Friday, March 1, 2024

Poachers initiated ‘shoot-to-kill’ policy against BDF

“Shoot-to-kill policy” is a term that should never have entered public lexicon because it seems to confer official sanction on what is essentially criminal. As some in the security services lament, the term simplifies a hugely complex issue. There have been evident lapses here and there but the Botswana Defence Force (BDF) is considered one of the most professional armies in Africa. During the national lockdown in April, there were numerous complaints about misconduct by overzealous police officers and praise for the professionalism of BDF members who accompanied them on joint patrols. On the international stage, BDF has been roundly praised for the way its members conducted themselves during a UN operation in Somalia and SADC one in Lesotho.

As it evolved, BDF established an anti-poaching unit whose operations are super-concentrated in the wildlife-rich North West and Chobe districts. There is no reason why an army with an impressive track record of civil-military relations would turn rogue in its own country. Why then has BDF’s conduct of anti-poaching operations in the Okavango Delta and Chobe National Park been a source of friction between Botswana and Namibia?  Why would a BDF patrol team kill four Namibian fishermen who, as Namibian TV reports, had been routinely conducting small-scale fish trade with the Botswana soldiers?

The answer is that in the same area where Namibians who live along the border fish is also (literally) a hunting ground for poachers. The nature of relations between BDF patrol teams and poachers can’t be any mystery. It can’t also be any great mystery what happens when opposing parties, each armed to the teeth, run into each in the bush. A former BDF member who has gone on an anti-poaching operation along the Botswana-Namibia border says that going back to when the anti-poaching unit was established, machine guns routinely go off when these parties meet. He adds that time is of the essence and that even a split-second’s hesitation can cost life. Recasting that description in colloquial language, he says that “its fire-fire” when soldiers encounter poachers.

“There is very clear understanding by either party that if you don’t kill, you will be killed,” says the former BDF member. “The second a poacher spots you, his gun is going off because he knows that is exactly what a soldier will be doing. Keep in mind that some of these poachers are former guerillas with decades-long war experience. That ups the stakes because you don’t want to take chances with that kind of opponent.”

We can’t draw any firm conclusions about the fact that BDF has killed Namibians and Zimbabweans in its anti-poaching operations but it is no secret that some poachers have come from Namibia and Zimbabwe, which both have a liberation-struggle past. What has become clear is that “shoot-to-kill” is limited to the northern, wildlife-rich part of Botswana. Other parts of the country also have animals but you don’t ever hear about a “shoot-to-kill” incident in the Central District. One theory is that the catchment area for the latter’s poachers doesn’t have military history similar to the catchment area for most poachers who ply their trade in the Okavango Delta and Chobe National Park.

Somehow the “kill-or-be-killed” ethos begot the “shoot-to-kill” expression, which is understood by some to be government policy but is in effect, a mere tactic with no official sanction. A BDF member, who confirms the latter account, laments that as franchised into popular imagination (notably by the former Minister of Environment, Natural Resources, Conservation and Tourism, Tshekedi Khama) “shoot-to-kill” puts BDF members on the same level with poachers because it creates an impression of wanton and mutual lawlessness. Khama certainly reinforced that impression when he told a British film maker that even if suspected poachers surrendered, they would still be killed.

Says the army source: “It is unfortunate that public understanding of shoot-to-kill doesn’t comport with what actually happens in the bush. Ordinarily, BDF members would want to arrest the poachers but knowing what fate awaits them, poachers prefer to fight to the death than to be captured, tried and imprisoned. The idea of shoot-to-kill should be put in a proper context: it is poachers who set out to kill both animals and members of BDF patrol teams. In response, soldiers are forced to defend themselves.

”What all this means is that wildlife-rich areas are basically undeclared war zones. What is even more tragic is that ordinary people – some of them fishermen – stray into this war zone for any number of reasons. A former cabinet member says that it is not uncommon for fishermen from neighbouring countries to sneak into Botswana and lay their nets across the river. When they are mistaken for poachers – as has been claimed in the November 5 incident – the consequences have been unusually tragic, immediately sparking a diplomatic row between Botswana and either Namibia or Zimbabwe. Interestingly, some Namibians are alleging that Botswana fishermen also sneak into their country to fish but that their lives are spared when they are caught. There is another group with a scandalously limited understanding of “shoot-to-kill”: westerners who want to arrogate to themselves, the right to dictate to Botswana how it should manage its wildlife.

“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 Botswana government’s Facebook wall in 2018, mere hours after all major western media outlets ran a controversial story about some 87 elephants in the Okavango Delta having been killed by poachers. Likewise, Sona Virtue wanted Botswana to “Rearm you guards and reinstate shoot on site policy on poachers.” These posts received lots of likes from other westerners who credit “shoot-to-kill” for having allowed Botswana to build up the largest elephant herd in the world and want it retained.

If nothing else, the Marietta Bosch case confirmed how westerners feel when an African government takes the life of a western-origin person. Bosch was a white South African woman who was sentenced to death by the Botswana High Court and while not the first South African to be tried for murder in Botswana, her case did for the most obvious reason, draw a lot of interest from the western media. What westerners who express a high comfort level with “shoot-to-kill” don’t seem to realise is that the poaching value chain is international, extending from the Chobe National Park to London to Wuhan. If westerners think that there is nothing wrong with killing poachers in the bush, then Botswana should also send hit men after poaching kingpins who live in European cities to completely deactivate the chain.


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