A Conversation With Mokgweetsi Masisi

Monday, September 24, 2018
Don Pollard
Mokgweetsi Masisi

President of the Republic of Botswana


Senior Fellow for Africa Studies, Council on Foreign Relations; Former U.S. Ambassador to Botswana (2011-2014)

GAVIN: Well, hello, everyone. Welcome. I am so pleased to welcome President Masisi to the Council on Foreign Relations and to welcome all the members to today’s Darryl G. Behrman Lecture on Africa Policy.

I’m Michelle Gavin. I’m a senior fellow for Africa policy here at the Council.

And it gives me tremendous pleasure to introduce President Mokgweetsi Masisi, who became the fifth president of the Republic of Botswana earlier this year after many years as a parliamentarian and as a minister, earlier in his career as an educator and an expert in education policy. I had the pleasure of serving as the United States ambassador in Botswana a few years ago and I came to know him as an extraordinary leader, one whose passion for Botswana is perhaps matched only by his work ethic, and really as a tremendously thoughtful and engaging partner when our countries had shared interests to pursue.

So Botswana, as most people in this room know, is small but mighty. At the bottom of nearly every development index at independence in 1966, in less than fifty years it became an upper-middle-income country and has been a stable, peaceful democracy in the midst of a very turbulent region, and sometimes a lonely but courageous voice when its national values and principles put the country at odds with regional consensus. It’s truly a fascinating example of what is possible in the world and of how much governance matters.

And so, with that, President Masisi, the floor is yours.

MASISI: Thank you. Thank you for your kind introduction. I feel a little spoiled. (Laughter.)

But good afternoon, everybody. As Michelle said, I am Mokgweetsi Masisi, the fifth president of the Republic of Botswana, being a beneficiary of an automatic succession clause in our constitution. So I was a lucky guy. I became president because of that. But our term of office as a government ends next year. So come next year October, I’m on my own, as they say. We face an election, and the election will happen, and a new leader will be elected or new leader, I would hope. And then we go on for five years and then hold another election.

But be that as it may, it’s important that we share what we are with you, persons who make this a vibrant foreign relations institute work so well. Botswana has many, many values that it shares with the United States of America. We are a constitutional democracy, Westminster-styled democracy, parliamentary democracy. And we subscribe to the fundamentals as understood by yourselves too. The rule of law is critical for what we believe in. We believe in free enterprise, though we have a mixed economy. We believe in the—we have rights included in our constitution and they are protected. We believe in zero—we have zero tolerance on corruption.

And we as a country have held a very firm foreign policy stance. And essentially, our foreign policy evolved out of a firm conviction of doing what is in the best interest of Botswana, and therefore began by looking at the world through the lens of Botswana. And, informed by our domestic policy, we then articulated how we saw the world. So the ideals of democratic dispensation are some things that we hold dearly, and so our foreign policy is premised on recognizing, promoting, applauding, encouraging democratic practice and behavior.

We are a nonviolent country, and so that is why we took so long in the eyes of some to actually put together an army. Our army was only set up in 1977, and that was after very many years of provocation, abuse, bullying by the then-white minority ruled, racist regime of apartheid in South Africa. But despite that, we were very firm in our conviction and (ordealized ?) our conviction as we were—you know, we abhorred racial discrimination and that which came with South Africa.

We’re very strong on private-sector commitment. And so this young, nascent government, a government of one of the twenty-five poorest nations in the world, soon after the discovery of diamonds in the late ’60s came together to the table to knock out an agreement with a giant mining company, De Beers. And thank goodness to our diplomatic efforts, we had with Canada three Canadians who advised the Botswana government, and the outcome of those discussions resulted in the formation of a joint partnership between De Beers and the Botswana government, fifty-fifty owned. And it is that company that got the license to mine.

But we took our time to learn about diamonds, for we had no trained personnel in diamonds. So we reposited our faith in the De Beers partner and we used mineral revenue to send our able citizens to school all over the world—here, the U.K., Canada, all over—and they learned the ways of mining. And it’s now resulted in a real benefit for ourselves because out of the agreement—we had a fifty-fifty partnership—the proceeds we earn as a government amount to about eighty percent and De Beers remains at twenty percent. And they are still very happy and mining.

So I say this because I want to draw to a close so that I give Michelle a chance to fire a few questions at me. (Laughter.)

