On the surface, the Gaborone South MP, Meshack Mthimkhulu, seems to have a point about police officers harassing his constituents but he is actually pointing the finger in the wrong direction.
“I am disenchanted by the manner in which members of the policing force continue to trample on the civic liberties of the people of Gaborone South,” he said when responding to the state-of-the-nation address in parliament. “Perhaps out of client profiling or impertinence, residents in my constituency are routinely harassed, searched and incarcerated without cause.”
Mthimkhulu, who is the Assistant Minister of Presidential Affairs and Public Administration, noted instances when “overzealous” officers have confiscated alcohols from houses without reasonable cause.
The issue is actually much more nuanced than that and goes way beyond the station commanders at the Old Naledi and Bontleng police stations in Gaborone South, way beyond the Commissioner of Police and ironically comes right back to the government that Mthimkhuku is part of. At independence in 1966, Botswana inherited a model of policing that was purposefully designed to brutalise poor and black people.
Police brutality in Botswana – as indeed in much of the Commonwealth – is the direct result of a political decision that was made by the British parliament in 1822 when it passed the Irish Constabulary Act which was designed to police hostile Ireland. The emphasis of the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) model was on “keeping the order” and “maintaining the law” largely through military means. Seven years later, Britain established a local police force through the London Metropolitan Police Act. This model was intentionally different from the military and its mission was focused on prevention of crime rather than repression of disorder. This is elusive “community policing” that Botswana police would have the public believe it is doing.
RIC methods influenced colonial policing elsewhere in the British Empire from the 1930s onwards. On becoming independent beginning in 1952, African nations were keen to retain British methods of doing things – policing included. Under new independent states, police forces continued to enforce authoritarian rule, further entrenching a culture of violence against citizens. For their police forces, newly independent states stressed little more than knowledge of the foot drill, the most rudimentary knowledge of criminal law and physical fitness. On account of being poorly trained, poorly remunerated and ill-equipped, a good many African police officers were ands still are unable to meet the safety and security needs of local communities.
This is the situation that the Botswana Police Service (BPS) finds itself in 51 years after independence. Its policing ideology has not been reoriented in any fundamental way and there is a deeply disturbing pattern that has manifested itself over a long period of time. This is actually a global problem and Dr. Melinah Abdullah, one of the co-founders of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) activist movement in the United States, has stated that the RIC model evolved out of the system of slave patrols and casts black people as the enemies of the state. A London School of Economics research by Ben Bowling, Alpa Parmar and Coretta Phillips on policing ethnic minorities in Britain found that, in general, whites tend to have a more satisfactory experience of the police “than people whose ancestry lies in Asia, Africa and the islands of the sea.” They found racism and racial prejudice in police culture to be more widespread and more extreme than in wider society, that stop-question-and-search was done on the basis of ethnic origin, that police need to be trained in de-escalation techniques and taught a preference for non-lethal force and that on the basis of pre-existing beliefs about their supposed criminality, black people were subject to extraordinary policing. As most would attest, Botswana police are likelier to escalate than de-escalate a confrontation.
To this day, police officers profile people (mostly pedestrians) on the basis of skin complexion and dark-skinned Batswana are on the receiving end of this atrocity. The Botswana Guardian has published the story of Dumisani Matiha, a rock musician from North East whom Gaborone officers used to stop and question in the street on a regular basis. Assuming he was a foreigner, they would ask him to produce a passport. A man who has been in the police force for over 25 years says that he has no recollection of white people being stopped, questioned and searched in the aggressive manner that black people like Matiha routinely are.
All too often, the severe shortage of cars makes it difficult – if not impossible, to respond to crime reports timeously. However, a Gaborone police officer says that “the issue of car shortage hardly ever arises when a white person in Notwane Farms calls to report a crime.”
The RIC model doesn’t also place a high premium on human life. One of its riot-control protocols is for police officers to fire rubber bullets into a crowd. That happened two years ago when Botho University students in Gaborone went on strike. Apartheid South Africa discontinued the use of sjamboks (whips made of tapered hard rubber that inflict painful welts) on the orders of then Acting President F. W. de Klerk. On the other hand, the BPS still uses them and when he appeared before the parliamentary Public Accounts Committee two years ago, the Commissioner of Police found himself tongue-tied when asked about the Service’s acquisition of sjamboks. Not only does the government, which Mthimkhuku is part of, buy police officers instruments of torture, it gives them legal authority use those instruments on citizens.
For a group of people who are supposed to be enforcing the law, police officers are among major lawbreakers themselves and their law-breaking mostly targets poor and black people. In February this year, Sunday Standard published the story of two young men, Mosimane Chakalisa and Buzwani Kwelagano, who almost died when two Seabelo Express buses collided along the A1 Highway in a freak accident that resulted in five deaths. A police officer manning a roadblock at Dibete had ordered them out of a car with the explanation that “hitchhiking is against the law.” It’s actually not. The Road Traffic Permits Act outlaws not hitchhiking but motorists getting payment from passengers – which the police need proof of. Law-breaking by the police also manifests itself in the form of asking people that officers encounter either on public service vehicles or in the streets to produce national identity cards (“Omang” as they are more commonly known). This is also unlawful because there is no provision in the law that requires citizens to carry Omang.
Mthimkhulu should be more concerned about Botswana continuing to use a policing model that has been specifically designed to trample upon the civic liberties of poor and black people.