President Mokgweetsi Masisi yesterday afternoon called for calm on both sides as tensions simmered between Batswana and Namibians over the killing of four suspected poachers by the Botswana Defence Force. Emotions in Namibia have been stoked particularly because Sedudu Island, the site of the incident, was a hotly contested territory between the two countries 21 years ago. Staff Writers MBONGENI MGUNI & THALEFANG CHARLES report
On Tuesday, authoritative sources in Kasane reported that top Botswana Defence Force (BDF) officials were in the border town leading an investigation into the recent deaths of four men at the hands of local anti-poaching forces.
Namibian mainstream media, meanwhile, reported that BDF helicopters flew across the border into the neighbouring country apparently observing the area, in a move that Namibians on social media took as a slap in the face of their country’s sovereignty.
Tensions are high on both sides, at least on social media where the hashtag #EndBDFKillings has been trending for days. Batswana and Namibians are trading insults and threats.
But what are the facts.
Shots in the dark
According to the BDF’s statement on Monday, as part of the force’s mission to defend the country’s “territorial integrity, sovereignty and national interests”, soldiers on Thursday at 11pm shot dead four poachers in the Sedudu area of Chobe River.
“The incident involved contact with a syndicate of poachers believed to be part of a network responsible for cross-border organised poaching.
“As previously stated, there is an alarming surge of organised poaching for rhinos and elephants in the Okavango Delta and in the Chobe National Park,” the BDF stated.
Namibian media, quoting police and senior government officials in the Zambezi Region, which lies opposite Sedudu, say the deceased were village fishermen conducting an entirely routine expedition.
There is confusion about the men however. Namibian media say three brothers and their Zambian cousin died, but in all the reports from media there and on social media, reference is only made to the three Namibians who have been identified and their pictures shared. Namibian media have even said the trio’s mother died of a heart attack days after the incident, while another relative is in hospital from the shock. The fourth man, said to be a Zambian, is barely mentioned, a fact that has given weight to the BDF and Batswana’s assertions that the expedition was for poaching.
When news of the incident spread on social media after the weekend and as outrage in Namibia rose, President Hage Geingob and senior officials visited the family of the three deceased men, later making brief remarks that appeared to lend credence to the BDF’s official account of the incident.
“What cannot be denied is that the people were in Botswana territory and it was very late at about 11pm,” Geingob said in a briefing televised online by The Namibian newspaper.
“So what were you doing at that time?
“Also, a gunshot was heard then a bull, buffalo or whatever.
“That’s the situation for now.”
Geingob and Masisi are known to be close, meeting several times since the latter’s ascension to the presidency and sharing views on conservation, regional security and mutual development. Masisi made a surprise trip to Namibia in February to discuss ‘bilateral and international issues’ of mutual interest, before going back again in April for Geingob’s inauguration, a trip that he had to go into quarantine upon his return.
“We are very close with President Masisi and we had long discussions.
“He has expressed his regret for the lives that have been lost and he has agreed to joint investigations,” Geingob said.
Yesterday afternoon, Masisi confirmed the discussions and added an appeal for calm.
“Mindful of the excellent and ever deepening bilateral relations between Botswana and Namibia, the two Heads of State have expressed their full commitment to resolve this issue in an expeditious and amicable manner,” the presidency said in a statement.
“To this effect and in the spirit of good neighbourliness, the two governments have agreed to undertake a joint investigation with the view to determine and address the circumstances that resulted in the incident.”
The Namibian presidency also appeared to ride over more aggressive sentiments coming out of Geingob’s Cabinet, with the Agriculture minister, Calle Schlettwein on Monday describing the incident as a “brutal, unnecessary killing,” but also adding that good neighbourliness is tested during times of trouble. The Namibian presidency yesterday dismissed plans for a demonstration in the area, which is apparently scheduled for today (Friday).
Online, meanwhile, Namibians have been quick to make connections between the recent incident and what they perceive is a trend of the BDF indiscriminately shooting their citizens. Some Namibians have also brought up the Sedudu territorial battle of the 1990s that at one point resulted in the exchange of gunfire between the two countries across the Chobe River.
The territorial dispute between Namibia and Botswana over Sedudu goes back to 1890 when the then colonial powers, Britain and Germany signed a treaty demarcating their ‘spheres of influence’ in Africa.
