Thursday, July 28, 2011

The rise and fall of Louis Goodwill Nchindo

Louis Goodwill Nchindo at Debswana
I was tempted to title this blog ‘The story we wish we had written’. It has everything.  Local boy makes good and rises to the top. Becomes the confidant of presidents of countries and of chairmen of international companies. Arranges a tricky ‘bailout’ for the president of his country, but then falls out with the successor whom he helped to raise to the throne.  Suddenly, he is forced into retirement, then awarded his country’s highest honor before descending into disgrace amidst a corruption scandal threatening to bring down the government and embarrass international diamond-mining giant, De Beers. And finally a lonely unexplained death in a forest outside Gaborone. The only thing the story doesn’t seem to have is an ending.  But John Le Carré might say that indeed it has.

Former President Festus Mogae
Nchindo was born near Gaborone, excelled at a private school there and went on to study medicine in London.  But the hallowed halls of Balliol in Oxford called him, and soon he was studying there and hobnobbing with the likes of Festus Mogae – future president of Botswana. After graduating, he was snapped up by Proctor and Gamble for a senior post in Venezuela.  Returning to Botswana, he rose to chairman of the Botswana stock exchange, head of the Botswana subsidiary of Barclays Bank, resident director of Anglo American Corporation, and finally managing director of Debswana – the joint venture between De Beers and the Botswana government and the country’s most important company.  He was a political power broker in the ruling party and it was said that he was consulted on the appointment of cabinet ministers.  Even with his stellar profile in the business world, his political clout was amazing.

Former President Quett Masire
But when Quett Masire stepped down as president of the country and was succeeded by Festus Mogae, things started to change.  At first Nchindo was as influential as before but then Mogae started to distance himself, and eventually in 2004 he blocked the renewal of Nchindo’s appointment at Debswana.  Later that year Nchindo was awarded the Presidential Order of Honour.  Nchindo didn’t attend the ceremony.

In 2008 thirty-six counts of graft and corruption were brought against him and three other executives including Nchindo’s son.  The most dramatic was the ‘bail-out’ he organized for President Masire.  When he was in deep financial trouble, De Beers ‘loaned’ him P5 million (about US$1 million) to rescue his ailing farm.  (Masire famously commented that the farm got into trouble because his duties as president had led to its neglect.  “I need a manager,” he said!) Nchindo went to see Mogae to ask for help. He wanted the charges to be quashed but the president refused.  Mogae subsequently claimed that Nchindo had threatened to blackmail him over his extramarital affairs.  (This was such an open secret that it is hard to imagine its value for blackmail.)  The case was set for 6th April 2010.  Nchindo made it clear that he wouldn’t go down alone, and threatened to implicate other senior De Beers directors (including chairman Nicky Oppenheimer).

De Beers Chairman Nicky Oppenheimer
On the 7th of February last year he left Gaborone and spent time at a favorite pub out of town.  That was the last time Nchindo was seen alive.  The next day his 4x4 was found locked and abandoned.  A few days later his body was found with one of his firearms nearby.  There was a single shot to the head.  Scavengers had begun work on the body.

There has been no finding since then. Rumors abound.  Nchindo was assassinated by political enemies, by De Beers, by the government.  A different take is that the whole thing was staged to keep him out of jail; another was killed and Nchindo is living abroad in luxury.  An autopsy was done, forensics, DNA, but nothing definitive has been made public. Then the body was cremated.

The corruption case eventually went ahead against the other defendants.  There were no embarrassing revelations.  No one else was implicated.  One defendant was acquitted, one found guilty but is out on bail pending appeal, and Nchindo’s son got a suspended sentence.  

There are still ripples, but those too will pass.

Michael - Thursday


  1. In the 1920's, President Calvin Coolidge is supposed to have said the "the business of America is business" which could be a rallying cry for the idiots in the US. Actually, the left should adopt Coolidge because he was really telling the titans of business that they should be using their profits for the common good but that got lost in the boom years before the crash.

    Politics and business in Botswana are not different than in every other country of the world. One side has the money that the other needs in order to run for office. Business donates and then demands that politicians repay their generosity by selling out the workers and the poor of the country. The cretins who were elected to Congress in 2010 achieved that goal by promising the Tea Party that they would never raise taxes on business. Nikita Kruschev said, fifty years ago, that America would fall from within. It seems it is happening right now.

    Does the United States hide its bodies? Of course. Jimmy Hoffa, the union boss, disappeared in 1975. There are a lot of people still looking for him. The US is better at hiding bodies because we have been doing it longer.

    Is Nchindo dead or alive? Maybe the managing directors at De Beers know. Diamonds aren't just a girl's best friend. They are portable bank vaults, accepted in more countries than American Express.

  2. A fascinating story... diamonds, death and political intrigue so closely entwined... Thank you for bringing this intriguing tale to our attention, Michael. In many ways, you and Stan and have indeed written this story before it hapened! The parallels in your early Books bear a remarkable testamony to the understanding you and Stan have of the environment about which you have chosen to write, and its people. Well done to you both.

  3. Now why didn't I think of that? Fascinating stuff, Michael. Are you sure you didn't script it?

  4. Thanks for all the comments. I must say that while I had been following the story - not very closely - I hadn't drawn the parallels with our books. Making that connection was left to a reviewer for Mmegi - the Botswana weekly - in a review of our book. Obviously that made me think about it a bit more deeply.