A lot to lose in Botswana elections

People line up to vote in Botswana's general elections at the Masa primary school in Gaborone Wednesday, Oct. 23, 2019. Polls opened Wednesday as the long-peaceful southern African nation faces what is expected to be its tightest election in history. (AP Photo/Jerome Delay)

The people of Botswana have cast their votes in a watershed election in the country’s history, and the stakes have never been so high. If the ruling Botswana Democratic Party (BDP) wins under the leadership of Mokgweetsi Masisi, the consequences for good governance and wildlife conservation will be severe. For most of its 53 years since independence Botswana has been upheld as a model of democracy on the continent, using its diamond revenue to invest in infrastructure, health care and education. But in the 18 months since Masisi came to power following the retirement of President Ian Khama after he completed his two term limit, Masisi has gone a long way in destroying that legacy.

With too many African countries ravaged by violent conflict, corruption, presidents for life, and grinding poverty, Botswana was a shining example of an African success story, and the prospect that it could roll back its achievements is seriously disheartening. Most worrying for Botswana’s future has been Masisi’s efforts to undermine democracy in the lead up to this week’s elections. There are widespread allegations that he has stifled dissent and had the intelligence agency intimidate and harass his political opponents. The use of state security agencies to fight the President’s political battles is perhaps the most damning development and threat to Botswana’s democracy.

Opposition politicians have claimed that they have been harassed by state agents and their freedom to campaign has been curtailed, which would suggest the playing field was not level leading up to this week’s poll. Duma Boko who leads the Umbrella for Democratic Change says that his party’s light aircraft was repeatedly impounded by the authorities to prevent him from campaigning in rural areas. His home was also raided by tax officials in the heat of the electoral campaign. Journalists in Botswana have complained about the fact that Masisi’s administration has endangered media freedom and the rule of law.

One of the reasons for Botswana’s trustworthy credit rating has been its stringent anti-graft measures, but Masisi has also reversed the anti-corruption legacy of his predecessors. Masisi removed barriers to graft by transferring independent anti-corruption agencies such as the Financial Intelligence Agency and Directorate on Corruption and Economic Crime into the President’s Office. While these developments are damaging to Botswana’s future, the rolling back of wildlife protections may have an even more devastating effect on the future of the country’s economy, let alone the future of elephant conservation.

Over decades Botswana has built up a reputation of being a sanctuary for wildlife, and the host of the largest elephant population in the world of 130,000. Due to declining elephant numbers in 2014, Khama had banned trophy hunting and the sale of ivory. Masisi, however, strode into office announcing the lifting of the ban on trophy hunting and the resumption of the sale of ivory. This was a ploy to gain the votes of those in rural communities who have had issues with elephants destroying their crops and endangering human life. But experts have said the easy way to solve the encroachment of elephants onto farming land is to introduce bees in affected areas as elephants are known to be afraid of bees. 

The reputation of Botswana as a beacon of conservation and anti-poaching measures now lies in tatters. Just weeks after the government lifted the hunting ban elephant poaching increased significantly, and it is anticipated that poachers will move from other areas into Botswana. In 2014 there were no recorded incidents of elephant poaching, but after the lifting of the hunting ban and sale of ivory last year, 156 elephant carcasses were found in 2018 with the skulls cut open and the tusks removed. 

There has been a backlash to the massacre of Botswana’s elephants by both tourists and activists. The US is Botswana’s second largest international tourism source market, and US citizens have indicated strong disapproval of the lifting of the hunting ban. Surveys have shown that many visitors had previously chosen Botswana as a safari destination specifically because of its firm anti-hunting stance. 

Now the Humane Society International has said that with tourism now the second-largest contributor to Botswana’s GDP, and a significant employer, the reinstating of trophy hunting could seriously hurt the country’s economy. Wildlife watching and photographic tourism are on the rise around the world, and are outstripping the revenue from trophy hunting by a wide margin. Leading tour operators have stated that Botswana’s new policy on hunting goes against everything the country stands for and it will have an adverse affect on tourism over the long term. 

The photo opportunity of the incumbent President Masisi presenting stools made of elephant feet to regional leaders during a recent meeting on the future of elephants has been condemned by conservationists worldwide. Khama has criticised Masisi for  being drunk on power, and now it is the people of Botswana who will decide what type of country they are going to live in, and how far they are prepared to allow their reputation in the eyes of the world to slide.

Shannon Ebrahim is the Foreign Editor for the Independent Media Group.