In south-west Botswana, near the border with South Africa, the government owns some prime farmland – Banyana Farms. The land was originally bought in order to promote commercial cattle farming in Botswana.
Last year, Banyana Farms – a state-owned company – decided to lease out several large ranches on the property, and designed a competitive tender process to do so. After all, this is valuable real estate, and the lease is for 14 years. The biggest ranch, the 49 square kilometre Portion 2, attracted considerable interest. The 39 bidders have now been whittled down to a shortlist of three.
On that shortlist is a familiar name: Mokgweetsi Masisi, the president of Botswana.
In Botswana, it is not illegal for presidents to engage in commercial enterprises. But it is frowned upon – especially when there is any suspicion of conflict of interest. Plenty of suspicion surrounds this transaction.
The INK Centre for Investigative Journalism saw the tender documents for the ranch, which lay out the conditions which all potential bidders must meet. Two major conditions are that bidders must pay a visit to the farm; and must submit to an interview with the Banyana Farms assessors at the offices of Botswana’s Attorney-General.
President Masisi met neither of these conditions. Instead, he sent representatives to view the farm; and arranged for the interview to take place in State House in Gaborone.
Even more seriously, the tender documents specify that bidders should not already own a ranch in Botswana at the time of bidding. But Masisi is engaged in commercial livestock production and horticulture at Matseta near Gaborone, where he grows vegetables and rears cattle and small stock. His family inherited a farm at Sekoma where there is commercial livestock production. He is also said to have a feedlot in Moshupa and farms at Tshele and Morupule.
The office of the president declined to respond to questions sent by the INK Centre. The ministry of agriculture, under whose remit Banyana falls, responded only to say that questions would be forwarded to the Office of the President.
Although he has so far declined to answer INK’s questions, the president’s spokesperson Batlhalefi Leagajang told radio station Gabz FM that the president “doesn’t have farms elsewhere”. Pressed by the anchor Kealeboga Dihutso to explain further, Leagajang said the President did have “agricultural land”.
He did not clarify the difference between a farm and agricultural land. “I know he [the president] is interested in Banyana Farms,” Leagajang said.
Asked if it is ethical for Masisi to do business with the government in his personal capacity, Leagajang told the Gabz FM anchor, Kealeboga Dihutso, that the president does not sit on the board of Banyana Farms and is not involved in procurement.
Micus Chimbombi, a former permanent secretary for the ministry of agriculture who is now an opposition politician, said that President Masisi should not have been given preferential treatment. He added, however, that it is difficult for public officers – such as the board of Banyana Farms – to resist pressure from politicians. “In principle they can resist but in practice that could make the outcome of their decision tilt in favour of those individuals,” said Chimbombi.
This is an edited version of an investigation by the INK Centre for Investigative Journalism. This version first appeared on The Continent, the new pan-African weekly newspaper designed to be read and shared on WhatsApp. Download your free copy here. The full investigation is here.