Behind Botswana’s happy and prosperous image lie some disconcerting truths

When, in January, the website of investigative weekly Mmegi went blank for a week, editor Ntibinyane Ntibinyane didn’t hesitate before he accused the country’s Directorate of Intelligence and Security (DIS) of hacking.  After all, his newspaper routinely ‘follows the money’ in diamond-rich Botswana and a number of incidents last year had made two things increasingly clear: one, that many in the ruling elite didn’t appreciate such reporting, and two, that the secret service was being used to act against those who engaged in it.

It had started with the jamming of the signal of popular radio station Gabz FM, which had hosted political debates in the run up to the elections in September last year. Shortly afterwards, editor Outsa Mokone of the weekly Sunday Standard, which had been investigating corruption and political agendas in the secret service, was arrested and thrown into jail on charges of ‘sedition’. A Sunday Standard journalist had had to flee to South Africa.

A sandy happy image

Botswana’s ruling party has also substantially withdrawn advertising from independent media, thereby severely limiting their capability to pry into the business of the country’s wealthy and powerful. But by far their biggest weapon to discourage reporting on these matters is the DIS, most notably its head, Isaac Kgosi, President Ian Khama’s right hand man. During his seven years at the helm of the country’s secret service Kgosi had made it his mission to maintain Botswana’s international image as a sandy but happy place, a prosperous and democratic part of Africa. In this narrative, Botswana’s greatest ills are the -never too serious- crimes solved by legendary fictional detective Mma Ramotswe, the main character in the ‘First Ladies’ Detective Agency’ books by former Botswana resident Alexander McCall Smith.

Botswana’s rulers love this image. McCall’s books are among the very few novels sold in the main street’s bookstore, where most of the other books on display are religious of for studying. The posh President’s hotel tearoom bears her name.

The Lady Detective never investigated the case of the diamond magnate who was eaten by lions

The Lady Detective of ‘traditional build’, however, never investigated the case of the diamond magnate who disappeared and was found in the bush a few weeks later, half eaten by lions, in 2010. Had she done so, she would have found herself on the trail of the deals that Isaac Kgosi and the DIS have been so at pains to hide.

Louis Nchindo, diamond tycoon and former Managing Director of the state mining company Debswana, was found dead in the bushes on 20 February 2010, his body partly decomposed, with signs of having been gnawed at by lions. Rumour had it that Nchindo had been planning to spill the beans on plots weaved by the elite party and its foreign friends –particularly the Oppenheimer family, who own Debswana’s international partner, the De Beers’ diamond empire- to keep the ruling party in power.

The Oppenheimers and the ruling party

In the first seven years of the new millennium, Nchindo had been a lot of things: MD of Debswana, chairman of the Botswana Stock Exchange, Barclays Bank and resident director of Anglo-American in Botswana. He had also been the conduit between the De Beers group –the Oppenheimers- and the governing Botswana Democratic Party. Simply put, Nchindo had kept the ruling party coffers as well as the personal pockets of high profile party members filled to the brim with diamond money.

But, since 2006, Nchindo –together with his son, Garvas, and a number of Debswana managers- had been investigated for corruption by the Directorate of Public Prosecutions, the DPP. Charges against the group originated from the world’s most valuable mining agreement, the partnership between De Beers and Government of Botswana (1), renewed and concluded in 1998. Nchindo had negotiated this massive multi-multi-billion dollar deal despite the fact that he had held no position in the Ministry of Mineral Resources.

Nchindo had reportedly also facilitated a pay-off by De Beers to remove former President Ketumile Masire, also in 1998, when ruling party strategists felt that Masire, with his many debts, was becoming a liability. According to then prosecutors, Nchindo had been the channel through which De Beers paid off Masire’s debts in return for the then President’s agreement to stand down. “P 4 million (around US$ 400,000) (was to be) transferred from a De Beers company in Panama to Masire’s company GM Five,” wrote the Sunday Standard’s Outsa Mokone at the time.

