Never set foot in this place ever again

Only those very close to President Ian Khama knew what was happening in Mosu, a tiny and sleepy village some 600 kilometres northeast of the Botswana capital Gaborone, and they kept it a closely guarded secret. A whistleblower provided the breakthrough in 2013. Sunday Standard, a local newspaper, published a sensational story charging President Ian Khama of constructing an airstrip in his private land using resources from the military. The government dismissed this report as nothing but ‘lies by the irresponsible media’. A few months later, reporters at the Botswana Guardian led by Ntibinyane Ntibinyane (investigations head) and Joel Konopo (editor) published more details of what was happening at Mosu: the Botswana Defence Force was not only constructing an airstrip in Khama’s private plot, but was also involved in the construction of his compound. The government’s public relations arm used the state television, radio and newspaper to dismiss these allegations. Government made counter-claims that the airstrip was outside the president’s compound and was constructed to facilitate his movements around the country. Further, the government alleged that the country’s civil aviation regulator was the custodian of the airstrip.

But the Botswana Guardian’s sources within the military gave a conflicting picture. The newspaper insisted that the airstrip was, in fact, inside Khama’s plot and the military was heavily involved in the construction. When an opposition MP asked a question in parliament about it, the government made one critical concession. The airstrip was in Khama’s private land. The government, however, denied the involvement of the military in the construction of Khama’s compound. It was a slight victory for the media, but more questions remained. If the military was involved in the development of both the airstrip and Khama’s compound, how much was the taxpayer paying for the development? How big was the airstrip? How big was the compound? The government was not talking.

After the initial flurry of media interest, the story appeared to die a natural death. In 2017, two years after Ntibinyane and Konopo established the INK Centre for Investigative Journalism, they received more information from well-placed sources in government. In preparation for his retirement, construction at the president’s holiday home had intensified and the military had deployed equipment to the area. In March 2017, Ntibinyane, Konopo and another reporter, Kaombona Kanani embarked on a trip to Mosu to verify the claims and get a first-hand view of developments. Some 5 kilometres before reaching the compound, the three journalists were ambushed by armed presidential guards, detained and interrogated for several hours before being released with a stern warning. ‘Don’t ever set foot in this place ever again. If you do, we are going to shoot and kill you.’ The journalists reported these threats to the police but no action was taken against the over-zealous officers.

A week later, the three journalists devised a plan to obtain an image of the president’s compound. They decided to commission a local satellite imaging company to get a real-time image of the area. A week after agreeing to sell the image, the company chose not to proceed with acquiring the image on the basis that what the journalists wanted was ‘sensitive material’. Through the assistance of a Florida-based company Digital Globe, INK Centre for Investigative Journalism was able to obtain an image from a South African-based satellite image reseller. INK paid US$5,000 to obtain the 65.1MB image covering an area of 21-by-19 square kilometres. The image revealed that the military was constructing a massive airstrip, and was also involved in the construction of Khama’s private residence adjacent to the airstrip, all contrary to the government’s denials. With the help of a topographer, the centre was able to establish that the compound was not as small as the government initially suggested. The involvement of the military was no longer in doubt.

For the first time, the country was able to have a glimpse of what was happening at the much talked about compound. A former army general with knowledge of the construction for the first time admitted that the budget from the military was used in the construction of the compound and the airstrip. The story was published with Sunday Standard newspaper and later with the Daily Maverick in South Africa as well as on the centre’s website. In the face of this evidence, government resistance broke down. They issued a twoline statement denying wrongdoing.

BDF building airfield on Khama’s private land Ntibinyani Ntibinyani & Joel Konopo, Sunday Standard, 22
September 2013

Botswana Defence Force is constructing an airfield in Mosu on a private piece of land owned by President Ian Khama. Once completed the airfield will form part of the president’s elaborate array of holiday resort infrastructure. Because the airfield is being built by the army, no Environmental Impact Assessment has been conducted, notwithstanding the fact that it is not a military installation. BDF and the Directorate of Intelligence Services are by law exempted from the exigencies of Environmental Impact Assessment. This however does not take account of the fact that the facility is on a private piece of land situated on the pristine and ecologically sensitive Makgadikgadi Salt Pans. According to the Presidency, the airfield is expected to facilitate President Ian Khama’s air travel. At the time that Sunday Standard was investigating this story, heavy machinery, almost all of it owned by Botswana Defence Force had started a massive de-bushing exercise to clear a chunk of land where the airfield is going to be constructed. ‘It is indeed true that the BDF is constructing a landing strip near Mosu for His Excellency the President. The construction of this airstrip is to facilitate the air movements of His Excellency the President,’ said the Head of Government Communications, Jeff Ramsay in response to a set of questions that Sunday Standard had sent to his office and the Botswana Defence Force …

Khama’s Mosu built with public funds
INK/Sunday Standard, 2017

Botswana Defence Force (BDF) funds, equipment and personnel are being diverted towards constructing and developing President Ian Khama’s private lodge at Mosu, on the southern shore of Makgadikgadi Salt Pans, a prime tourism destination. Investigations by INK and Sunday Standard have also revealed that Khama, who is one of the biggest tourism investors in Botswana, appropriated a chunk of land to add to the 60ha in Mosu which he has been allocated by the Letlhakane sub-land board for a commercial tourism business. Satellite images have revealed for the first time how government has for years maintained a veil of secrecy over the huge construction work going on at the president’s property in Mosu, consistently downplaying the size, scale and scope of the controversial project. INK and Sunday Standard contracted DigitalGlobe, a New York-listed commercial imagery firm, to capture a high-resolution 50cm worldview image over Mosu private property and airstrip. DigitalGlobe sub-contracted Johannesburg-based Swift Geospatial Solutions. In July 2014, the Office of the President claimed that: ‘The President’s house is a single bedroom cottage with a kitchen and a sitting room, while his brothers between them have a twobedroom cottage and a single-room chalet. ‘There is also an additional single room chalet at the compound. During all phases of the construction undertaken at the compound, that is on the homes of HE the President, his brothers and the guest chalet, no Government personnel were engaged. Neither was any government money spent on the structures.’ The satellite impressions commissioned by INK and Sunday Standard contradict the official narrative that BDF resources have not been deployed in Mosu for the President’s personal gain. Imaging satellites operated by Swift Geospatial Solutions exposed the President’s property as a huge military installation which is much larger than previously stated by the Office of the President. One of the plots is 15ha of military equipment: earth moving machinery, water bowsers, large trucks, smaller utility trucks, a solar panel plant, a large generator and and three rectangular structures – which, according to an architect contracted by INK, resemble army barracks.