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Of the tallest orders that he could ever have had to contend with in the first few months of his administration, President Mokgweetsi Masisi is being egged on by tourists from western countries to continue an unlawful policy that was introduced by his predecessor, General Ian Khama.
“I am from Canada and we are planning a trip to Africa. Unless your government reinstates its shoot to kill policy for poachers, we won't even consider Botswana for our destination,” wrote Shoshana Friedman on the government’s Facebook wall mere hours after all major western media ran a controversial story about some 87 elephants in the Okavango Delta having been killed by poachers.
Likewise, Sona Virtue wants Botswana to “Rearm you guards and reinstate shoot on site policy on poachers.” These posts received (and are still receiving) lots of likes from other westerners.
The handiwork of General Khama, the so-called shoot-to-kill is actually not a policy (which would be elaborate, scientific, comprehensive and lawful) but an unlawful anti-poaching tactic that he authorised his younger brother, Tshekedi Khama, the Minister of Environment, Natural Resources, Conservation and Tourism, to use. One very important law-and-order standard that Botswana has traditionally observed since independence - but was relaxed under Khama - is arresting suspects and subjecting them to the full spectrum of requisite legal processes. The nation learnt about the character of the shoot-to-kill tactic for the very first time when Minister Tshekedi explained it to a foreigner, a British film-maker called Tom Hardy. According to Tshekedi, even citizens were not exempt from a tactic which he enforced rigorously through heavily-armed game scouts. Under normal circumstances, laws and policies are published in the Government Gazette and fully explained to members of the public – MPs included – because they are the ones who are expected to obey them. That never happened with shoot-to-kill and hadn’t the minister done an interview with Hardy, it is likely that people would still be expected to steer clear of danger unmarked with signs. Tshekedi added that even if suspected poachers surrendered, they would still be killed. Speaking about the tactic’s specific application to foreign poachers, he stated: “That is a position we adopted to send a clear message to say, if you want to come and poach in Botswana, one of the possibilities is that you may not go back to your country alive.” By “we” he would not have been referring to the government because it never had any such policy but to him and his brother – then president Khama.
While poaching is a crime, Botswana law establishes, in clear terms, legal processes through which culprits are brought to book. Before the edict that introduced the tactic (meaning during the presidency of Sir Ketumile Masire and Festus Mogae), poachers were arrested, tried in a court of law and punished accordingly if found guilty. Given that it fell outside what the law prescribed, shoot-to-kill was essentially extra-judicial killing – which places both Khama brothers in legal jeopardy because they broke the law and in the event they are charged, the prosecution could very well use the video footage of Tshekedi “confession” in Hardy’s film as evidence.
Perhaps a 2009 murder case should have given clear indication that something as problematic as the shoot-to-kill tactic lay a little way down the road. Then Khama had been president for a year and a hit squad from the army gunned down a Gaborone man called John Kalafatis. According to army sources, the type of weapon and ammunition carried by on-duty soldiers determine the type of operation (be it arrest or kill) they are going on. In the case of Kalafatis, the soldiers set out carrying weapons and ammunition used for kill operations. Kalafatis was shot and killed with eight anti-terrorism bullets, one from a distance of 15 centimetres. While this was evidently a shoot-to-kill operation, Khama would later pardon the killers after they had been found guilty and imprisoned.
Despite its blatant violation of human rights, the shoot-to-kill tactic has proved to be hugely popular with westerners who revere Khama as an unparalleled wildlife conservationist. They credit for using his presidential powers to build up the largest elephant herd in the world and want the new president to preserve the status quo by retaining the shoot-to-kill tactic. Following the alleged but hotly contested elephant massacre, Bob Lane wrote online: “No matter how they died, it’s time to send the trophy hunters after the poachers!!” President Khama’s comfort level with “no-matter-how-they-died” was extremely high. On the other hand, President Masisi has absolutely no comfort with this edict-origin tactic. For that, some western tourists say Botswana should be economically punished by boycotting its tourism.
As his first set of international trips showed, Masisi wants to have good relations with neighbouring states and retaining the shoot-to-kill tactic would have made that impossible with Namibia and Zimbabwe. When he took over from General Khama on April 1, some 30 Namibians and 22 Zimbabweans had reportedly been killed on suspicion that they were poachers. There have been reports that some of the dead were actually fishermen or ordinary people walking along an unmarked border. It is likely that some of these people may have surrendered but, as Tshekedi Khama has stated, even if suspected poachers surrendered, they would still be killed. Given that shoot-to-kill has no basis in law, those 53 people were in fact murdered, which act imperils both national security and foreign relations. Masisi and many more people realise that unless there is a major tectonic-plate shift, Botswana will always border Nambia and Zimbabwe. For that reason, elephants or no elephants, it is important for the country to maintain good relations with its neighbours - especially that when elephants are no more, the group of westerners who want Masisi to slaughter poachers will completely lose interest in Botswana.
In a related development, Masisi has withdrawn military weapons and equipment from the Department of Wildlife and National Parks in order to comply with the law. Once more, the arming of game scouts with weapons of war happened under General Khama and as a Member of Parliament and former army general, Major General Pius Mokgware has pointed out, this was unlawful because only the army has legal mandate to possess weapons of war. Online, a livid Mary-Ann Holm asked: “Are you going to properly arm your anti-poaching units or let the carnage continue? This is utterly disgusting!” However, as an official rebuttal of the dead-elephants story from the government shows, properly arm your anti-poaching units was never an issue.
“The fact of the matter is that the withdrawal of such weapons from DWNP, did not in any way affect the effectiveness and operations of the anti-poaching units,” says Raphaka in a statement that was released last Tuesday evening.