Bechuanaland under Britain and Namibia under Germany, would later lock horns over the ownership of Sedudu, called Kasikili by Namibia.
The five square kilometre island in the Chobe River is not that remarkable. It is a skid of grassland where oversized crocodiles come to bask
The only sign that shows that it is Botswana territory is a big flag that the country hoisted at the end of the dispute. On the highground overlooking the river is the BDF Anti-Poaching Unit camp, constantly watching for transgressors. The dispute raged for years, with the BDF in 1984 exchanging fire with South African troops in the area. South Africa, then under apartheid, had taken over Namibia from Germany and also enforced Namibia’s view of Sedudu’s ownership.
The International Court of Justice ruled in 1999 that Botswana rightfully owned Sedudu, but prior to that Mmegi journalist, Gale Ngakane witnessed first-hand the tensions at the border. Ngakane was part of a contingent of local and international journalists who gathered in Kasane for a mediation meeting between former president Sir Ketumile Masire and then Namibian leader, Sam Nujoma.
“The BDF was armed to the teeth along the border and its then commander, Ian Khama, was there equally fully armed and carrying an AK47,” he recalls. “There had been shooting in the area before and Masire had appealed to [then] Zimbabwean president, Robert Mugabe to mediate between the two countries. “They eventually agreed to go to the International Court of Justice where Botswana prevailed.”
Ngakane remembers: “The forest on the bank of the river on the Botswana side was choc-a-bloc with weapons of war. Camouflaged soldiers lurked menacingly in the lush vegetation that bejewelled the riverbanks.
Armed to the teeth! We were told the other side had equally mobilised heavily and were also just waiting for the word to start shooting, should the presidents fail to agree on the way forward.”
The International Court of Justice defused the situation, but 21 years down the line, it is evident frustrations have been bubbling under the surface in the Zambezi Region, one of Namibia’s poorest areas where residents complain of being side-lined by Windhoek.
In the late 1990s when the area was still known as Caprivi, the residents of Namibia’s Zambezi Region formed a secessionist party, the United Democratic Party (UDC), along with a militant wing, the Caprivi Liberation Army (CLA).
Between the October 1998 discovery of a CLA training camp by the Namibia Defence Force (NDF) and the August/September 1999 attacks by the Caprivians on government installations, matters moved quickly. Nujoma declared a state of emergency, the NDF moved in and crushed the rebellion amidst reports of random beatings, torture and murders. Even today, rumours persist of mass graves, although humanitarian agencies have yet to verify these.
An estimated 3,000 Caprivians, including military and political leaders of the rebels, supporters, sympathisers and ordinary villagers, found themselves trapped, and fled to Botswana.
Today, the UDC is banned and Zambezi is integrated into Namibia, but residents do not feel they belong in Namibia. Across the border in Botswana and visible from the Namibia side is the Chobe National Park along the Chobe River. The River is lined with luxurious hotels and lodges, lush grass and swimming pools, rich tourists sunbathing on the decks, employment and monies flowing from the natural beauty.
On their side, allegedly under-developed by Windhoek, the residents of Zambezi Region living along the Chobe sustain themselves largely from pastoral activities and fishing, a cruel set of circumstances that further angers those who claim the three deceased were innocently eking a living.
Further fomenting anger and the sense of being unfairly treated, a video circulated online this week, showing senior Namibian officials visiting the family of the deceased where a nephew alleged that BDF soldiers regularly cross over to buy fish from fishing camps run by the Namibians.
“They know them very well so why would they shoot them today,” the nephew says in the video, shot in the family’s camp made of reed structures.
Analysts say like the territorial disputes that triggered Mugabe’s intervention, the current tensions between Namibians and Batswana are about value creation.
“That area in Namibia is rich in wildlife and beauty as well, but the people there are surviving through lowly activities like fishing while in Kasane, tourism millions have started pouring in again.
“The political leadership needs to develop that area and uplift people’s livelihoods to create real wealth there.
“As long as that does not happen, desperate residents of Zambezi will be tempted to join the poaching syndicates and put their military experience to use, at Botswana’s expense.
“Even if the story of fishing is believed, it is desperate residents who crossed into Botswana at night, knowing full well that there is a BDF military camp on Sedudu primed to engage at the slightest threat.”
As the investigations continue, Masisi and his ally, Geingob, will be hoping everyone keeps calm and the ghosts of 1999 remain exorcised.