The minerals that the government owns today were a donation from the peoples of Botswana. In the beginning minerals under tribal territories belonged to tribes occupying such tribal areas. In 1967, after Botswana had just gained independence from Britain, President Seretse Khama entered went around the country negotiating and signing agreements with the tribes, represented by chiefs. It was then agreed that “it is just and equitable that such resources should enure to the benefit of all the inhabitants of Botswana and not to the benefit of a section thereof” and the tribes agreed to transfer their ownership in the minerals to the President, without any compensation. These agreements form part of the Mineral Rights in Tribal Territories Act. The Mines and Mineral Act provides that all rights of ownership in minerals are vested in the Republic and the Minister shall ensure, in the public interest, that the mineral resources of the Republic are investigated and exploited in the most efficient, beneficial and timely manner.
What Botswana has achieved today from the mining and selling of minerals is due to the foresight of its forefathers. Yet, today, secrecy, encouraged and enabled by the government, surrounds this core sector of Botswana’s economy. The call from the World Bank for the government of Botswana to make public the mining contracts it has entered into with the likes of DeBeers is likely to go unheeded just as in 2011 the government refused to pass the Freedom of Information Bill and give the peoples of Botswana access to information – a pivotal tool to participatory democracy.
Batswana have the right to know what their government and government officials are doing and to hold them accountable for their actions. As Richard Nixon said, “when information which properly belongs to the public is systematically withheld by those in power, the people soon become ignorant of their own affairs, distrustful of those who manage them, and — eventually — incapable of determining their own destinies.”
In its case study titled – Botswana’s Mineral Revenues, Expenditure and Savings Policy, the African Natural Resources Center African Development Bank has noted that “While the governance and fiscal regime for all non-diamond minerals is laid down in the law and is not subject to negotiation, for diamonds – the most important mineral – it is discretionary. No information is published on contracts with mining companies, tax arrangements or environmental impact assessments.”
Just recently, the World Bank has disclosed the magnitude of this entrenched secrecy. The negotiation processes around diamonds are kept confidential and secretive – the transaction and the negotiating parties have code names! It is said the Auditor General is unhappy that he is being barred from auditing government diamond contracts. This is improper interference with the independence of the auditor whose role is to review, on behalf of the people and Parliament, the financial administration of the government.
Secrecy breeds and propagates corruption. In 2010, in a report titled The Sunday Standard revealed that De Beers used Guyerzeller, a Swiss bank, as a secret vehicle to hide the movement of secret funds, to direct donations to the Botswana Democratic Party (BDP) for close to 20 years. With transparency in the mining sector such corrupt acts will be averted. In June 2016, Khadija Sharife, a reporter on the Open Society Initiative of Southern Africa suggested that “by partnering with De Beers, Botswana is party to the secretive, monopolistic business practices that underpin the diamond industry. The Botswana government’s ability to reel in corporate misbehaviour is hamstrung by the fact that it works so closely with De Beers—the most important player in the system that keeps diamond prices high through artificial pricing and scarcity. It’s a system that benefits Botswana through elevated diamond prices, but at the same time, De Beers also seems to participate in business practices that deprive Botswana of taxes.”
So, how are the peoples of Botswana to know if “such resources enure to the benefit of all the inhabitants of Botswana” and that indeed the minerals are exploited in the most efficient and beneficial manner when the negotiations, the negotiators and the transactions with mining companies are hidden from the public and even from the oversight mechanisms of government?