Botswana journalists investigating 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, Joel Konopo reports.
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 onto 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 soon 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.”
We grinned nervously in protest.
“Yes, you can laugh,” he said. “Next time we will speak to you through the barrel of a gun. It is the only language you understand.”
The commander continued: “Let me be clear,” he said this time, raising his voice. “Next time if you come here we will kill you. We will shoot you.”
Shocked, we asked him to take back the threat. “I repeat – we will shoot and kill you,” he said defiantly.
After being detained for about an hour, we were escorted out of the area. But before we could leave the scene of the ambush our mobile phones and camera were confiscated.
“You are photographing us. Bring your phones. Bring your phones,” the commander hollered as he peeped into our rented vehicle. No one had photographed him, but we complied and surrendered the equipment.
One of the silver Land Cruisers escorted us out of the Mosu area until we were a few kilometres from Mmatshumu village. When he was satisfied that we were right out of area, the commander returned our phones and camera to us. “You must now get out of this place,” he said.
Then he told us: “We knew you were coming. We had the information that you were coming.” How is that possible, we asked him? He laughed and provided no clue.
The words, “We will shoot and kill you” from an armed security operative stayed with us throughout our journey to Letlhakane, a sprawling diamond mining town in the heart of Botswana.
The threat could not be taken lightly.
In 2009, four security agents pumped 16 bullets into the body of an unarmed Gaborone man, John Kalafatis, and received a presidential pardon 11 months into their jail sentences.
Under Khama, himself a former commander of the Botswana Defence Force, the security forces are acting with increasing freedom.
Weeks before the general election, Sunday Standard editor, Outsa Mokone was held for several hours under sedition charges, causing veteran journalist at the same paper, Edgar Tsimane to flee to South Africa, saying he feared for his life.
Section 220 (1) of the Penal Code prohibits any threat to kill and imposes a prison sentence of not more than 10 years for those who commit the offence.
We reported the matter to the commander of the Letlhakane police station, Superintendent Michael Maphepu. A month later, there has been no police feedback on the progress of the investigation.
Shortly after our threatening encounter, the Office of the President released a statement saying security personnel suspected we were going to “trespass into a restricted area”.
No explanation was offered for why it is restricted. Jeff Ramsay, spokesperson for the presidency declined to comment on whether an area 5km from the president’s compound is protected under any Act.
On persistent rumours that the BDF is involved in building and refurbishing the presidential residence, Ramsey said: “Government has noted with shock and dismay a continuing spate of false and misleading reports by some private media houses in Botswana, in which innuendo and deliberate distortion of facts have taken prominence as headlines and main news reports of identifiable media outlets.
“Cases in point include an offensive suggestion that the President Lieutenant General Seretse Khama Ian Khama has constructed a private residence in Mosu using taxpayers’ money.”
Ramsay said the BDF had only engaged in such activities as the construction and maintenance of the airstrip outside the compound and helipad within the perimeter fence, and associated facilities.
“In this respect the only significant recent activity involved renovation of the helipad, which was suspended due to rains but will resume.”
The farmers we interviewed said that until recently they had been able to walk freely and gather firewood on the outskirts of Mosu, but that the presence of BDF and plain-clothes officers has curtailed their movements.
The three men we met in Mosu had warned us to watch out for the military. “Sometimes they can be cocky,” they said.
* This story was produced by the INK Centre for Investigative Journalism in Botswana, in association with the amaBhungane Centre for investigative Journalism.