Around all this, which is extremely, you know, critical for us, is the conviction, the application of good governing principles. So none of these things would have happened if we did not have the leadership we had, if we did not put in the frameworks we had, if we did not put in the institutions that we had, and if we did not have the friends that we have all over the world. So our commitment to being global citizens has been very beneficial to us.

GAVIN: Thank you so much, Mr. President. Can I just follow up on that? Because Botswana does have an extraordinary story, and one of the questions I’ve always asked myself is, how does a leader make Botswana not just right in many of its decisions, but influential? How does a country with just a bit over two million people exercise influence in the region?

MASISI: You know, when our foreign policy was first articulated for documentation, the first president of the Republic of Botswana put it really, really aptly. And he said we know who we are; we are Botswana. And he quoted the figure of our population at the time. We’re small and unimportant. Even when we speak, however hard you believe in what we do, we don’t make the world shake. So we’re pretty circumspect of who we are.

However, you know, in this day and age, we are convinced that our track record, our example, when matched with what we say about it, would carry some weight of influence. If we speak of, you know, anti-corruption, if we speak of good governance, if we speak of the rule of law, if we speak about the inalienable protection of private investment, they can come to Botswana and, you know, put us to the test. There are so many instances we can cite and draw on our literature to exemplify that.

So we are convinced that our influence bears more out of our track record than our might in economics or military, which is hardly any might.

GAVIN: So there is a debate raging here in the United States and around the world about whether or not democracy is in decline. And Botswana comes in for both praise and criticism when people—when the conversation turns to democracy. It is clearly a place where people exercise their franchise. Free and fair and credible elections occur regularly. People are free to criticize the government, and do, to voice their opinion. But at the same time, the same party has controlled Botswana’s government since independence. And there are, as you pointed out, some structural advantages to incumbency. And so what I want to ask you is, I know that of course you are a loyal and enthusiastic member of the BDP, but I ask you in your capacity as president of Botswana: Can you ever envision a day in which the BDP is not the ruling party of Botswana? Or is that idea anathema to you?

MASISI: No, it’s—I can well imagine it. And that what’s motivates me to work harder. I can imagine how disastrous it will be, but—(laughter)—I still do imagine it.

GAVIN: Sure.

MASISI: And I—and I hold conversation with my political opponents about it.

But, you know, truth be told, if we were to lose an election, there will be nothing that changes. The sun will continue rising in the east and setting in the west, and Botswana will remain. Botswana is much more important than anybody’s ego. So if it was me that was leading the government and the party when that fateful occurs, I will hand over power. And if they call me back to go and show them many other (draw ?), I’ll do it. I’m not going anywhere. I’ll be home. And then I’ll get to do what I really like to do much sooner than I had intended. (Laughter.)

GAVIN: Well, we can talk about what that might be, but—

MASISI: So I don’t lose sleep over that, so.

GAVIN: (Laughs.) I’m not so sure that everyone feels the same way in the neighboring country of Zimbabwe. So recent elections there were marred by some post-election violence. There were some problems in the pre-election climate. There were some ominous remarks about the military’s role. But you also have newly-installed President Mnangagwa working hard to deliver a message about a new direction for the country, a clear desire to turn around the economy. So, given Botswana’s commitment to democracy, past record of speaking out against repression in Zimbabwe, and the fact that Botswana plays host to many Zimbabweans who have fled their country due to economic collapse and in some cases political violence, what do you believe is the right role for Botswana to play as Zimbabwe’s neighbor now?

MASISI: We share a very long border with Zimbabwe. We share a very long history with Zimbabwe. And Zimbabwe has gone through a bitter, long, tragic history prior to being Zimbabwe particularly, as Rhodesia. This tragedy has played itself out, and the people who now play a leading role in Zimbabwe have been the victims of a lot of that. And it has—have to have some effect. They went through a very painful liberation war. And we watched in, you know, pure anxiety as developments in Zimbabwe unfolded leading up to the resignation of President Mugabe and the installation of President Mnangagwa. And then they didn’t—told us that they were going to have elections, and they were going to be free and fair. And thankfully, they said they are going to have observers invited from everywhere, anywhere.

