Last Thursday, three Namibian fishermen were reportedly shot and killed along the Chobe River by members of the Botswana Defence Force. This is not the first time that the seemingly trigger-happy Botswana Defence Force members have shot and killed Namibian citizens in that area. The question here is not whether the Namibian fishermen were fishing illegally on the Botswana side of the river or not. The bottom line is, does illegal fishing on the Botswana side of the river justify maximum use of force against unarmed civilians. I will leave the issue in the hands of our capable diplomats. I must hasten to say that this opinion piece has not been influenced by that particular incident only – it has been long overdue.
On the 4th February 2005, a dear friend, Mr Alexander Kaure, published a feature article in The Namibian newspaper in which he was heaping praises on Botswana and arguing that our leaders needed to learn something from Botswana. Mr Kaure is entitled to his views.
That Botswana as a country has, by any stretch of imagination, been doing very well – at least by African standards - is beyond debate. I do not want to take anything away from Botswana; they have an efficient public service system, a sound economy (supported by huge foreign reserves), a very low crime rate and a relatively stable political democracy (with the exception of the recent cracks caused by the Ian Khama-Masisi fallout). The transition from former President Ian Khama to current President Masisi has not been very smooth. The 2019 national elections were marked by some tensions so much so that Ian Khama ended up resigning from the ruling Botswana Democratic Party (BDP) – a party that had been founded by his late father and Botswana’s founding President, Sir Seretse Khama. The opposition party he supported – the Botswana Patriotic Front - lost in the elections and the outcome of the elections was challenged in the High Court; which upheld the outcome. The bottom line is that there is bad blood between Ian Khama and Masisi, and that is an open secret.
I am also a great admirer of the Botswana “miracle” but my line of reasoning is that that “miracle” needs to be contextualised. I, therefore, want to take issue with Mr Kaure on one key issue. He asserted that “…Botswana is one of the best-governed countries that Namibian leaders never want to learn from.” I think we have heard the Botswana praise song for some time now. It is a song that has been over-sung and is, in fact, becoming a tired song; because it does not seem to be contextualized and qualified by many analysts.
The Botswana “miracle” should be analysed within the context of time and space. It must be borne in mind that when countries like Zambia, Angola and Mozambique were subjected to the “big stick” of destabilization at the hands of the then Apartheid military machine in South Africa and the Smith regime in the then Rhodesia because they had chosen to actively support the liberation movements in Southern Africa, Botswana and Malawi (under Banda) were given the “carrot” by Apartheid South Africa. I do not want to mention Lesotho and Swaziland because they are geographically so dwarfed by South Africa, so much so that you would not realistically expect them to have actively supported the liberation movements in Southern Africa beyond the extent that they did. Botswana and Malawi maintained normal trading and economic links with apartheid South Africa and they were – to the best of my recollection – never subjected to military attacks by Apartheid South Africa.
Although Botswana is a SADC member state, they were not a Frontline State like Angola, Zambia, Mozambique, Tanzania and later Zimbabwe. The Frontline States were those states in the region, who chose to be in the forefront of the liberation struggle in Southern Africa. These countries refused, as a matter of principle, to have direct trade links with apartheid South Africa and they provided military bases for the liberation movements, thus inviting military raids by the apartheid regime. The development of these countries was virtually arrested and the price they paid in terms of economic and human life loss was huge.
A lot of Namibian refugees passed through Botswana – including yours truly - and Swapo even maintained an office there. We are very thankful for that and that was a friendly gesture that cannot just be disregarded. However, the Botswana involvement was very low-key because, for one, they did not provide military bases for the liberation movements in the region and as such did not suffer military attacks and raids from the apartheid regime in South Africa. Secondly, they maintained close trade and economic links with apartheid South Africa and they benefitted greatly from that arrangement. These factors must be considered before the Botswana praise song is sung.
Botswana is a sovereign state and I am not passing any value judgement why they chose to be in SADC and not to be a Frontline State. The argument that I am putting forward is that they never suffered the brunt of military attacks, which some of the Frontline States were subjected to; and that has helped to develop their country without outside military interference and/or pressure.
Botswana has been independent since 1966 and Namibia only since 1990. The question is, in over a period of more than 50 years of independence, how many Ovaherero or San minorities have served in senior government positions in Botswana? These are examples of two of the ethnic minorities who have a presence in both countries. Some of us have relatives on the other side of the border and they would readily admit that they cannot write a letter in their mother tongue because, apart from English, the only other language that is taught in primary school is Setswana.
Do the ethnic minorities in Botswana have radio stations in their own mother tongues? One could argue that after all, all the people in Botswana speak Setswana – which, as I have argued elsewhere, is very good for national unity. However, that is beside the point because all the adult San people in Namibia speak a second language over and above their mother tongue, yet a radio station was opened for them a few years ago. These are social and cultural rights which the ethnic minorities in Botswana are entitled to and need to be taken into account when we talk about the Botswana “miracle”.
The entitlement of citizens – especially ethnic minorities - to social and cultural rights should be part and parcel of any country’s development agenda.
The point is when we say Botswana is one of the best – governed countries in Africa we need to qualify and contextualize such a statement. It is a pity that an intellectual of Mr Kaure’s stature did not bother to qualify and contextualize his analysis. Summary killings of unarmed foreign civilians by members of the Namibian Defence Force are unlikely to happen in Namibia.
We are a “child” of African and international solidarity and African solidarity is central to our value system. This is testified by the fact that Namibia is one of the very few countries on the continent – if not the only one – where the AU anthem is sung alongside the national anthem. Can a country that does not value human life – regardless of the nationality of such a life – be regarded as a model of democratic governance and human rights protection?