Special privileges and immense influence wielded by the Office of the President, currently occupied by Mokgweetsi Keabetswe Eric Masisi, will play a major role when assessors appointed by government decide the award of ranches in Banyana Farms in a few weeks.
The Patriot on Sunday has established that Masisi is involved in a controversial contest against farmers who late last year submitted bids for lucrative acres of farmland put up for tender by Botswana Government at Banyana Farms ranch.
Perhaps in a move – intentionally or otherwise – to buttress the point and compel the civil servants in charge of disposing or leasing out portions of Banyana farms to cow into submission, two weeks ago Masisi summoned them to his office for a technical assessment and oral interview. This, as a consequence of Masisi being one of the only three (3) shortlisted from a group of 39 bidders for a ranch at Banyana Farms. Other bidders were interviewed at Banyana offices.
The assessors, officially referred to as Banyana (Pty) Ltd Evaluation Team, had around mid-May invited shortlisted candidates for interviews at their Secretariat in Central Business District (CBD), Gaborone. Masisi is the only bidder who enjoyed special treatment, which was Stage 3 of Technical Evaluation which involved oral interviews for the top three bidders who scored above 60 percent, as part of assessment for compliance. The oral interview will contribute 30 marks to the total score.
"Clearly, interviewing a Head of State at OP is intimidating. The assessors were under duress and as a result scored MEK very high against his competitors. They were coerced to tow the line and ensure Masisi emerges the winner by hook or crook," said a source close to the developments at the Ministry of Agriculture and Food Security.
Masisi is hell-bent on consolidating his agriculture enterprise, which he recently flaunted on social media, by acquiring the Banyana Farms ranch to the detriment of ordinary local farmers looking to graduate into commercial farming. Observers point to this development as one of the examples that clearly demonstrate unfair advantage enjoyed by the President through special privileges attached to his office against ordinary citizens who wish to acquire state assets. Experts say, tendering and procurement ethical conduct dictates that all bidders should participate and be assessed under the same conditions.
Through Press Secretary to the President, Batlhalefi Leagajang, Masisi has denied using his office to exert pressure on civil servants adjudicating the Banyana Farms tender to favour him. He confirmed submitting a bid for Lot 2, insisting that he complied with all requirements stipulated in the tender.
Another tender requirement that Masisi was suspected to have flouted is the compulsory site visit, which had to be undertaken prior to submission of bids between 16 November 2020 and 18 December 2020 at 0900hrs. "His Excellency's representative attended a site visit on the 14th December 2019 and also attended the tender opening on the 20th December 2019. If there are farmers that are complaining about (Masisi's) participation in the tender they would cite irregularities and lodge a complaint with Banyana (Pty) Ltd," reads part of Masisi's response.
Further, some opine that Masisi stands to be disqualified as he already owns a livestock production farm fully resourced with a professional Farm Manager, which he recently paraded in videos on his social media pages. Lot 2 at Banyana farms, which Masisi is targeting for acquisition, is also earmarked for commercial livestock production. Tender specifications clearly state at Article 18 that "Preference will be given to bidders who do not currently own a ranch in Botswana. Bidders who own a ranch in Banyana Farms will be disqualified. Fronting for foreign companies/ individuals by citizens is not allowed".
Leagajang is adamant that Masisi is competing fairly like any other citizen because the laws of Botswana do not preclude him from such participation. He said Masisi participated as a citizen interested in commercial livestock production. "(Masisi) has never used or allowed anyone to use his position to give him an unfair advantage. He has not been successful on many business opportunities that he tried his luck on while president. He does not use his position to influence any outcome for personal gain," wrote Leagajang.
Banyana Farms is owned by Banyana (Pty) Ltd, a wholly state owned company whose Board of Directors are appointed by the Minister of Agriculture and Food Security who in turn has been appointed and is serving at the pleasure of the President – Masisi. The company whose sole shareholder is government of Botswana currently operates from offices at Office of the Auditor General in Central Business District (CBD), Gaborone. Its Directors are Dr JC Mereki as Chairperson, I Oarabile (vice Chairperson), M.B, Gobuamang, BG Mapete, O.L Mabaila, and L Phiri.
Masisi is the head of the Executive arm of government. All those appointed to head government ministries, parastatals and State Owned Entities serve the Executive, which is led by Masisi. By the same token, Banyana farms CEO, Board of Directors and the Evaluation Team are representing government, which is headed by Masisi.
Banyana (Pty) Ltd has been tasked with managing the process of unbundling, sub-dividing and leasing out parts of Farm Molopo Ranch 1-JN commonly known as Banyana Farms. Portions/ Sub divisions were put up for lease under tender number BAN 4/2019 under lot numbers 2, 5,7,8,9 and 11 being the remainder of Farm Molopo Ranch 1-JN. With the exception of Lot 8, designated for fodder production, rentals for the other portions earmarked for commercial livestock production are set at P12.50 per hectare per annum payable in advance and reviewed every three years. Rental for Lot 8 will be P1 000 per hectare per annum.