So we sent a team of observers as a country, and we obviously contributed to those who were part of the SADC observer mission. The AU sent observers. The EU sent observers. And God knows how many others sent observers to Zimbabwe. And, frankly speaking, in terms of conduct of the elections, the reports we got from our observers is that they went pretty fairly and well. At least in any abrogation there were of the rules, they were not sufficient to have declared them not free and fair expression of the will of the people of Zimbabwe.

But then there was a contest. There was a challenge to that. And what we were thankful and we’d like to commend the Zimbabwean government for is that they resorted to the court system as prescribed in the constitution within the time limits. As to the arguments and the outcome, I am not an expert in that, but apparently it was a unanimous decision by the highest court of the land to declare President Mnangagwa the winner.

And so an invitation was issued for us to attend the inauguration. I was among those. And one of the reasons I went was to try and get a sense and feel for myself in there how it was. And it was celebratory and some of the opposition party leaders came. And clearly, the main opposition party did not come, the MDC.

And we had a chat with President Mnangagwa, briefly as it was, but he pledged to us, the leaders from the neighboring countries around him who were there, that we would not need to worry for it would all calm down, particularly that some people had, I think, rioted or acted out and there were some incidents. And some investigation commission has been appointed to do that.

No, the diplomacy of calling out on your neighbor when you think they have done something terribly wrong, we don’t do that way anymore. We have stuck now, chosen to stick to a regular diplomatic engagement because we have diplomatic relations. If you have relations with somebody, you talk to them. And if they become too bigheaded or stubborn, then you get on the (loud hailer ?) and you tell the world. And we’ll do that, we have no worries about that. But so far, we’re engaging very meaningfully.

GAVIN: I wanted to be sure to ask you about recent reports of poaching in Botswana. Of course, it’s been in the headlines here, a very alarming uptick in elephant poaching that was reported by Elephants Without Borders, and some link this to your decision to disarm the department of wildlife’s antipoaching unit. So I was hoping you could comment on the facts as you know them and on your vision for ensuring that Botswana continues to be a leader, as it has been for so many years, in conservation.

MASISI: Well, let me begin from where you ended. It’s true Botswana is a leader in conservation. And I can rattle out a few facts in case they are unknown. We are the only country in the world that has deployed all our security forces on antipoaching duty—the only. We have the police, we have the army, we have the intelligence services, we have the prison services, and we have the antipoaching unit of the ministry of environment. All of them are armed in various ways. All of them are armed legitimately and in accordance with the law.

And that takes me to my next point. It wasn’t a disarmament, it’s correcting a wrong. The department of wildlife has an antipoaching unit for whom certain arms have been prescribed. And then there’s a particular act that stipulates what arms are to be borne by who, which is under the custodianship of the Botswana police. And then it was found out by myself when I inquired around May that the department of wildlife antipoaching unit had in its possession weapons that they should not in law have.

And like I said earlier on, we are a stickler to the rule of law. There is no way as president I could ignore that. And so I instructed the minister of justice, under whom the police fall, to write to his counterpart—call him first, you know, be nice—and then let him know that he’s going to write to him and tell him that the police commissioner is going to use his inventory list to collect for safe deposition the arms that the antipoaching unit should not have in law. And that was done quite seamlessly.

And I think for adventurists, they thought that disarming the antipoaching unit—they still have arms. And these were deposited in the armory. And the instruction to the ministry of environment and the wildlife department is, in the event that they really badly need arms of that nature, they must follow the due process as established in government to acquire those. And what it is, is you raise the issue internally, your ministry, you document it, it’s escalated to cabinet and cabinet takes a position on it. And once a position is taken, in this case, it may well result in an amendment of the law or the promulgation of new legislation which enables them, empowers them, legalizes the possession of such kind of weapons.

Now, the reason I am very firm on this is, in the event, for instance, Michelle, if an officer out of due commitment to duty used one of those weapons on a poacher—and we often use weapons on poachers in Botswana—if we use one of those weapons on a poacher and the family of the poacher came and sought redress, the government of Botswana would have no leg to stand on. Why would we then tell the world we are addicts of the rule of law? So, for me, it was a clear, simple compliance issue. But compliance would not be compromised or undertaken and leave a gaping hole in our security for our wildlife.

Now, if you have an old army—I know the BDF is not too big, but clearly it’s big enough to cover the ground around where elephants occur. We have the army and all the other agencies to take care of that.

