Talk is cheap. That would be the only conclusion to draw from Botswana parliamentary debates which have become a made for Btv jousting sport. That is if the public purse did not have to pick a hefty bill in parliamentarians sitting allowances.
The ongoing debate on the motion to re-arm the Anti-Poaching Unit tabled by the opposition Umbrella for Democratic Change (UDC) is just another rowdy expensive talking shop with the customary rank populism and a pre-determined outcome. It is the usual two parties pushing unbudgeable agendas to the edge, expected to result in a “nay” vote by the more herd mentality and less nuance ruling Botswana Democratic Party (BDP) majority and cheap rhetoric by the opposition minority.
For the Speaker of the National Assembly, Phandu Skelemani, trying to keep the Augean stables clean and make the obstreperous MPs seem honourable is like herding frogs.
The motion tabled by UDC member of parliament for Selebi Phikwe East Kgoberego Nkawana on Friday exposed the Botswana parliament for what it has become: An institution that is no more than the sum total of its parts. More exactly it is the sum of 44 BDP parliamentarians defending the party corner and 19 opposition MPs just content with kicking the government’s butt as hard as they can.
At best, the whole exercise is only academic. It is mathematically impossible for Nkawana and his opposition colleagues to push the motion through.
At worst, it is an expensive waste of time, because government has already kick started the process to to re-arm the Anti-Poaching Unit anyway.
Nkawana moved that: “This Honourable House requests government to consider re-arming the Department of Wildlife and National Parks so that they can effectively and efficiently carry out their anti-poaching duties.”
He was supported by fellow opposition members including MP for Okavango Kenny Kapinga who said the decision by government to disarm the anti-poaching unit was made under the false pretext that their possession of firearms was against the law.
Kapinga quoted Section 73 (3) of the Wildlife Conservation and National Parks Act which reads: “Where it is necessary for the discharge of his duties or the exercise of his powers under this Act, and notwithstanding the provisions of the Arms and Ammunition Act, a wildlife officer may carry a firearm with him, even on land of which he is not the owner, for the protection of himself or any other person, the prevention or investigation of offences against this Act, or the arrest of any person committing or suspected of committing an offence under this Act, and where the Director so directs, such firearm may be of a type not otherwise permitted under the Arms and Ammunition Act.”
The Okavango Legislator said it was the core mandate of the DWNP to protect wildlife and combat poaching.
“It is the Department of Wildlife and National Parks that has been mandated with the responsibility to protect our wildlife, not the army,” Kapinga argued. “The law is clear. It gives wildlife officers the authority to carry semi-automatic weapons, contrary to what the government has said.”
He said even if the fight against poachers required the use of a bazooka, the wildlife officers would be well within their rights to use it.
“While we are grateful for the Botswana Defence Force (BDF) support in the fight against poaching, their role is exactly that; to support. Not to usurp the role of the Department of Wildlife and National Parks.”
In her response the Minister of Tourism Philda Kereng set the tone for the collective decision the ruling party is likely to take.
She pointed out that the motion was not necessary as there were plans for a holistic approach to anti-poaching.
“Efforts are underway to address the legislative gaps that have constrained the (anti-poaching) Unit to carry semi-automatic weapons in carrying out their duties.”
Kereng said her ministry was aware of the need to resource the Anti-Poaching Unit but would wait to table a proposed legislation at a later stage despite evidence that legislation already exists that empowers the Unit to carry the necessary weapons.
“We are fully aware that poaching of species such as rhinos has increased dramatically over the past two years,” the Minister said, adding “This surge requires an appropriate response including increasing resources and manpower on the ground. It must be understood that overcoming poachers does not only require well-armed personnel. It requires holistic approach including the implementation of anti-poaching strategies.”
As expected, fellow BDP MP Lefoko Moagi threw his weight behind the minister, suggesting the decision to oppose the current motion was a collective response by the ruling party.
Speaking to Sunday Standard former President Ian Khama, a staunch conservationist, expressed his support for the motion to re-arm the Unit.
He said the disarmament of the Anti-Poaching Unit resulted in the rise in poaching activity.
“It also had the severe impact on the motivation of DWNP officers who are very demoralized,” Khama says. “The success of anti-poaching has to include a motivated BDF.
If they were well led it would be achieved.” The former President says however that as the custodians of the Botswana wildlife the DWNP need to play a bigger role and “it starts with rearming them”.
Former Minister of Tourism, and now opposition MP Tshekedi Khama (TK) said the DWNP was armed long before he took over as Minister. “They were armed from as far back as President Sir Ketumile Masire (1980-1998). The anti-poaching unit was constituted by all the government security forces. It does not get more holistic than that.”
He said even when the Unit were provided with new-advanced weapons the current President Mokgweetsi Masisi and his Vice President Slumber Tsogwane (then ministers) were in agreement. “The only thing I did when I took over as Minister of Tourism was to capacitate the DWNP further. I didn’t introduce firearms, they already had them. The one thing I introduced was the total ban on hunting.”
President Masisi dismissed the criticism of his government’s disarmament of the DWNP as ‘nothing but hysteria’ following reports that poachers were on the rampage. “This stretch of imagination of linking the poaching of any species with an alleged disarmament of the department of wildlife is nothing but hysteria,” he said.