IEC also taking steps to prevent election violence

02 Oct 2017

A week after Sunday Standard’s revelations that the Botswana Police Service is literally gearing itself up for possible election violence in the 2019 general election, it has emerged that the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) is, likewise, not leaving anything to chance. Ahead of the all-important election, the IEC is introducing an election risk management tool with the aid of an intergovernmental agency that supports sustainable democracy worldwide. According to Osupile Maroba, the IEC’s spokesman, the Commission invited the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (which Botswana joined in 1997) in June this year to facilitate a workshop on election violence.  “They familiarized us with issues that can lead to election violence,” says Maroba, adding that through the risk management tool, the workshop gamed the Botswana scenario and worked out possible mitigation methods.

He further reveals that members of the Botswana Police Service, who typically protect voters, election officers and election materials, were also invited to the workshop. Once a continental model of peace and stability, Botswana held elections that didn’t need such intervention. However, going as far back the last general election, there is every indication that the country may be entering what seems to be a rite of passage for one too many African countries. No less a person that the former Botswana Democratic Party Secretary General and former parliamentarian, Botsalo Ntuane has – on the basis of bloody skirmishes at national congresses of parties, predicted election violence in 2019. His own assessment of such impending doom was helpfully nuanced but President Ian Khama’s wasn’t. Ahead of the October 24, 2014 elections, Khama told a series of last-minute political rallies across the country that “if the opposition wins, there will bloodbath.”

There was an uncharacteristic tense atmosphere in 2014, especially in Gaborone. Asked to comment on a corruption-related matter on September 25, 2014, a public intellectual known to freely share his views told Sunday Standard in an email message: “It’s 4 weeks before 24th October and there is no way on God’s earth that I want to get involved in the corruption issue at this point given what has been happening. I am happy to discuss later when the temperature goes down.” One of the things that had turned the temperature up was the untimely death of the leader of the Botswana Movement for Democracy, Gomolemo Motswaledi. He had died in a car accident that some still believe was fraught with foul play. Nothing suggests 2019 might bring any respite and the main point of contention is the planned use of electronic voting machines which the opposition is opposed to.

Contributing to a parliamentary debate, the Selebi Phikwe West MP, Dithapelo Keorapetse, said that they (meaning opposition members) were prepared to “pay with our lives” to prevent the manipulation of election results. There is a very strong belief among members of the opposition that the BDP will use the machines to avoid electoral loss that might send of them to prison for criminal wrongdoing. As a matter of fact, Keorapetse himself and the Leader of the Opposition, Duma Boko, have publicly stated that upon the Umbrella for Democratic Change’s assumption of official power, some BDP leaders will be imprisoned.  Boycott of the elections has also been mooted. The practical effect of such boycott would be both non-recognition of the winner as well as the power and authority the latter would want to clothe itself with. It is interesting to observe that any sort of civil strife that might happen in 2019 would be associated with Vice President Mokgweetsi Masisi’s legacy (who would be president then) when the situation that led to such strife would have developed under his predecessor.

Last week, Sunday Standard reported that BPS is in the process of acquiring seven specialized anti-riot vehicles valued at more than P2 million each. The vehicles will reportedly be used in the event the 2019 elections result in some civil unrest that would need to be put down. Confirming this purchase, the Acting BPS Commissioner, Tapudzani Gabolekwe, said that at more than 25 years old, the current anti-riot fleet needs to be replaced. It is perfectly understandable why the police would be making such plans because no other law enforcement organ is statutorily mandated to quell violence. However, there is very strong irony about using riot police to quell election violence because historically, they have only ever added to the violence themselves.

Whenever police officers have to prevent or put down a riot, they always end up adding to the violence. With as long as the BPS has existed and for as long as the problem has persisted, there seems to be no plan to get police to quell violence while not acting criminally themselves. In this context, election violence could extend to the violence that the police themselves might inflict on citizens. Part of the problem has to do with the style of policing that Botswana inherited from its British colonial masters and is still holding on to.

The arsenal that the Bechuanaland Protectorate police service used to quell riots was comprised of instruments of torture – batons, sjamboks and rifle shotguns that would be fired straight into rioters and not above their heads. BPS not only retained those instruments but added more such. In 2008, the Service acquired anti-riot water-cannon vehicles which, to be clear, have still not been used. It is unclear whether the vehicles that are on order are of the same type. Last year when unemployed university graduates descended on parliament to protest their plight, a contingent of riot police responded with sjamboks which, incidentally, were outlawed even by apartheid South Africa.

Ironically, policing that brutalises people has been outlawed in Britain but been retained in the former colonies to which it was bequeathed during the days of empire. Increasingly nowadays, election management bodies take proactive steps to prevent election violence. When Malawi held its first tripartite elections in 2014, it implemented a variety of interventions that included peace messaging campaigns, preventive diplomacy, dedicated youth programmes as well as monitoring and mapping.

The latter allows stake­holders to record – and potentially address – instances of violence as they occur. The United States Institute for Peace adjudged Malawi’s implementation of these interventions to be “remarkably strong.”