God will judge the poachers but its up to us to arrange the meeting - Tshekedi Khama
In 2013, Botswana’s Minister of Environment, Wildlife and Tourism Tshekedi Khama became the first sitting cabinet minister to confirm that Botswana has adopted a ‘shoot to kill’ policy designed to put to end poaching within its borders.
According to Khama, the unwritten policy is intended to protect Botswana’s wildlife, in particular, endangered species wildlife species. Khama was speaking during an interview for a documentary film titled ‘Poached wars’ produced and presented by Tom Hardy a well-known British film-maker with ITV station.
Khama said, “It’s a culture; we have to kill the supply to starve that culture. That is one of the reasons why in Botswana with our anti-poaching unit we don’t necessarily interrogate the poacher. This must be stressed. I have always told the security officers that even though the discretion is theirs in cases like these, they have to observe the law.”
Khama said adopting the stance was to send a clear message to would be poachers, “that if you want to come and poach in Botswana one of the possibilities is that you may not go back to your country alive.” Khama added that the approach applies to every armed poacher regardless of their nationality. Most cases recorded in Botswana involved poachers according to the government.
Despite condemnation Khama is adamant that its ‘shoot to kill’ policy or nothing. He was recently quoted by the media in Botswana as saying the policy is here to stay despite international condemnation. “We haven’t made friends when it comes to our approach towards poachers but that still stands. In fact poachers should start carrying their IDs so that we can notify their next of kin.Yes, God will judge the poachers but its up to us to arrange the meeting,” he said defiantly.
Khama’s statement though shocking to many, only confirmed what many have suspected for many years. In fact, prior to Khama’s utterances, it was an open secret in the country that members of the army were killing alleged poachers willy nilly. The government had denied this until Khama confirmed this to ITV.
Most alleged poachers in the last ten years were from Namibia, Zimbabwe, and Zambia, according to statistics from the government of Botswana. Of the three countries, most alleged poachers who were killed in the last two decades were Namibians. In fact, The Namibian government estimates that over 30 suspected were killed since 1990 without possibilities of a fair trail. In addition, many people living along Botswana-Namibia, border have been harassed, assaulted and property destroyed all in the name of anti-poaching. These include men and women accused of poaching fish in the Chobe River.
To understand the impact of Botswana’s shoot to kill policy INK Centre for Investigative Journalism recently teamed up with the Namibian newspaper in Namibia to investigate and examine the impact of this lethal measure. In this five-month investigation, the team met with families of suspected poachers, survivors, and Namibian government authorities.
On a chilly night near Ihaha Camp, in the Chobe National Park, Corporal Joel Mathe of the Botswana Defence Force (BDF) set out with his team on an anti-poaching patrol.
Making use of special assault rifles and night vision equipment, Lance Corporal Raymond Boitumelo Grey, Lance Corporal Aron “Two Pula” Makwati and Lance Corporal Phuthego Modise Phuthego mounted a listening post and picked up the sound of a canoe being paddled in the Chobe River. Using night vision, they observed two human figures carrying rifles disappear into the park. The two men are said to have returned carrying “whitish objects” – alleged by the Botswana military to be elephant ivory.
Mathe instructed his junior to illuminate the scene. Frozen in the moment, BDF assault rifles stuttered along the riverbank. A bullet hit one of the men in the chest, killing him instantly. The other vanished under the waters of the Chobe River that acts as a northern boundary between the two countries. This account of the incident, gleaned from police reports made by the soldiers, is supported by inhabitants of Kanvula and Nakabolelwa settlements near Katima Mulilo in the Caprivi Strip. They raced to the scene immediately after the gunshots subsided.
“We gathered on the river bank and saw Botswana soldiers,” recalled Mariam Simusiwa in an interview. Her brother, Richard Siyauya Munguni , a fisherman, had not returned home that evening. “They wouldn’t talk to us; it was confusing.” In the first light of day, when the BDF loaded her brother’s canoe into a camouflaged Land Cruiser and waved a bloodstained jacket, Simusiwa’s worst fears were confirmed. “They said it belongs to my brother,” she said quietly.Three days later, Nyambe Brian Nyambe’s body was discovered on the shores of the river with a bullet wound to the head.
