Wednesday, April 1, 2020

Royal couple risks ensnaring itself in Botswana’s internal politics

On the face of it, there is nothing problematic with Meghan Markle donating earnings from a voiceover deal with Disney to a Botswana NGO called Elephants Without Borders. There actually is.

Understanding EWB’s mandate is difficult because while it is officially a conservation group with special focus of elephants, it has engaged in what the government views as an act of political sabotage. Its director and founder, Dr. Mike Chase, is part of the inner circle of President Ian Khama and while the latter was in office, was, through EWB, given a contract to undertake an elephant study in the northern part of the country. Before the study was completed but after Khama had left office, Chase shared some of the preliminary data with western media. The government alleged that the some of the information (88 elephants having allegedly been killed by poachers) was false and that EWB was not authorised to share information with any third party. The dead elephants’ story sparked outrage in the west and during a racially-charged group battle on social media, some westerners called for a boycott of Botswana’s tourism. As part of effort to disprove what EWB had alleged, the Botswana government issued a belated rebuttal which international media didn’t give the prominence it had given Chase’s allegations. At considerable expense, the government also flew both domestic and international journalists to Kasane in a private jet and in helicopters around the areas where the elephants were supposed to have died.

At least according to the assessment of Professor Joseph Mbaiwa, the politics of the Botswana Patriotic Front, a party that Khama founded, and EWB’s stance on wild management did intersect very strongly last year. When President Mokgweetsi Masisi reversed Khama’s hunting, BPF made some bold and scholarly assertions that Sunday Standard bounced off Mbaiwa, who is a professor of Tourism Studies at the University of Botswana has publicly provided scholarly insight on this issue. In taking in the totality of the case that BPF was making, Mbaiwa said that he could “hear the voices” of scientists from Elephant Without Borders from Kasane and that of Eco-Exist from Seronga. That assertion makes EWB (and Eco-Exist) part of BPF, which has made no secret of its disapproval of Masisi’s wildlife management.

Into that freedom-square atmosphere has stepped a British royal couple. Way before he met Meghan Markle, Prince Harry was a strong supporter of EWB and it would seem that his love for wild animals has rubbed off onto his movie-star American wife. Meghan recently did voiceover work for Disney Channel and asked the American pay television channel to make a donation to EWB. According to western media, EWB “works to protect the animals from poaching.” It is unclear if EWB ever characterised itself to the west in such terms but that task is the responsibility of the anti-poaching unit in the army.

For as long as Masisi is president, EWB/BPF will be butting heads periodically over wildlife management. It is reasonable to assume that where money is needed to carry out the campaign, EWB will use some of the money that Meghan is providing.

One other aspect of this issue is ironic. As even the former Speaker of the House of Commons confirmed just last week, virulent racism is what drove Meghan from both England and Buckingham Palace itself. The same Meghan is now supporting an NGO which associates itself with an international conservation movement that has been accused of racist conduct towards Africa. Stephen Corry, the head of London-based pressure group called Survival International, has accused this movement of desiring to not only dictate how African governments should manage their wildlife but of also creating whites-only enclaves in the Third World.

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