Now, coming to the issue of the alleged poaching, we are the most committed of countries to antipoaching, to conservation. And the reason why we have up to more than seven, eight times as many elephants as we should have, given the ecosystem, is because it is we who looked after them. We looked after them so well, Michelle. The cousins as they traversed borders told the others, you know—(laughter)—the Angolan elephants, the Zambian elephants, the Zimbabwean elephants, come over here, it’s much nicer here. (Laughter.)

GAVIN: It’s true.

MASISI: And you wouldn’t believe this. If you went to the border, the elephants know where to go sleep as the sun sets. Now, that’s a measure of success, you know?

And so when this allegation that there was mass poaching, despite all these efforts, broke, we were totally shocked and alarmed. So we deployed all these forces I’m talking about, sent out helicopters, planes. And one of the things we did, we went to the author of the report and asked him to accompany those who were in search of those carcasses to establish the truthfulness of this, and indeed they did go.

On the first day, they found ten carcasses and the second day they found nine. And every small minority suggested there had been poaching. And one of the suggestions of poaching is that they would cover the carcass with branches to try and conceal them. A number of the elephant carcasses had their tusks still intact, a number of them had them removed. A number of them were old cases that had been reported.

We report, we document our elephant mortality that we see in the duty of patrolling, course of patrolling, every single day. And they report to me every week. So we tried that and so we would know when the trend is getting offhand, but this was a shocker.

So we went all over the place and couldn’t find any more than nineteen at different places, some as old as two years old. I mean, just, you know, old bones around there. And so we asked the officials to plead for further assistance and reinforcement to look for the others. In no way in the searches, aerial and land, did we find that number alleged, nor did we find any significant number next to near some century. And we contacted the other researchers in the area, other actors. CARACAL (ph) from Wisconsin University has a big operation in Chobe, and they all confirmed this was the biggest hoax of the twenty-first century.

So I can sit here with, you know, a lot of comfort and say that, yes, there is some poaching, we do our very best to avert it. We, you know, investigate and in some instances we actually arrest and prosecute. And like many people and many executives that complain about the judiciary, we also do, right? We think they just—they’re not firm enough, but they also say we do a bad job of investigation and evidencing, et cetera.

The fact is there are very concerted efforts, coordinated efforts to deal with the poaching. And so rest calmly, not in Botswana.

We will continue to have challenges, particularly that we are, you know, bringing in rhino where it didn’t occur. And clearly, as the poachers who are highly experienced and apparently use performance-enhancing drugs of any kind, they would have finished the animals in areas where they traditionally poach, and they will have to test us. But you know, if you come across a poacher, warn them not to come to Botswana, they may not leave. That’s a simple fact.

GAVIN: Thank you for that and for that clarity.

At this time, I’d like to open up the discussion to members, but first a few quick ground rules. Please remember that this meeting is on the record, unlike some meetings at the Council, so this is not your moment to be indiscreet. We are on the record. Please wait for the microphone, speak directly into it. Please state your name and affiliation. And finally, if I could please have your cooperation, it is so rare to get an opportunity to interact with a head of state like this, so please help us all make the most of it by keeping your questions concise and limiting yourself to one question.


Q: Tony Carroll with Manchester Trade.

Ambassador, tectona (ph), dumela.

MASISI: Dumela.

Q: Actually, as it turns out, I just came back from the Okavango with a team from the University of Wisconsin. And obviously, as equal threat, maybe even a greater threat to elephant populations, is water availability. Concerns have been expressed about the up waters of the Okavango and even a Delta Act was passed in Congress to try to, shall we say, put some more structure into the idea of preserving the Okavango. Just wondering about your thoughts on the Okavango and its longevity and international compacts that will preserve this wonderful resource of the Okavango.

MASISI: Shall I go?

GAVIN: Please.

MASISI: Well, the Okavango us extremely precious to us. It’s part of our national heritage. We are the ones who are motivated for it to be listed. It happens to be the one-thousandth world heritage site. And what we can promise the world—and you, Tony—the Okavango is there to stay.

To confirm that even more, we have agreements with our neighbors. There’s a KAZA arrangement involving Namibia and Angola, Zambia to protect the Okavango. I don’t think it would be appropriate for me to talk about the performance of each of us with respect to their compliance with that, but I can tell you for a fact, soon after I became president, when I went on an introductory tour in the region, at every of those station states that I went to, which had a link to Okavango, I mentioned and talked about it. And I got from them a promise that they, too, cherish Okavango, it shall remain.