Feeling the heat of the investigation building up in 2007 and 2008, Nchindo then attempted to blackmail Masire’s successor, Festus Mogae.  In Mogae’s yet unpublished biography, written by political analyst Wayne Edge, Mogae reports receiving an ‘extraordinary request’from Nchindo: halting “the forensic audit (…) into Debswana and drop the criminal charges against him by the Directorate of Economic Crimes and Corruption (DECC).” Mogae continues to say that Nchindo threatened to “expose first his companies dealings with my predecessor (Masire) and their financial support of the governing Botswana Democratic Party” if charges weren’t dropped. According to Mogae, Nchindo also said he would “tell the nation of my private social affairs with girlfriends who shared a few pleasant evenings with me in his firm’s guest house.”

The case threatened to shake the foundations of the ruling party and government

But Mogae refused to budge. The case, which was threatening to shake the very foundations of the ruling party and government, was going ahead. News reports at the time mentioned the names of all those who were said to be implicated. Most notably, besides Mogae (who had left the Presidency in 2008), there were De Beers’ Nicky Oppenheimer, new President Ian Khama, and Khama’s trusted former private secretary, now the head of the DIS, Isaac Kgosi. Highly placed sources at the time told journalists, including myself, that the case could destroy the party and its government. They blamed Mogae for refusing to put a stop to it. “It is as if Mogae doesn’t care about the party that he handed to (new president) Khama”, one said.

Nchindo died on 20 February 2010, a month before he was scheduled to appear in court.

A very strong friendship

There is a very strong friendship between Botswana’s secret service head Isaac Kgosi and the country’s current President, Ian Khama. It started when Khama, the son of Botswana’s founding president Seretse Khama, -and always the elite’s ‘blue-eyed boy’-, was commander of the Botswana Defence Force(BDF) between 1989 and 1998. Isaac Kgosi had then been employed in the BDF’s vehicle repair workshop.

When the men first met is not known; only that Khama took a liking to Kgosi at some point. He promoted Kgosi from relative obscurity and groomed him as his right hand man, giving him a position in military intelligence and sending him to the UK to do a Masters in criminology. In 1998, when he became Vice President, Khama created the office of ‘private secretary to the vice president’ just for Kgosi. And in 2008, when Khama succeeded Festus Mogae, he appointed Kgosi as head of the DIS. It was just at the time when unfortunate Debswana MD Louis Nchindo started threatening to spill the beans on Khama’s and others’ ‘diamond connections’.

Under Kgosi, the DIS started shooting ‘suspects’ more often than they had done before

Under Kgosi, the DIS started shooting ‘suspects’ more often than they had done before.  A report to parliament listed twelve DIS shootings between April 2008 and the same month in 2009; eight of these had been fatal. One of these, on the 12th of March 2009, was the killing of John Kalafatis, a businessman, who was shot in full view of the public in the capital Gaborone. Rumour had it that Kalafatis had ‘robbed’ a close associate of the President, Alan West; the daring allegation was made that the stolen item was a laptop with a recording of a sex orgy involving ‘high profile personalities’ and one ‘state personality’.

The robbery-of-sex-video part of the story remains unconfirmed, but several sources in the intelligence community confirmed to us that Kalafatis was wanted for elimination by ‘top people’. The names of Khama and Kgosi were mentioned. Both issued strong denials. But President Ian Khama pardoned the three state security agents who were arrested, tried and convicted for the murder, a mere eleven months into their prison term. No Botswana President had pardoned a convicted criminal ever before in the history of the country.

No criticism of the President

Ever since, the DIS under Kgosi has grown increasingly impatient with any criticism of the President at all. Last year, Gaborone resident Philip Tlhage was arrested, detained and interrogated by DIS agents after he had commented on the news that the President had been attacked by a cheetah. Tlhage had been overheard by DIS agents at a shopping complex, saying that he wished the cheetah could have done ‘more damage’ to the President. Tlhage later sued the agency and was granted 2,9 million Pula (close to US$ 300,000) pay out in damages.

But fighting those who talk badly of the President is but one of Kgosi’s activities. Under him, the DIS has also morphed into a financial channel that provides lucrative contracts to Kgosi himself and other Khama associates. In the past seven years, DIS tenders totalling close to six million US$ have been given to four companies owned by Kgosi himself and two associates, Zambian Mpenseni Jere and local businessman Thatayaone Seduke. Jere’s company was also given the contract to build President Khama’s controversial home in Mosu, which has been constructed with the help of army vehicles and counts an airstrip; sources have alleged that there are plans for a game park as well. Kgosi himself is director of a company, Silver Shadows, that provides private security for the state diamond mining company, Debswana.

