It’s Not Just Elephants That Are Under Attack in Botswana

Oct 3, 2019 | News

By DUMA BOKO– Foreign Policy

The country’s government is rolling back wildlife protections and endangering media freedom and the rule of law.

It’s not uncommon in African countries for opposition politicians to be harassed and their freedom to campaign curtailed. But the country where I lead the opposition isn’t Eritrea or Chad but Botswana—long the Western world’s African favorite when it comes to good governance and democracy.

Over the last few months, having been physically harassed by police, my home raided by tax officials (over a car they had already taken into their possession), and my party’s light aircraft repeatedly impounded by the authorities—which prevents our campaigning in remote areas of the vast yet sparsely populated nation—the days of good governance seem long gone.

Governments everywhere investigate tax matters and register vehicles for transport. But they don’t tend to use the powers of the state, all at once, in the final months of an election campaign to try to systematically impede and intimidate the opposition leader, unless they fear they are about to lose at the ballot box.

For the first time in more than 50 years there is a real and present danger to the governing party’s grip on power.

This behavior is not normal in my country—but nor are the circumstances in which it is happening. That is because for the first time in more than 50 years there is a real and present danger to the governing party’s grip on power. My party, the Umbrella for Democratic Change, has a chance of ousting the Botswana Democratic Party (BDP), which has been in power since the country’s independence from Britain in 1966.

Then, the nation was one of the poorest in Africa. Soon after, the winds of change swept through the country and continent, and rich veins of diamonds were discovered in Botswana. Yet rather than cursing Botswana’s future, as natural resources have in many other countries, the mineral revenues were reinvested in infrastructure, health care, and education. Now Botswana is an upper-middle-income nation—rare in Africa—of just over 2 million people. Even I can testify to the BDP’s successes of the past, based on efficient and effective—if not open—government.

Yet in just 18 months, the party has terminally damaged this legacy. In March 2018, Ian Khama—the son of the independence leader Seretse Khama—stepped down, unable to contest the forthcoming poll after reaching his two-term limit as president. He handpicked Mokgweetsi Masisi to take over as leader of the party and country. Yet in this short span of time, relations between the two men have soured, provoking the former president in May to leave the party his father helped found.

Masisi has quickly moved to pollute his inheritance. The championing of environmental conservation has not only been ditched but reversed. Worried about where members’ true loyalties lie, Masisi has stoked division within the ruling party. And he has removed barriers to graft by transferring the independent anti-corruption agencies—the Financial Intelligence Agency and the Directorate on Corruption and Economic Crime—into the president’s office. It seems little wonder that the cabinet apparently requires 28 ministers, with the power to grant public contracts, when the National Assembly has just 57 members.

It is clear that the government will do anything possible to control good news and bury the negative. 

Three issues have raised the alarm and revealed that all is no longer well in Botswana: elephants, media, and the law.

Botswana is a sanctuary for wildlife. It is home to over 130,000 elephants, more than any other country in the world. But this was not always the case. In 2014, then-President Khama banned trophy hunting, citing declining numbers. In May, this ban was lifted, along with a proclamation of the government’s intention to resume the global sale of ivory.

Internationally, the government has rightly drawn fire for this. There is simply no need for these policies: not for the need to halt elephant herds damaging farmers’ crops (they can be warded off by the smell of chilis), nor for the money that trophy hunters might bring to the country (sure to be offset by losses in wildlife and ecological tourism). Given the timing, it is clear that this is purely a play to the gallery: an appeal, through a quick-fix gimmick, to the rural areas of the country that Masisi’s government abandoned some time ago—but whose votes it now desperately needs.