And even as recently this morning, because President Lourenco spoke just before I did, we talked about it in the waiting room as we were waiting to speak. And he’s fully committed to it. He’s about to come on a state visit, he’s promised us one, and one of the activities we’re going to get into is fly over the Okavango and pass fly through Namibia and Angola.

So the highlands of Angola where the source is are very important to us. It’s a rare, rare, you know, formation, the largest delta in the world. We have 11.3 billion cubic liters of water, freshwater, flows and disperses into an oasis in the desert. And the reset is magic. You need to come out there and see it.

GAVIN: I can endorse that.


Q: Hi. I’m Rachel Robbins. I’m an independent director for Atlas Mara. And it’s a pleasure doing business in your country.

There are some very exciting things happening in Africa in digital technology, mobile banking, and other areas. Could you talk about the opportunities that you see for foreign private investment, not only in Botswana but in neighboring countries, over the next few years?

MASISI: Thank you. I think there are plenty of opportunities for investment, plenty. What you obviously would be looking out for would be security of investment, legislative and institutional. I need hardly say any more than we have it in Botswana, for one. So in the event that you want to invest in another country that will remain nameless and you’re not so sure about that, come put your headquarters in Botswana and then, you know, keep your money there and we’ll look after it. (Laughter.) And then do what you have to do there.

But, you know, we have serious infrastructure deficits. We have serious digital deficits. We have serious challenges with systems to make more efficient operations, either of government or even the private sector. There is an awful lot that needs to be done to take us to the next level. And there is investment opportunities in the resources required to create that. In the tourism and leisure industry, huge opportunities. I just wish—we can have a private conversation after this and then, you know, we just catch up. There is so much, because we are not industrialized, most of us. And, you know, in case you are a little wary and you think it’s going to be OK to do it where you’ve been doing it, I mean the manufacturing and all that, it just won’t happen for too long because there are lots of others who are looking at the unit cost of production and distribution, and ours is getting lower and lower as efficiencies improve, education skills come about, electricity becomes available. So don’t get there when it’s too late. That’s my advice to you.

GAVIN: Please.

Q: I’m Reed Kramer from AllAfrica.

My question is about trade. The Continental Free Trade Agreement is moving forward. Southern Africa has been a leader in regional cooperation through the Customs Union and the Southern African Development Community. Botswana has a strong economy, but you’re next-door to a bigger economy. Does free trade work for a country like Botswana?

MASISI: I heard you had President Cyril Ramaphosa here. I wish he were here to help me answer this one. (Laughter.)

It works more for them than us. (Laughter.) That’s a frank answer, all right? And it’s almost inevitable when you have a big, big neighbor next to you and you free the highway of trade, they will outcompete you on many fronts. But we have provisions for the protection of nascent, infant industries. So that we attempt to do. But we are committed to, you know, growing through trade, but fair trade.

GAVIN: Thank you. In the back there.

Q: Thank you very much. Mr. President, my name is Kuseni Dlamini. I’m chairman of the Massmart Group. Massmart Walmart in Africa. We (own the game ?) stores in Botswana and the build (us with our ?) stores. Botswana is one of the favorite places in which to invest. I can concur with you in many respects.

And I also want to commend the efforts you’ve made in conservation. I was chairman of South African National Parks for six years. When we were facing the scourge of rhino poaching in South Africa, we looked to Botswana to assist. And the cooperation that we got from your government was very commendable indeed.

The question that I have is that when you became president there was a lot of excitement in terms of the energy and the passion that you bring, a sense of renewal, a sense of a new dawn as we refer to it in South Africa. I just want to ask a simple question: What legacy do you want to leave as president of that great country? (Laughter.)

GAVIN: Very simple question. (Laughter.)

MASISI: You know, I want to leave a legacy of profound transformation. I would like to look back hopefully ten years later from the time I assumed office and objectively be able to say and evidence that there were great leaps going forward. Of course, that depends on a whole number of factors. So I am committed in my term to unlock any locked door, to remove barriers, to energize, but more than anything else to put my own citizens, people, at the center of what we do. So there’s no way I’m going to leave them behind. And success for me will be measured by there are just changes in the quality of their lives.