Bullets from an Uzi

In 2011, the state anti-corruption agency DCEC started an enquiry into these business dealings and found a chief witness in IT company owner and DIS contractor, Harry Tembo, who was also a personal acquaintance of some individuals at the highest level of DIS. But in February 2012, Tembo’s body, riddled with both bullets and axe wounds, was found under a bridge bordering the upmarket suburb of Phakalane in the north of Gaborone. The bullets were found to have come from an Uzi, an Israeli manufactured machine gun.

Not many people can lay their hands on an Uzi in Botswana. This indicated involvement from pretty high up in the security forces. “They could not allow him to live”, our sources in the intelligence community told us.

After Tembo’s murder, Australian DCEC investigator Don Mackenzie, who had joined the anti-corruption watchdog in a ‘good governance’ secondment from his country, left Botswana with two years to go on his three-year contract. We journalists were told MacKenzie would have preferred to stay in Botswana, but that he had been pulled out by his bosses, security advisors of the Australian government, because of ‘serious danger.’

One year later, in 2013, the DCEC’s director general, Rosie Seretse, was summoned to the office of the president to explain why my colleagues and I had so much detail on Isaac Kgosi’s business dealings. We had records of financial transactions, company records and a full video of Kgosi being interrogated by DCEC agents. The presidency simply could not believe that we had come by these in any other way than through the DCEC itself. But the message to Rosie Seretse that the DCEC should not be ‘leaking’ came with a much more grave undertone: that the investigation itself was a problem. “There were certain investigations you should just not engage in,”, as our sources told us.

Within the same year, the DCEC was brought under the control of the Office of the President. As was DIS. The DCEC was instructed to pass the investigation into Kgosi on to the Directorate of Public Prosecutions, where it, for all intents and purposes, rests.

Suspicious people

I have had suspicious people at my house. One man entered our yard in 2011, around the time when the case against Kalafatis’ murderers was in court. When my wife found him in our lounge, the stranger identified himself as ‘a friend of the landlord’s’ who was ‘checking on us.’ We called the landlord, who said she had not sent anyone. The visitor left without giving us any further explanation. But the next day, my wife caught another guy who was peeping through our kitchen windows. When she asked him what he was doing, and informed him that I was on my way to the house, the answer came that ‘he would get me.’ I called Kgosi directly then, who denied that any of his agents would ever visit my house.  But other colleagues have had such experiences too.

Fortunately, journalists have so far not been killed in Botswana. But, as shown above, other people have. A recent mysterious case concerns opposition politician Gomolemo Motswaledi.  On 30th July last year, a mere two months before the elections, Motswaledi, who was the President of the opposition Botswana Movement for Democracy, died when his car rolled over about 90 kilometers south of Gaborone. Members of the opposition were and are convinced that this was an assassination.  A report in the Sunday Standard quoted a source within the DIS who said he had had knowledge of the planned murder of Motswaledi. A person also came to tell my paper, the Business Weekly and Review, that he had seen a hit list on which the names of Motswaledi and other opposition leaders featured. The man told us he had been abducted, tortured and threatened by DIS agents after they had found out that he had seen the list. The opposition coalition is still investigating the death of its leader, but the Botswana police has already released a statement pronouncing it a traffic accident.

Perhaps Botswana’s most famous private detective, Mma Precious Ramotswe, could have made sense of the killings this ‘prosperous and democratic’ country has seen recently. It is just too bad that she is fictional.

Update: On 6 May, the offices of the Botswana Gazette were raided by Botswana government officials with an urgent warrant to search and confiscate any material used for the publication of a recent story about individuals who had used their influence in the ruling party to secure oil contracts. The editor and two reporters of the Gazette were taken in for questioning. A tweet by the Botswana Gazette on 7 May reported that the newspaper's lawyer had been arrested.

(1): In 2011, De Beers sold the majority of its shares in Debswana to Anglo American and it is therefore no longer the biggest shareholder.

Tshireletso Motlogelwa is editor of the Business Weekly and Review in Gaborone, Botswana.