The bids were opened just before Christmas on Friday, December 20, 2019. The most lucrative ranch [Lot 02] among the available eight had attracted the most bids at 39, followed by Lot 05 with 31 bids, then Lot 7 with 25 bids while Lot 9 and 11 received 13 and 11 bids respectively. Lot 08, designated for fodder and animal feed production received only one bid.
One farmer complained that she bid for one of the ranches for commercial livestock production after suffering major setbacks trying to establish a farm in communal grazing land. When government flighted advertisements for tenders to lease parts of Banyana Farms, she believed she had a realistic opportunity to venture into commercial livestock production. She submitted her bid and attended a compulsory site visit for the Banyana Farms ranches, only to discover that the President of Botswana is also interested in the same piece of land. "How are we expected to compete against a Head of State? Already Masisi enjoys an advantage because he is the President. Those adjudicating the tenders are under pressure to make favourable consideration for Masisi," the farmer cried, watching her dreams go up in smoke.
Previously not known to be much of a farmer, two weeks ago Masisi opened up to the world on social media, posting video clips about agriculture projects. He bragged about his passion for farming and that he has engaged the services of a professional Farm Manager from Bokspits to oversee livestock production at a ranch near Sekoma village in Ngwaketse West. In the video, recorded at a farm showing sizeable numbers of livestock, Masisi is heard encouraging Batswana to take up farming regardless the size of their projects. He said he too started small and is still growing.
Perhaps such growth is calculated to take place at Banyana Farms. However, one of the requirements of the tender specifications is that bidders should not currently own a farm/ranch in Botswana. It is not clear, and Leagajang did not shed light on Masisi's interests in the Sekoma ranch.
Conflict of interest
An attorney explains that conflict of interest, even if not explicitly spelt out in statutes could be perceived and where such perceptions exist it tarnishes the leadership. Although he confessed to not being privy to the provisions contained in the mysterious Green Book, which is purported to regulate the conduct of the President and Cabinet but remains the best kept secret in Botswana, the lawyer said good corporate governance dictates leaders should be above reproach.
"This is particularly the case in jurisdictions like Botswana where there is no declaration of assets required of those holding leadership in public office, or where such guidelines exist they are shrouded in secrecy. This exposes public office to abuse by those who assume them, as they have an open cheque to do as they please," he said, reiterating that it is a valid concern for ordinary citizens to complain about having to compete with sitting Heads of State.
But Leagajang dismisses such assertions almost contemptuously. He stops short of labelling those complaining as petty. "The unfortunate tendency in Botswana has been to query the participation of all our Presidents in the business and economic development of their country by seizing opportunities available to other Batswana to invest in business ventures. Presidents are not precluded from pursuit of own business ventures and other investments provided that there is no conflict of interest and that transparency exists for the public to know such interests," he said.
The Public Procurement and Asset Disposal Board (PPADB) has washed their hands off the matter. Public Relations Manager, Charles Keikotlhae, explained that PPADB Act does not have special provisions for senior government officials or the President (who may be conflicted in some instances) and therefore like any other citizen they are free to tender to acquire state assets. Asked if a President can be a referee and a player in the same game, Keikotlhae said the Act does not exclude any individual or entity from participating in public procurement and asset disposal.
The Public Procurement and Asset Disposal Act (PPAD) is applicable to acquisition and disposal of public assets, services, works etc. Acquisition of public assets is conducted through the process of disposal of assets which is provided for in the PPAD Regulations 98-137. Methods of disposal applicable are public auction, public bidding, direct negotiations, trade-in, transfer to another Public Entity, conversion or classification into another form and destruction. Procuring Entities choose the appropriate method to adopt per transaction depending on the circumstances of each case.
Asked specifically if, in view of the power and influence that the President (and senior government officials) wield, is it fair to expect them to compete openly with ordinary citizens, Keikotlhae simply repeated that the PPAD Act does not make reference to exclusion of any entity or individual in the public procurement and disposal of public goods. He added that the PPAD Act does not exist in isolation. "Other statutes dealing with malpractice including conflict of interest such as the Corruption and Economic Crime (CEC) Act, Competition Act, Public Service Act etc. are applicable to public procurement and asset disposal," said Keikotlhae when asked if it would not be prudent to have special provisions/ guidelines/ procedures for that ensure fairness and equal opportunity against ordinary citizens.
Banyana farms was originally owned by Commonwealth Development Community (CDC), who developed a lot of infrastructure in it building farm houses for landlords and quarters for farmhands, airstrips and numerous boreholes spread throughout the ranch. After taking over ownership of Banyana farms from CDC and operating the ranch for a number of years, albeit without much success, Botswana government decided to subdivide the huge tracts of land into smaller ranches and lease them out to interested farmers while part of the ranch was allocated to Botswana Meat Commission (BMC) to develop feedlots to improve their stock for slaughter.