GAVIN: Can I follow up on that, Mr. President? Because, as you allude to, there is a—there’s a great deal of economic inequality in Botswana. The government makes laudable investments in health and in education, tremendous amounts of the budget that are invested. It’s one of the top in the world on those indicators. But the HIV/AIDS pandemic that has hit Botswana so hard is in some ways hard to see these days, because your government has done such an extraordinary job of getting those who need antiretroviral drugs those drugs. And I think you’re second to none still in stopping mother-to-child transmission; it’s amazing. But the cost—the cost to Botswana of that much of your population on these drugs for the rest of their lifetimes, when I used to look at the out years, it’s pretty crippling. So how are you going to do all the things you want to do for economic diversification, empowerment, inclusive growth, while you have this constant drain on the national budget that is commendable and laudable, but really hard to get out from under? How does Botswana turn the page on that?

MASISI: Do you know, it’s going to take a lot of hard, renewed reinvigoration and effort on everybody’s part. I was just chatting with the coordinator of NACA when I was on my way here, and we were arguing about the meaningfulness of the drop in the incidence rate. He seemed a little more, you know, hopeful than I. It’s dropped, I think, from 1.5 to 1.3 percent. And for a country that is a Third World, developing, relatively poor country, that for me is still way too high, and particularly that we do not manufacture drugs. We don’t supply anybody with drugs except cattle drugs; I mean, you know, for foot and mouth, or as you call it here hoof and mouth. And so this is a constant drain on our resources.

And the best thing that a developing country can do is not so much the biomedical route in the long term; it’s prevention. And efficacy development, getting new ways of arming persons with the information carried right through to their behaviors, is what we’re going to need more of because, you know, it’ll be a transition over the ages. As more and more people are born and remain HIV-negative, that should reduce the cost to us. In the interim, we just got to, you know, come to grips with the manufacturers of these drugs and use our budget and plead for assistance.

And I must publicly thank the American people here because I went to Texas Children’s Hospital before I came here, and I just brought buckets full of thank yous to them because, you know, if had no been what President Mahaya (ph) did, and the response came from Bristol-Myers Squibb and Texas Children’s Hospital, et cetera, and the Harvard AIDS people, I may not even be here as your president, I mean as the president of Botswana. Sorry, not—I’m not trying to—(laughter)—

GAVIN: Big legacy. (Laughs.)

MASISI: Please, let this stay in this room only. (Laughter.)

But we were a country faced with a real possibility of going extinct. And I thank you for your humanity in that.

But then, when you have been given a second chance, it’s only proper that we all act responsibly and are much more efficacious going forward.

GAVIN: Thank you. Jeffrey.

Q: Jeff Laurenti.

First, Mr. President, I suspect at least a few people here might be willing to make the switch you just hinted at. (Laughter.)

And since you’re in New York for the U.N. General Assembly session, let me ask a U.N.-y kind of question. The International Criminal Court has been castigated by some in a well-orchestrated campaign as too focused on African alleged atrocities and war crimes and such, and right next door the now-ousted president of South Africa had initiated a process of South African withdrawal. And just this month the Trump administration’s national security adviser denounced once again the International Criminal Court and saddled up his old hobby horse to eradicate it. Is this something that is so far removed from Botswana’s concerns or Botswanans’ interests that it really doesn’t matter—or, for that matter, the Human Right Council that the Trump administration has walked out on—or are these part of a structure of a more peaceful and just and working world order that you all feel somewhat strongly about?

MASISI: Do you know, we as Botswana feel very strongly about the ICC and the Human Rights Council. Our commitment to those values and virtues are sacrosanct.

And the simple question I have is, what’s your motive in not wanting the ICC? If you are a leader, the best way to show your disdain for the ICC is just don’t abuse power. Just don’t abuse power. And why would you want to be protected? Why would you want anybody protected when they abuse power?

You know, I don’t have my sympathies in the assertions that it is just for a certain group of people. It is just a set of values that these ones have subscribed to. If you have a fight with it, come in and let’s talk as member states. We would subscribe to that.

But, no, Botswana is committed to the ICC. And through our bilateral engagements, we will engage those who have difficulties with it. But you know, your guess is as good as mine as to why some might not want them. So we will stick with the ICC.

GAVIN: Thank you. Laurie.

Q: Welcome, Mr. President. Laurie Garrett. Thanks for being here.

