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

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

A woman casts her ballot at a polling station in Gaborone, Botswana, on Oct. 24, 2014.
A woman casts her ballot at a polling station in Gaborone, Botswana, on Oct. 24, 2014. Monirul Bhuiyan/AFP/Getty Images

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.

It is also clear that the government will do anything possible to control good news and bury the negative. Shortly after Masisi’s elevation to the presidency, state police physically prevented independent journalists from covering the arrival home of the Botswanan athletics team from the 2018 Commonwealth Games in Australia. That security services were ordered to bar non-state-owned media from reporting and filming sports stars disembarking an airplane—assaulting several reporters in the process—is worrying.

After all, this was a positive news story: Botswana’s team had brought home a record medal haul. A little under a month into Masisi’s presidency, this intimidation seemed to be a warning shot. It signaled that there is little hope of passing a long overdue freedom of information act, critical to exposing corruption and holding anti-graft agencies to account, nor indeed for the much needed reform of state-owned pro-government media.

Allowing trophy hunting and ivory sales is a quick-fix gimmick to appeal to the rural areas of the country that Masisi’s government abandoned some time ago—but whose votes it now desperately needs.

More recently, Masisi’s government has sought to insert itself into a private court case that aimed to overturn colonial-era anti-gay laws. Brought before the High Court, a petition argued that the criminalization of same-sex relations broke the constitutional right to protection from discrimination. High-paid, high-powered lawyers funded by Masisi’s administration argued against the plaintiff, but the court nevertheless ruled in favor of the latter. Refusing to accept the ruling, the president is now appealing the decision as a way to shore up his fading popularity with religious voters.

So long as Masisi, his government, and their advisors tell farmers how to protect their crops, journalists what not to report, courts how to rule, and clumsily attempt to bully the opposition into curtailing its election campaigning, they will chip away at Botswana’s reputation as a democratic success story in Africa.

To secure his place in the history books, Masisi should do the opposite. He could fulfill the promises to the people he made when he took office last year by calling off the police, assuring journalists that they are safe and free to report without fear or favor, and rethinking his ill-advised legal moves and policy initiatives. Were he to do that, he would secure his place in the pantheon of Botswanan leaders who protected the country’s progress at a moment of danger, even if he loses the election.

Duma Boko is the leader of Botswana’s opposition and a Harvard University-educated human rights lawyer. Twitter: @DumaBoko

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