Namibian observers believe that the killing of Nyambe and Munguni on July 17 2012 was part of an unwritten shoot-to-kill policy adopted by Botswana towards suspected ivory poachers crossing the northern border from Namibia and Zimbabwe. It is a suspicion that has been heightened by Botswana’s flamboyant environment minister, Tshekedi Khama. In an interview in 2013, Khama said would-be poachers needed to know that they might not go home alive, and would be shot even if they surrender. The BDF claimed Nyambe assumed a retaliatory or attack mode when asked to freeze. It denied any involvement in human rights violations in the border area and said all its operations took place “under prevailing statutes”.
However, there are several apparent inconsistencies in the military’s version of what transpired that night:
- An inquest report found that Nyambe’s bullet wound was in the back of the head, suggesting he was fleeing when hit.
- The BDF claimed to have found an elephant that had been killed by the poachers. But Namibian investigators say they were denied access to the dead animal.
- The dead men were allegedly found in possession of elephant tusks. But no evidence of a fresh elephant carcass was produced.
- The tusks allegedly found with them were dry, suggesting that the elephant from which they were taken died earlier.
A firearms expert interviewed by the Ink Centre for Investigative Journalism, who asked not to be named, said that the firearms allegedly in Nyambe and Munguni’s possession, a .22 calibre rifle and a 12-gauge single-shot shotgun, were not known for their accuracy and could not kill an adult elephant.
Namibians were also angered by the finding of the Botswana inquest magistrate Gofaone Morweng on the deaths. Clearing the four soldiers of wrongdoing, Morweng said: “They applied caution to the situation by providing illumination … and their action did not constitute so gross a negligence as to constitute criminal liability.” “It was a planned killing,” charged Nyambe’s brother, who asked not to be identified for fear that his relatives in Botswana might be victimised.
Over the past two decades, 30 Namibians and at least 22 Zimbabweans have been killed in Botswana anti-poaching operations – but Namibian community and rights groups claim the figure could be much higher. They have urged Botswana to exercise restraint when dealing with
poachers. Anti-poaching operations have also increased border tensions between Botswana and Namibia, amid claims that the BDF has violated Namibia’s sovereignty. The tension is palpable in Kanvula and other smaller settlements in the Chobe region, as BDF raids are frequent.
“The Botswana government values wildlife more than human life. ” objected John Ntemwa, leader of the Zambezi Youth Forum, a youth movement based in Katima Mulilo in the Caprivi Strip that claims to monitor and catalogue BDF killings in the region. “We are worried that most of the people who have been killed were not poachers but fishermen,” Ntemwa said. “More than 30 lives have been lost since independence – this cannot be allowed to continue.”
Namibia’s Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Affairs Minister, Netumbo Nandi-Ndaitwah, said that her government initiated talks in May 2014 with Botswana, which gave the assurance that it would no longer kill suspected Namibian suspected poachers. Since then there had been no deaths, she said. She added that “in Namibia, we arrest – we do not shoot to kill”.
The tough policy on poaching has been given added impetus by Botswana’s shrinking economy, which faces a decline in revenue from diamonds, its main industry. The country is unlikely to meet its official growth target of 4.2% this year. Tourism, the second highest revenue earner, contributes 15% of the country’s GDP and provides 30 000 formal and informal jobs. Situated where the borders of Angola, Botswana, Namibia, Zambian and Zimbabwe meet, the Kavango-Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area has 200 000 wild elephants, more than anywhere else in the world.
Tshekedi Khama, the brother of Botswana’s President Ian Khama, lifted the lid on the government’s approach in his 2013 interview with British filmmaker, Tom Hardy, who was making a documentary called “The Poaching Wars”. “It’s a culture; we have to kill the supply to starve the culture,” Khama said.
“That is one of the reasons why in Botswana, with our anti-poaching unit, we don’t necessarily interrogate the poacher,” he told the seemingly stunned filmmaker. “That is a position we adopted to send a clear message to say if you want to come and poach in Botswana, one of the possibilities is that you may not go back to your country alive,” Asked by Hardy if the policy applied to locals, Khama said it was. He went on to say that even if a suspected poacher drops his gun and raises his hands, the BDF will shoot.
Tshekedi Khama has business interests in arms procurement and has reportedly supplied the BDF with arms and ammunition through his company Seleka Springs. Attempts to obtain comment from him about his business interests and Botswana’s anti-poaching policy were unsuccessful.
