Is Botswana's Shoot-To-Kill Policy In The Fight Against Poaching Justified?

Two days back, the Botswana Defence Force (BDF) released a statement communicating the killing of four individuals, who were later identified as Namibian citizens, along the Chobe River who they identified as poachers. Reports coming out of Namibian media refutes the poachers narrative, with family members of the deceased pointing out that they were merely fishermen gunned down by trigger-happy security forces.

The Namibian government, in its response, was quick to point out that though they do not condone poaching activities, they were very much against the extra-judicial killings of its citizens which came about as a result of the BDF's shoot-to-kill anti-poaching policy.

Initially implemented in 2013 by the Khama administration as a way to curb the mass slaughter of wildlife in the country's wildlife territories, the policy has been a source of diplomatic tensions with neighbors over the years. According to reports, since the adoption of the policy, 30 Namibians and 22 Zimbabweans have been shot and killed by the BDF and since these figures are from 2015, the number has most likely increased steeply over the years.

During the initial policy adoption in 2013, the reasoning by the Botswana government was that it was the most effective deterrent to poaching. When President Masisi ascended to office in 2018, he rescinded the policy by recalling military-grade weaponry from the Department of Wildlife and Parks but the BDF anti-poaching remained active.

This most recent incident of extra-judicial killings again brings into debate the use of the shoot-to-kill policy in the fight against poaching. Most advocates for the policy mistakenly justify it by pointing out that because poachers are not always reluctant to use force, the BDF should basically shoot before they get shot at. This justification is different from the government's which, as aforementioned, was to strictly deter poachers from actually poaching.

When asked whether there wasn't a less extreme way to deter poachers instead of the Wild Wild West-ish shoot-to-kill policy, the then Minister of Environment, Wildlife, and Tourism Tshekedi Khama pointed out that as unfortunate as the killings of suspected poachers were, it was the only way to effectively deal with the poaching issue at hand.

The diplomatic issues which constantly sprout as a result of the policy are reason to look again at whether the policy is the best way of dealing with poaching. Botswana, with its landlocked country status, cannot afford to be at loggerheads with important coastal neighbors like Namibia, or any neighbor in that matter.

Because the country's neighbors are clearly not happy with what they view as trigger-happy security forces supported by the shoot-to-kill policy, to maintain good diplomatic relations, there is a need for a dialogue between both parties to find the best way to balance Botswana's need to control poaching activities and what her neighbors deem to be excessive and unjudicial use of force against their citizens.

Foreigners are of course not the only ones susceptible to the BDF anti-poaching squad's flying bullets. Citizens who were suspected to be poachers have also been victims of the policy, bringing forth the question of whether the country's citizenry is fine with security forces having the power to be judge, jury, and executioner. The Kalafatis case of yesteryears has shown that although Batswana are against security forces going above the rule of law, they are more accepting of this disregard for judicial structures by security forces when it comes to poachers.

Whether this floating stance by Batswana on the use of excessive force by security forces is good or bad remains a purely subjective issue open for debate in the national conversation. When it comes to international conversations, though, it is clear that the country's neighbors do not see any good or justification for the shoot-to-kill policy. Unless a more diplomatic relations friendly way to deal with poaching is devised in cooperation with the affected countries, the use of supposedly excessive force through the shoot-to-kill policy remains a diplomatic ticking time bomb that will prove to be disastrous to the country if it explodes.