I want to follow on from that very smart question because the Third World War was fought in Congo and its neighboring areas in ’98-’99, and millions lost their lives. There’s great instability in that region again, and Kabila is in no hurry to step out of office though his term is long over. How grave do you see—when you look north, how grave do you see the possibility of a renewal of a kind of 1998-99 scale of war in DRC, Rwanda, Burundi, Uganda, Tanzania, that whole—I mean, there were twelve countries involved last time.

MASISI: No, I’m not convinced it’s going to—it’s going to break out like it did in ’98 and ’99, for one, because the leaders in those countries neighboring the DRC all seem to be so committed to ensuring that it’s contained, for one. But we were at a SADC—SACU summit—no, SADC summit in Windhoek, Namibia, and President Kabila came along, and he came to say goodbye. And he communicated this to use even in private session, that he will not be the candidate. And he actually told us and introduced us to the man who would be a candidate, one of his ministers in his party.

But, you know, the challenges of the DRC are much more complex than a single Kabila. It’s a very complicated country. And I think, you know, we will all do ourselves and do the world a favor by coming close to understanding this. There are so many external very powerful forces at play, actively causing a lack of peace in DRC. They are much more powerful than the nation-states of Southern Africa, way beyond our reach, and there’s an awful lot of money to be made from DRC. DRC, if it were working orderly, is probably the richest country in the world, and everybody has their hand in the kitty there. That’s what the problem is.

The ordinary Congolese are really ordinary people who are struggling to find sleep, struggling to find food, things they should not be struggling to find, electricity. Their, you know, capacity of generating power even from hydroelectric is in excess of five thousand megawatts. And that’s a place that should really be a test case of the U.N. to sort out and sort out properly. If there are other urgent provocateurs, I want them to come to the table.

GAVIN: Thank you.

Q: Jonathan Klein. I have a number—

GAVIN: Can you wait for the microphone? Thank you.

Q: (Comes on mic.) Jonathan Klein. I have a number of associations, but the hat I’m wearing for this question is The Global Fund against AIDS, TB, and malaria, so I’d like to go back to that issue.

The fact remains that your country as a percentage of population is in the top—or bottom, depending on how you look at it—for countries in the world in terms of incidence. The only part of the world, including your country, where the incidence in HIV is going up is amongst adolescents. The question for you, and when you think about your legacy, is: What level of priority do you give to this issue, given all the other matters that you and your government are juggling?

MASISI: You know, we—one of the bigger goals that we have and priorities we state frequently is our commitment to youth unemployment, right. But when you unpack it further, unemployment is compromised by disease burden or infection. We prioritize the youth in our other programming. And one of the things we’re going to be dealing with NACA as we sort out the structure again—it had been compromised somewhat—is for there to be very serious, vibrant targeting of young persons.

But because of the evidence we have, we’re going to need to also target those a little older than adolescents, because there’s a lot of intergenerational sex, because most of our HIV is heterosexual-driven. So I will try and convince my colleagues in parliament—you’ll help me guess this one, whether it’s a good idea to try and convince them to promulgate legislation to criminalize intergenerational sex, before an election or after an election? (Laughter.) I’m going to be in trouble when I get home. (Laughter.)

But I am committed to making sure that we not only create the programmatic environment to protect young people from each other and from those outside their cohort, but also to penalize those who so do, just the act of it, irrespective of status. And that should go a long way in helping.

Part of the other challenge is, with such levels of unemployment, youth unemployment particularly—because, you know, from our tertiary institutions, out of every ten thousand, only one thousand gets a job, right, because largely of the structure of economy and because you all haven’t gone to invest sufficiently enough. So you need to help us sort out that problem.

You know, youth poverty is a real issue. And when they are weaned out of, you know, government assistance in the education or whatever it is, the risks they’re exposed to are extremely high. And unfortunately, much as we don’t like it, some do end up in the wrong hands.

GAVIN: Seema, and then we’ll go to Chris.

Q: Seema Mody with CNBC.

Mr. President, I’d like to get your thoughts on China’s rising role across Africa and if you think China can continue to invest in countries like Botswana without getting too much political influence.

MASISI: Well, China—we just came back from a very successful summit in Beijing. And I say successful; we as Botswana did not participate in the first round, I mean, in the 2015 round, when there was sixty billion (dollars) up for borrowing and some grant. So this time we went and we managed to, I think, secure some funding, well within our limits, as we’re allowed in our constitution, to borrow. So we’re frugal about where we borrow money from and what for.

