13 March 2017

Botswana: Ministers Clash Over Air Botswana

Without saying it in many words Tshekedi Khama feels he would run Air Botswana better than those currently assigned the role at ministerial level. In fact, if he had his way he would have long had the national airline transferred to his ministry. As he confirmed in an interview this week, he was not happy that the current Transport and Communications minister Kitso Mokaila has taken the route to privatise Air Botswana.

"He just made a decision to privatise Air Botswana in the first meeting he attended and though I was not happy with the decision taken I accepted it," he hit out. Tshekedi Khama is the Minister of Environment, Natural Resources Conservation and Tourism and has been open about the necessity of running Air Botswana better because his main clients - tourists - use it to visit the country.

At some point under the previous minister Tshenolo Mabeo reports were rife that Tshekedi Khama had succeeded in making his case for the transfer of the airline to Botswana Tourism Organisation (BTO). Appearing before the Parliamentary Committee on Statutory Bodies and State Enterprises (PCSB) last year former Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Environment, Natural Resources Conservation and Tourism Elias Magosi revealed that discussions were at an advanced stage to transfer Air Botswana to BTO.

"Yes, it is true that there have been meetings between Minister of Finance Kenneth Matambo and Minister Khama but I was not part of the meetings," revealed Magosi, who added that Minister Tshenolo Mabeo was also not part of the meetings.

Enters Mokaila

But when Mokaila was appointed the Minister of Transport and Communications in October last year things took a new turn. Though previously close, Mokaila and Tshekedi Khama's relationship has allegedly hit rock bottom. Upon taking charge, Mokaila did not renew the previous Permanent Secretary Neil Fitt's contract.

That was after Fitt had fared badly at the PCSB committee where the chairman Moyo Guma called for his sacking. Guma had said he would fire Fitt if he was the minister for having authorised a P88 million contract between Air Botswana and Pratt and Whitney Canada without floating an invitation for tender or informing the minister. Mokaila has moved swiftly to entrench himself in the ministry as demonstrated by his decision to put up Air Botswana for privatisation. Tshekedi Khama has, however, felt that he was not sufficiently consulted as a key stakeholder on the privatisation of Air Botswana.

He said that he only heard through the press that an expression of interest was opened for those interested in buying the national airline. In a press briefing on Thursday, which was broadcasted on both Botswana Television and Radio Botswana, Mokaila took a swipe at his former ally. "Minister Tshekedi is a member of the cabinet subcommittee on the privatisation of Air Botswana together with me, Edwin Batshu and Matambo and I wonder why he said he was not consulted. Maybe he does not attend the meetings," hit out Mokaila. In a telephonic interview on allegations that he is not attending meetings, Tshekedi rebutted the allegations saying is not true.

"I have been a member of that committee before Mokaila was appointed minister of Transport and Communications and attended the meetings. I only missed one meeting when it was decided that they will sell Air Botswana," said the outspoken Minister Tshekedi. He said that when the decision was made he was in Morocco and was informed of the decision taken.

Tshekedi Khama said one of the reasons privatisation of state airline has failed in the past is that the consultant engaged did not consult extensively especially to the Ministry of Tourism which is one of the key stakeholders. The appointment of Mokaila taking over from Mabeo is said to have thwarted the plans as he said to have suggested a different approach which Minister Tshekedi is not happy about.

Ugly airport

Last year Tshekedi criticised the design of Sir Seretse Khama International Airport saying it is not attractive. In response Mokaila said he has to live with the design as they are not going to change it. "Various companies were invited during the design of the airport as well as those of Kasane, Maun and Francistown and the designs were approved. We are not going to change them," he said in response.

Minister Tshekedi Khama said he still stood by his statement that SSKA terminal is unattractive and his ministry has offered to assist in turning around its interior. "I had discussions with Minister Mabeo about setting up a lounge for passengers and they were still on-going when he was transferred," he said, adding that even the design of the Maun airport is a disaster. As a way of making SSKA attractive in 2015 ministry of Environment, Natural Resources Conservation and Tourism constructed a 2.5-ton sculpture made out of elephant tasks.

The towering elephant sculpture made entirely from ivory tusks is now the centre of attraction at the airport. The sculpture was designed at the cost of over P200 000 with the assistance of Thapong artists.

17 bidders

Mokaila disclosed this week that 17 companies have expressed interest in buying a stake on the national airline. Among those reportedly bidding for the stake are local businessmen - Ramachandran Ottapathu, the CEO of Choppies retailer and property mogul Sayeed Jamali - who have put up a joint bid to assume 52 per cent of the airline at a cost of P140 million.

Another bidder is German independent aviation consultancy InAvia Aviation Consultants, according to a report by African Aerospace. Together with its network of partners in the aviation business, InAvia intends to restructure and grow Air Botswana for the benefit of the Republic of Botswana.

InAvia's strategy for Air Botswana envisages growing Air Botswana's regional network with the introduction of modern regional jets, but also establishing partnerships with international airlines to operate flights under codeshares with Air Botswana into Gaborone's Sir Seretse Khama International Airport. Michael Hoevel, managing partner of InAvia said: "We believe Botswana has an as yet unrealised potential for travellers into the country, both on business and leisure. Air Botswana is a prime ambassador of the country, but has not yet lived up to the full potential of this role.

We intend to change this and use the Air Botswana brand to attract traffic from Europe and key points in Asia and the Middle East. Continuing to limiting Air Botswana to a regional carrier, possibly even under a different brand, will not be to the benefit of the Republic of Botswana, and may reduce the national airline to a provider of aircraft and crew to other carriers."

Comair - South African-based regional operator - was among those invited to bid and are expected to have done so. Air Botswana - which runs four domestic routes; provides cargo services to Francistown, Cape Town, and Johannesburg besides going to tourist attractive sites of Maun and Kasane - has been a perennial loss maker for Government for years.

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