it, particularly on such a small population in relative terms.

Let's talk about the next social challenge, which is violence against women and children. Going by your numbers, you're struggling with this problem. How do you stem that?

We have adopted a multipronged approach: Legislation, social mobilisation, and interventions to mitigate it. a lot of it is to do with perceptions of roles of gender. It's complex, it needs energy, time, patience, and dynamism. We are prepared to deal with it because we are firmly of the belief that no problem is insurmountable.

Earlier this year, you ratified the AfCFTA agreement. But you dilly-dallied quite a bit. What was the issue?

We did not dilly-dally, we did not deal with what happened. We are cautious. Okay, there are people of due diligence. We don't make promises that we cannot deliver on and, look at the size of the economy, and what we can do; your offer and what gets offered to us. So we work carefully and thoroughly analysing that which we can offer.

Last year, we had a national conference to mobilise our private sector to take this up, As the protocol allows for that, in a number of African countries. We take this up with zeal, but our productive capacity is quite narrow. We will essentially be the consumer country. But what can we offer? Look at our skill base, look at the volumes that we manage.

And so we have to be very careful in making sure that we can drive capacity. And we can generally trade. We’ve fully ratified and are committed to participate. And that's why one of the offers that we make is for people to come in and procure some of the best genetic material of livestock.

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So, this is your first offering to the continent?

Not necessarily the first. It is one of our offerings that were very proud of.

What would you say is the key thing that must be unlocked so that you start trading with other African countries?

For one, look at the payment systems. You know, colonialism and imperialism were a very successful assault on us. But, even after that, when we gained independence, a lot of it was to develop continued dependence and relations with our former colonial masters. And I think, for a long time, we didn't take enough cue of this to develop intra-African trade.

And so the RECs as you look at them, are really trying to do that, the EU is trying to do that, AfCFTA itself is really trying to do that. Look at our infrastructure. Why is it so underdeveloped? Why is it when you fly from Southern Africa, it is easier to get to West Africa by going to Europe? These are legacy matters, but they also cost a lot of money.

Look at the cost of debt. Why are we in Africa paying three, four times as much as a borrower in Europe? So the switch, the trading platforms, the infrastructure, the connectivity, even digital and air (travel) need to improve. And that's what we're working on through the Africa We Want, Agenda 2063, and the various REC propositions.

Many African countries are in debt distress. How do you project Africa when it’s still struggling with debt?

You know, the quest for emancipation is unending determination to get to the finish line. We as Africans have to be resolute, unhindered and blinded by our resolve to trade with one another, to develop the infrastructure necessary to facilitate that, to make sure that we negotiate even for debt, smartly; to make sure that we put in governance systems to assure us that we would not fall into a debt trap.

And the debt trap is caused by perhaps inadvertent, not so smart borrowing. You may think you're borrowing to relieve yourself of a debt and you premise your commitment to repay on a commodity, whose price and value is determined elsewhere.

And then the market crashes, but the debt remains. Many times, you negotiate that debt in the currency of the lender, and the currency of the lender is, more often than not, stronger than yours. And there are other factors that can cause your currency to depreciate. So, we need to be really serious in ensuring that we are frugal.

In Botswana, there is a constitutional provision that limits the extent of the debt we have. That’s one thing that has served us well. And so, we've kept our debt levels really low. We have slowed down our development, however badly we needed a road or hospital or school, just so that we will not fall into that trap.

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What do you think about visa-free movement on the continent?

I think it should be gradually introduced. You know, if it happened right now, I think there would be a surge in some places. And when a surge occurs when you're not prepared for it, it undermines the resources that you have there, and the quality of life goes down. And it doesn't become stable as you would have thought. And so, this migration has to be managed.

One of the challenges, and the things that I hope we focus on, is making sure that we uplift the quality of life of people everywhere in Africa.

Are you unsettled by criticism by your former president, on your leadership?

Not at all. He's a critic like anybody else. He's a citizen who is entitled to it. We're not serving to please anybody else but the voters.

It does not sit well, if former president is saying he cannot come to the country because if he has to be politically persecuted, for instance,
only if it were true. it remains patently false. There is no such threat. It's a figment of his imagination.

Can it come back to this country?

He can come anytime; he's got a passport. He's got a diplomatic passport. He earns all his entitlements. He elected to leave the country. And when he left, he first said he was visiting and when people are worried about him, from where he comes, he said no, no, no, I'm free. I'm happy and quite well, it's only later I suspect after an afterthought to explain the extended stay to suggest there was a threat on his life. There is no iota of evidence, even in our track record, find it. If you do, I'll give you a cow.

What is the genesis of the collapse your friendship? Is it you? Is it him?

I don't think it's so much a collapse of the friendship. It's a collapse of the ideas that one has. His ideas and my ideas now don't match. I've made this publicly clear. In my belief and knowledge, I did not yield to his want, for me making his brother my vice-president. And I tell you why… it would have been a very dangerous proposition.

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when we were elected, he chose not to recognise our elections; he claimed there was cheating. He prompted the opposition to challenge in open court right up to the apex court unsuccessfully.

You know, even if you're somebody's vice-president, you do have differences. You just don't articulate them because you're committed to an alignment.

So, you always had a challenge with some of his positions even when you were his vice-president?

I did, but not enough for me to bolt out. I served him. I was his biggest defender, because you're committed to a code of conduct. And part of it for me was to make sure that the party does not lose power. It's my firm belief and the majority in my party, that if we had continued with those same policies, some of them, we wouldn't have succeeded in 2019.

He says that people in his party are being targeted by your administration; they're being persecuted, they're getting arrested…

Find out who's been arrested in this party, without reason. And they're not political. There is no political prisoner in this country, and there won't be under my watch. And that's why we have a very vibrant opposition. The freedom we have under my government is much more expensive than any freedom any day under his government.

Have you managed to keep corruption at bay?

Totally. Nobody can ever say they've kept corruption at bay completely. The corrupt are very creative. you put in systems, you put in legislation, you put in processes, you put institutions, you do the best you can. And it's never a fight of one person. It must be a value proposition. So those who are bribed, or this attempt to bribe them, one of the first rights is for them to reject a bribe and report it.

And the legislation and the system should be in place to have a fair trial and sentencing. That sends a signal. But, yes, if you look at the Transparency International ratings, we do remain relatively low in the corruption index. But it's a fight that doesn't end.