But China, I can attest to you, had a very successful summit in Beijing. Fifty-three of the countries in Africa were present—an overwhelming majority of those led by heads of state. And the report, which is the reason why I said it was successful, from expenditure since 2015 of the sixty billion (dollars), more than ninety-six percent success rate, right.

Now, individual countries are the best place to state, you know, how that has worked for them. But clearly, with so much money going out, will come the capability of engaging politically in manners that are different from when the money wasn’t there. I mean, isn’t that—doesn’t that go for everybody?

So if you call it political influence, sure, they’ll have it. It might increase. And bear in mind that China has also donated the AU headquarters building, a present from the people of China to the people of Africa. And what I’ve said to some of my American friends—and I have seen the ambassador, who’s just finishing his term in Botswana—before I came here I said, in my estimation, I think you’ve been slow, just to put it frankly. You’ve been slow.

The way in which the Chinese organize with summits is second to none. And they let you set your priorities. So we set our priorities. And then you negotiate the terms of the deal. If it doesn’t work for us, we don’t take it. That’s period. So we’re in business here. We’re going to take cheap money. But it’s not tied to anything.

GAVIN: Thank you.


Q: Mr. President, thank you very much for your wonderful presentation. It’s so nice to meet you in person. And thank you and the people of Botswana for giving us Africans an opportunity to be very proud of one of our countries.

My question is—

GAVIN: Can you just identify yourself?

Q: Oh. I’m Chris—

GAVIN: I know who you are, but—(laughs)—

Q: I’m Christopher Fomunyoh. I work for the National Democratic Institute based in Washington. I oversee Africa programs.

My question is a follow-up to the China question, because that’s an issue that’s being debated in a lot of African circles. Some see a lot of challenges in the way in which these deals are structured, in ways that don’t really help African countries deal with the unemployment issues for youth, because a lot of the level is Chinese-driven.

Some people are also afraid of the debt traps for African countries and the fact that, sooner or later, we may run into African countries being unable to service their debts. We know that some of your neighboring countries that may remain nameless are already facing that issue with regards to the possibility of servicing Chinese debts.

Other people see opportunities. I would like to hear from you, Mr. President, where you come down on this issue, not just from the perspective of Botswana, but looking at the continent as a whole, and secondly, whether there are issues that other African countries could learn from the way in which Botswana dealt with its diamonds agreement with De Beers and the way in which they structured their deals with the Chinese.

Thank you.

MASISI: Thank you; quite a number of questions there.

GAVIN: Yes. Take what you can, because—

MASISI: All right; time.

Well, you know, I can speak with greatest authority on Botswana. I’m not circumstanced to talk in detail about other African countries. But I can give you a perspective of what I think.

When money gets laid out there to be loaned to entities—countries, in this case—it’s a country’s sovereign right to determine how much they borrow. And it’s the responsibility of the lender to determine if there is viability in that loan, right. So one would assume that there are structures in place to ensure that the burden does not get too overwhelming.

But in the world of borrowing and lending, mistakes happen. We all know that. And so if there were defaults, as you say, in some countries near to Botswana, which shall remain nameless, it would not be the first time that countries default. They’ve defaulted when they were borrowed money by others before. And they would have to know what to do. I mean, it’s like having an irresponsible neighbor, you know.

But I—speaking from the perspective of Botswana, I am comfortable in what we have borrowed from China. It’s only 10.2 billion pula, about one billion USD; not—it’s not going to break the bank for us. And we’ll work the terms so that we can actually pay it off.

As for jobs, it’s a balancing act. There may be some instances where the technology to be used demands a certain level of proficiency to use it, and therefore reduce the number of jobs available locally, and depends on the skill level of the person’s domestic economy, what they can bring to it, or if it’s designed to take a long time and part of it is to train people. It’s all to be structured. But countries look out for themselves.

But finally, you know, rich countries, countries that can borrow money, have a moral duty and obligation to ensure a safe, sustainable world, even in the financial sector, because if you don’t, you become part of the problem too.

GAVIN: Well, I think you’ll all agree with me that this has been just an extraordinary and wonderful opportunity to hear from such a thoughtful and unscripted and real head of state. And it’s nice to come away from a session feeling hopeful. I don’t know about you. I haven’t been feeling too hopeful these days. So thank you.

MASISI: Thank you. (Applause.)


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