Questions to the president’s office about whether the BDF has a shoot-to-kill policy and if so, whether he approves of it were also not answered. The former military commander, Khama has a firm grip on the BDF and has no qualms about using it in crime-fighting operations. In May 2009 he controversially stepped in to pardon soldiers who pumped 16 bullets into an alleged criminal, John Kalafatis. while he was sitting unarmed in the back seat of a car in Gaborone, and allowed them to return to their positions.
When President Khama came into office in April 2008, he also created the feared Directorate on Intelligence Services, which takes an active interest in poaching in northern Botswana and interferes in the activities of the BDF, police and game-rangers.
President Khama also has a beneficial interest in wildlife conservation in the Chobe region: the Mail & Guardian revealed in 2011 that he has a business connection with Linyanti Investments, a subsidiary of Wilderness Investment Holdings. In terms of a 15-year lease agreement signed in January 2010 between the Tawana Land Board and Linyanti Explorations, Khama has 200 000 shares in Linyanti Investments, the owner of 1 300 sq km Linyanti Concession bordering the Caprivi Strip. He is a joint shareholder with his conservationist friends Derrick and Beverley Joubert, who facilitated the relocation of 100 rhinos from South Africa to the Linyanti Concession in 2014, heightening its attraction for tourists– and poachers.
According to media reports, Wilderness’s flagship facility in the Okavango Delta, the Mombo camp, is seen as threatened by increased poaching. It is possible that the wrong people are being targeted for the increased poaching on the Namibian-Botswana border.
In December last year Phil ya Nangoloh, executive director of Namibian human rights group Namrights, called for an independent commission of inquiry into what he termed the alarming increase in poaching, saying that high-ranking Namibian political figures are implicated in the black-market sale of rhino horns and elephant tusks. Without naming them, Ya Nangoloh alleged that a Cabinet minister, a former minister and a leader of a traditional authority are the kingpins of a poaching ring.
Death is not the only risk run by inhabitants of the border area. Some talk of incarceration in harsh prison conditions and of spending nights in crocodile-infested swamps as BDF helicopters hover overhead. There are also claims of assaults by BDF soldiers on suspected poachers, who say they are forced to watch while their dugout canoes are destroyed. In an interview, a woman from the village of Subiya said that she and her two year-old son spent three days in a sub-human conditions in a Botswana police cell after being found in possession of dried fish on Stongo, a disputed island in the Linyantsi River between Namibian and Botswana.
About 70 other Namibians who say they are fisherman were charged will illegally crossing the border. They say they were ordered to pay fines, while those who could not pay received three lashes of the cane on their bare backs, a colonial punishment still practised in Botswana’s customary courts.
Asked to react to criticism of its anti-poaching methods, the BDF said it would not respond to allegations. “We are not on the habit of commenting on allegations; albeit we wish to succinctly reiterate that our mission is to defend Botswana’s territorial integrity, sovereignty national interests,” said the force’s director of protocol and public relations, Colonel Tebo Dikole.
He said the BDF acts competently and “within the constraints of the prevailing statutes”, adding: “The BDF is not involved in any human rights violations, harassment of women with children nor have their members been issued a shoot to kill order.” While stating that Namibia’s laws unequivocally prohibit poaching, Nandi-Ndaitwah admitted that there are challenges regarding the exact position of the border and the hick bush, forests and marshlands that surround it.
Namibia’s environment minister, Pohamba Shifeta, said Namibia has arrested poachers from Botswana, but has never killed anyone. “We never had loss of life for apprehending a suspected poacher in Namibia. If it can be done without loss of life, it should be kept that way.”
Shifeta said poaching is a regional and international challenge that does not only affect Namibia.
He said the Zambezi region is more vulnerable to elephant poachers, while the Kunene region is where more incidents of rhino poaching incidents take place.
He added that his ministry has created a wildlife intelligence and investigations department within its wildlife protection services division, to work with the Wildlife Crime Prevention Unit – a body that includes representatives of all Namibia’s neighbours. The unit’s aim is to coordinate anti-poaching efforts. When poachers enter Namibia through Zambia, for instance, the Zambian authorities are supposed to notify their Namibian counterparts.
