Botswana: Journalists threatened while investigating Khama’s residence

Botswana journalists investigating damaging allegations about President Ian Khama’s rural residence were blocked by security agents and warned they would be shot if they came that way again, reports Joel Konopo for AmaBhunghane Centre for Investigative Journalism.

They crowded around us – Joel Konopo, Ntibinyane Ntibinyane and Kaombona Kanani – staring with open hatred. Some covered their faces with balaclavas. Others took cover under a huge truck in a nearby thicket, weapons at the ready, poised to squeeze the trigger. Those who hemmed us in took turns in interrogating us and demanding our identity documents.

We obliged – after all, we were three journalists against seven heavily armed plain-clothes security operatives.

One grinned when we refused to allow them to search us because they refused to produce their identity documents after claiming to be police officers. “Le a tshameka!” (You’re playing!) a dark, shaven-headed, burly officers who appeared to be the commander of the team warned. Another with shell-shocked eyes snapped: “Here in the bush, you do as we say!” 

We realised that our journey – to investigate allegations that President Ian Khama is using the Botswana Defence Force (BDF) to perform his personal errands and renovate his private residence on the outskirts of Mosu in Boteti, central Botswana – was doomed.

“This is a restricted area,” the bloodshot-eyed commander told us, without informing us of the relevant legislation.

When we asked why they were blocking the road, they offered no explanation and laughed.

Later he escorted us out of the area after threatening that if we ever came that way again they would shoot us.

The Protected Areas and Places Act of 1997 lists over 123 locations that one requires official clearance to enter. It does not mention a gravel road on the outskirts of Mosu, through cattle posts and peasant farms.

The journey to the president’s “no-go-area” started 22 hours earlier, when the three of us, all members of the INK Centre for Investigative Journalism, left Gaborone in the evening with the intention of verifying claims that soldiers are refurbishing the outgoing president’s private residence at the taxpayers’ expenses.

The Botswana Guardian newspaper reported in 2013 that Khama had “settled” in Mosu in the late 2000 after Letlhakane sub-land board allocated him two plots measuring 1.1 square kilometres for the construction of a lodge and compound complete with an airstrip at a cost of P1.3-million at the mouth of Makgadikgadi Pans.

Details of the construction and development of Khama’s private residences in various parts of the country are shrouded in secrecy. As we discovered, trying to lift the veil entails some personal risk.

Using the state media, the government has consistently denied reports that the BDF or the department of buildings and engineering services has been involved in the construction or renovation of Khama’s residence in Mosu.

To increase our chances of investigating at first hand, we interviewed three locals in Mosu and asked for directions. By afternoon, we had taken a gravel road to the east with the hope of surprising the BDF at the construction site.

In our minivan we followed the winding track across endlessly flat terrain to Toragara – a sprawling cattle post on the edge of Makgadikgadi plains, some 15km to the north of Mosu.

After we had driven for about 10km, armed men suddenly emerged from the wilderness and leapt on to the gravel road. Our van ground to a halt. It looked and sounded like an ambush.

“Get out!” the the man who apparently commanded the unit ordered. He surveyed our van carefully, wiping mud off the number plate.

Then he turned to us indignantly: “This road will get you nowhere – where are you going? Let me see your IDs.” We froze for a moment, then reluctantly complied.

As we regained our composure, we looked around as clean-shaven plain-clothes officers scribbled our names on a notepad. We identified two silver Toyota Land Cruisers parked in a dense thicket, a large MAN pick-up truck and two Honda ATV quad bikes – all with private number plates.

It occurred to us that the plates had been quickly covered up. But we had memorised one of the SUV’s number plates: the private registration number B802 ATI.

“Where do you work?” the plainclothes officers demanded as they took turns in interrogating us. To avoid revealing that we were investigative journalists, we told them that we were media consultants.

“We are police officers,” the ‘commander’ exclaimed without providing further details.

At this stage we asked the “commander” if he could produce evidence that he was indeed a police officer. He expressed outrage at our nerve and took off on a red quad bike to collect his identity document, according to the remaining officers.

After 30 minutes he was back with a firm and stomach-turning warning. “Konopo and Ntibinyane,” he called out. “You are very young, when I look at you I see my sons. Never again set foot on this road – not next week, not next month, not in six months, not next year. If you ever do, we will shoot and kill you.”

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This story was produced by the INK Centre for Investigative Journalism in Botswana, in association with the amaBhungane Centre for Investigative Journalism.

Picture credit: A young dancer from a traditional dance group invites incumbent Botswana President Seretse Ian Khama to dance in front of the crowd of supporters of the ruling Botswana Democratic Party attending a political rally in the Naledi district of Gaborone (2014). Marco Longari/Getty Images.