DISS/ Khama cowed Botswana into silence – expert report

09 Dec 2018

There is a growing body of evidence that the Directorate of Intelligence and Security Services (DISS) under former President Lt Gen Ian Khama cowed Batswana into silence and political apathy.

A recent report by Afrobarometer has revealed how Botswana is witnessing a spike in political apathy along with citizens’ dissatisfaction with the country’s democracy and weakening of free speech.

The research found that Batswana’s interest in public affairs has been on a decline, dropping from 85% in 2003 to 67% in 2014. The research further revealed that Batswana may have been silenced by the weakening of the country’s freedom of speech: “Fewer Batswana are discussing politics with family and friends. The share who say they do so “occasionally or frequently” declined by nine percentage points between 2014 and 2017 from 69% to 60 %.” This was the period under Lt Gen Khama’s presidency.

The findings support claims by the civil society that the DISS and former President Khama cowed Botswana through the Big Brother's rule of fear.

Following reports of growing fear in Botswana about the unaccountable power of the country’s shadowy Directorate of Intelligence and Security Services (DISS), which has been accused of unlawful acts, including extrajudicial killings and the harassment and surveillance of journalists and opposition politicians, the then Khama administration through its spokesperson Jeff Ramsay, dismissed the fear saying, “people just criticise based on the media reports, which, according to me, are not credible. These are just unsubstantial allegations. People should show us evidence.”

An earlier research by Afrobarometer revealed “alarming findings on freedom of speech” as Lt Gen Ian Khama steered the once shining example of democracy towards a dictatorship.

The report which was published in August revealed that under Khama’s reign, freedom of speech plunged to its lowest level in the country’s history with most Batswana afraid of speaking their minds.

The report which covered the ten year period of Khama’s presidency stated that, “this is the first time since the 2005 survey that Batswana who say you often or always have to be careful in discussing politics outnumber those who say you rarely or never have to be careful about political speech.

The fear is highest among Botswana’s educated elite and youths. The study found out that 60 percent of Batswana who have studied beyond secondary education are afraid to express their view. Even the youths who are often considered outspoken radicals would not express political opinions without looking over their shoulders. The report found that 54% of those in the 18 to 35 age group feel that you “always” have to be careful when discussing politics. The Directorate of Intelligence and Security (DIS) former President Khama’s security apparatus controlled and cowed Batswana even while he was dispensing blankets and food hampers, a profoundly mixed legacy which has polarised opinion about Khama in power and in retirement.

The report states that “most Batswana see their country as a democracy, but satisfaction with the way their democracy is working has declined by 24 percentage points over the past decade from 83% in 2008 to 59%.” It further emerged that “perceptions of freedom of speech are declining: Over the past decade, the share of Batswana who feel “somewhat free” or “completely free” to say what they think has dropped by 20 percentage points, to 73%. All the people of Botswana who say people “often” or “always” have to be careful about what they say about politics has grown to 49%.”

In their latest research Afrobarometer states that, “while Botswana is widely recognized for its unbroken series of successful elections stretching back to independence in 1966, analysts have long pointed to low levels of political participation and a weak civil society as barriers on its path toward a strong democracy (Democracy Research Project, 2002; Mpabanga, 2000; Holm, Molutsi, & Somolekae, 1996; Mfundisi, 2005). 

“More recent analysis has shown that while most Batswana see their country as a democracy, satisfaction with the way their democracy is working and perceived freedom of speech have declined steeply over the past decade (Isbell & Seabo, 2018).

If citizen engagement is one of the pillars of a strong democracy (Almond & Verba, 1963; Norris, 1999; Putnam, 2000; Dalton, 2013), findings of the latest Afrobarometer survey are a mixed bag for Botswana’s democratic prospects. While most Batswana say they vote in elections and attend community meetings, the proportion of citizens who express interest in public affairs and discuss politics are in decline, and only a minority contact public officials or get together with other citizens to raise an issue.”