Border conflicts between Botswana and Zambia are not new. In the 1990s the Botswana military occupied Sedudu/Kasikili Island, sparking a conflict that was resolved by the International Court of Justice at the Hague.Also in dispute is the alleged BDF practice of pointing guns at fishermen on the Namibian side of the border, accusing them of either scaring animals or over-fishing.
In the early morning, when the sun was nibbling at the Linyanti floodplain close to Singobeka, a sleepy Lozi village 90km south-west of Katima Mulilo, a Botswana Defence Force helicopter swooped on Stongo Island in the Linyanti River that divides northern Botswana and Namibia.
Samati Samati, a 32-year-old bream fisherman knew at once that the arrival of BDF helicopter on an island claimed by Namibia in November last year meant trouble. “I tried to run,” he said, recalling the sound of the rotors moving towards him. Swimming across one of Linyanti tributaries might expose him, so he dived into a nearby swamp and laid low, hoping the helicopter circling overhead would eventually move off to Botswana.
He was mistaken. “They set up camp and stayed there for two days. At night I could see their campfire.” Samati, a Lozi, one of minority tribes in Namibia with little formal education, swears he is not a poacher.He says he has been fishing from the island – which is shared by Botswana and Namibia – since he was a child, and that this has kept him alive.
On the riverbank of Linyanti river on the Botswana side, game descend to the river to drink; on the Namibian only cattle graze on the flood plain. The contrast is striking, and Samati shrugs when asked about it. The game has crossed to Botswana, he argued. “We share these wild animals. We share fish too.”
The BDF has been accused of launching frequent raids into Namibia without regard for its sovereignty, and villagers also claim that BDF soldiers often leave a trail of destruction but the Botswana soldiers flew out of Stongo, they allegedly confiscated fishing nets and destroyed seven canoes. The BDF denies involvement in any illegal actions or human rights violations on the northern border with Namibia.
But because their reliance on fishing, Samati and other residents of Singobeka are unfazed. Within days of his brush with the helicopter, hunger forced him back into the Linyanti lagoons, this time, with his three-year-old nephew.“I guess they won’t shoot me when I am with a child,” he shrugged, only half in jest.
“I’m feeling pain. Four years after my son was brutally executed for alleged poaching activities I am still in pain. It’s a pain that will never end. It’s a pain that will surely lead to my death,” said Sicho Richard Nyambe.
He is the father of Nyambe Brian Nyambe, one of the two poachers killed by members of Botswana Defence Force’s (BDF) Anti-Poaching Unit in July 2012 for alleged poaching in Botswana’s Chobe National Park.
In an interview with Ink Centre for Investigative Journalism in Katima Mulilo in Namibia, Nyambe could not contain his anger. “ [I am] very angry at how my son was murdered for a crime he probably didn’t commit,” Nyambe said. He revealed since his son was killed he has been diagnosed with a severe heart condition. “I’m now taking heart medication. I can’t sleep at night, its painful.”
Brian’s mother who was reluctant to reveal her name says was diagnosed with stress “leading to depression” after her son was killed. “Yes, I saw my son in the coffin. But it is very hard to accept that he is dead.” Nyambe described his son as a “cool and intelligent” person who had a bright future ahead of him. He says that by the time of his death he was working as an informal education teacher for old people in Katima Mulilo while pursuing a primary schoolteacher’s diploma.
His father says he was also a passionate fisherman who often went fishing in the Chobe River. Sicho says he finds it difficult to accept the BDF’s contention that his son was a poacher, as no evidence had been produced that he posed a threat to the Botswana military.
“There is no way that he was a poacher,” he insisted. “The two guns found at scene couldn’t kill an elephant.” He was referring to a .22 rifle and a shotgun that were allegedly found. “Even if my son was a poacher, the BDF officers should have found a way of apprehending them instead of ending their lives.
“My son was shot in the back of the head, an indication that he was trying to escape. Why do you kill a man who is fleeing? Why do you kill a man who is not even a danger to you?” Nyambe still hopes that Botswana government will take responsibility for his son’s death and admit that it was wrong. Brian’s mother says the family has been left to care for his two young sons.
Shoot to Kill
FACES OF DESPAIR
National Geographic Channel
Chobe National Park
INK Centre for Investigative Journalism