Botswana and Zimbabwe: More Than Just Neighbours?

Ballot box with voting paper. Botswana

Botswana’s image as a beacon of democracy in Africa may be under threat as the country prepares for its general election on 24th October 2014. President Ian Khama’s governing Botswana Democratic Party (BDP) has faced growing criticism over what is seen to be the perpetuation of undemocratic practices, claimed by some to be not unlike those practiced under President Mugabe’s regime in neighbouring Zimbabwe.

On 8th September 2014, Outsa Mokone, editor of the Sunday Standard newspaper, was arrested on sedition charges, concerning an article that alleged Botswana’s president was involved in a car accident while driving at night and tried to conceal the incident. On 9th September police continued their investigation searching the newspaper’s offices and seizing documents and computer equipment. The author of the article, Edgar Tsimane, fled Botswana and is currently seeking asylum in South Africa. He said that his decision to leave was based on information he received from reliable sources that his life may be danger if he continued to reside in Botswana. The Government of Botswana and particularly President Khama have been heavily criticised for this action. The country’s largest trade union, BOFEPUSU, released a statement likening the incident to the arrest of journalists under the Mugabe regime, and has urged the people of Botswana to cast their votes on 24th October with “a view of safeguarding democracy”. The US State Department also issued a press release criticising the BDP government over the affair, which they described as “at odds with Botswana’s strong tradition of democratic governance”. Despite Mokone being released after only one day, the Government of Botswana is still taking both journalists to court on the charge of sedition.

This recent incident appears to be part of a worrying trend of restrictions on press freedom as embodied in the Media Practitioners Bill. The bill requires all journalists in Botswana to be accredited by a government-controlled board which in effect allows the government to vet journalists who can operate in Botswana. The Media Institute for Southern Africa has stated that it is supporting journalists in the fight against the controversial bill and has compared the BDP’s actions to those carried out by other Southern African governments (Zimbabwe, by implication) against civil society organisations.

As the election draws closer the BDP government has also had to face serious allegations concerning political violence and assassinations. Throughout August 2014 there was speculation surrounding the death of the opposition party, Umbrella for Democratic Change’s (UDC), secretary general, Gomolemo Motswaledi. Members of the UDC suspected foul play and accused the government of being involved in the car accident which killed Motswaledi on 30th July 2014; a method of political assassination often seen before in the Southern African region. Despite a police investigation into the death reporting no evidence of foul play, many UDC members rejected this assessment. The allegation was then bolstered on 31st August, when an apparent intelligence whistleblower was quoted in a Botswana newspaper insisting that Motswaledi was assassinated following an “off the books” surveillance operation. This allegation has also been underpinned by other reports of violent attacks against political activists and media personnel, including the murder of another prominent member of the UDC in September 2014. It was reported that the UDC campaign manager was found dead with visible stab wounds, raising further suspicions of political assassinations. Although there is no evidence to indicate any involvement of the BDP government in these incidents, the deaths of opposition political activists does raise concerns about Botswana’s stable democratic image.

Moreover, the Government of Botswana is facing increasing international criticism over its treatment of the Kalahari Bushmen. A report produced by Survival International in early October 2014 revealed hundreds of cases of beatings, arrests and abuse suffered by the Bushmen at the hands of wildlife officers and the police. This included one incident where a man was allegedly buried alive for killing an antelope. The BDP government has faced international criticism surrounding this controversy since the Bushmen were evicted from their ancestral homeland in the Central Kalahari Game Reserve in the name of conservation. Critics have said that the land is now being used for diamond mining and fracking exploration. The US State Department has labelled the treatment of Bushmen a “principal human rights concern” and the government has been criticised by the UN and the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights. This has even led to calls for a tourism boycott of the country.

It appears that the maintenance of Botswana’s democratic image is by no means assured. President Khama has long been a critic of the undemocratic practices seen in neighbouring Zimbabwe and has strongly aligned himself with the West in its condemnation of the Mugabe regime. However, it now seems that Botswana may share more than just a border with its neighbour.

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