Last month, Botswana’s Minister for Environment and Tourism Dumezweni Mthimkhulu threatened to send 10,000 elephants to Hyde Park. This week, Botswana’s President Mokgweetsi Eric Keabetswe Masisi went a step further and suggested sending 20,000 elephants to Germany.

These are strange and not entirely plausible threats, yet they reflect the frustration that Botswanan politicians feel over western governments lecturing them about animal rights. The United Kingdom and Germany are both in the process of passing laws to block the importing of hunting trophies.

The point Masisi and his government want to make is that, unlike westerners, the people of Botswana live in increasingly close proximity to the world’s largest population of elephants, which has nearly tripled over the last 40 years from 50,000 in 1984 to around 130,000 today. And elephants are dangerous.

‘Imagine taking a little rest in Hyde Park,’ he tells me. ‘You walk back to your office, you encounter an elephant, and the elephant kills you.’

President Masisi removed the ban on trophy hunting elephants in the early days of his presidency. He is standing for re-election in October and is keen to make it a key issue in his campaign.

‘We’ve decolonised trophy hunting,’ Masisi tells me. ‘What remains now [is] a resurgence of a colonial mentality, what we see where you’re condescending to us.’

Westminster’s understanding of trophy hunting is, Masisi says, overly informed by the ‘hillbillies who put up these grotesque pictures’ – the bloody, mangled carcasses of majestic, often endangered, animals.

He insists the practice is not some kind of free-for-all massacre – Botswana reserves 400 licenses to shoot elephants per year, though only about 300 tend to be used on selected elephants which are usually past the breeding age. ‘We don’t allow cruelty to these animals and the display of brute behaviours.’ But for many, the cruelty of killing is cruel enough.

Around 80 per cent of constituents in the UK are in favour of the ban – though, as Masisi points out, Brits don’t have to live with elephants.

The support for a ban on trophy hunting imports is, to Masisi, an indication that we in the UK are more ready to identify emotionally with the animals rather than with the people of Botswana, who struggle as a result of elephants infringing upon their villages and farmland. Botswana’s rising human population has driven up demand for wild land to be turned into farmland. That, alongside a growing elephant population, results in rising contact and conflict between elephants and humans.

‘The enormity of success we have garnered in the conservation of these iconic species has somewhat come back to bite us,’ says Masisi. ‘Even the very environment they live in is threatened by their overpopulation.’ In the Okavango Delta, a part of Botswana where there can be as many elephants as humans, the World Wildlife Fund estimates that about 25 elephants are shot each year because they pose a threat to humans and their livelihoods. Elephants are known to be violent pests – a single one can destroy an entire field of crops overnight.

In 2014, Botswana’s former president Ian Khama banned trophy hunting. Was Masisi, formerly Khama’s vice president, in favour of the ban at the time? ‘No, and a great majority of us were not.’

‘Communities around Botswana lost millions in our local currency… without any democratic respect of at least consulting the people as we normally do.’

When Masisi lifted the ban in 2019, it was not he says a ‘whimsical decision’. It was arrived at through, he says, a ‘genuine democratic process of engaging communities and evidence being put forward and science being put forward to demonstrate that it works.’

Botswana’s democracy is considered one of the most stable on the continent. It ranks 33rd globally on the EIU Democracy Index, 2nd regionally in Africa, and offers its citizens considerable civil liberties. A 2021 judgement made Botswana the fifth African country to decriminalise same-sex relationships, with President Masisi making a government commitment to fully adhere to the Court of Appeal’s decision. (Only one African country, South Africa, has gone as far as legalising same-sex marriage.)

Masisi has won praise for improving press freedom, passing the Media Practitioners’ Association Bill in 2022, promoting an independent media. He seems to be pretty adept at handling the press himself, judging from his worldwide elephant-hunting PR drive.

The government has, however, been dominated by a single party since it gained independence from the UK in 1966: the Botswana Democratic Party (BDP), founded by the country’s first president Seretse Khama. Khama’s son, the former president Ian Khama, has been engaged in a feud with the current president since handing over power, though Masisi hesitates to use the word ‘feud’, calling it instead a ‘difference of view’.

‘Imagine taking a little rest in Hyde Park,’ he tells me. ‘You encounter an elephant, and the elephant kills you.

In 2019, Khama left his father’s party ‘because Masisi was demonstrating the character of a typical dictator,’ he said. He now backs the Botswana Patriotic Front, part of the Umbrella for Democratic Change opposition coalition.

Ian Khama fled to neighbouring South Africa in November 2021, citing an alleged plan by Masisi’s government to carry out a ‘hit’ on him. He was charged in April 2022 with 14 counts, including possession of unlicensed firearms and money laundering, and the Botswana government has issued a warrant for him to be arrested on sight. Khama claims this is political persecution for his opposition to Masisi.

Does this ‘difference of view’ destabilise Botswana? ‘Two people don’t make a democracy, by the way,’ Masisi says. But they can erode trust in one.

Masisi calls Khama’s assassination-plot claims ‘the most ludicrous, senseless assertions. We are Botswana.’ He adds, ‘If you look at the poor man’s track record, if you delved deep, you would see a man looking at himself in the mirror and being afraid of his own past. It’s a real pity.’

But what, exactly, are their differences? ‘The first difference,’ Masisi says, ‘is that the man must accept he’s not president anymore. When he’s reminded respectfully and politely that no, you can’t do that, he throws his toys. It’s the first time in his life, I think, he was ever told, “You can’t do that.”’

Masisi says he’s unconcerned by domestic threats to Botswana’s democracy and prosperity. Foreign exploitation and meddling are more pervasive problems, a legacy of colonialism. ‘The balance of power in the world is the first threat to global peace. The imbalance and racial connotation that goes along with that imbalance of power is real.’

We speak about Haiti, the world’s first black republic and, as part of the diaspora, considered part of the ‘sixth region’ of the African Union (AU). Gang violence has sent the country into a state of chaos, fuelled by firearms trafficked from the US. Early last month, Haiti’s Prime Minister Ariel Henry flew to Kenya to negotiate a plan to deploy police forces from the East African country. Unable to return to Haiti, he has since resigned from government and remains stranded in Puerto Rico.

‘They are black people who got where they are through a grotesque system,’ Masisi says, referring to the slave trade which brought Africans to the Caribbean. ‘Most of the problems in Haiti are caused by complex, de facto racism that continues to this day. I mean, you have to ask, where do those arms come from?’ Does he feel a sense of responsibility for Haiti’s future, what Kenyan leaders have described as a moral obligation? ‘I feel an affinity naturally, as you would if you saw anyone who looked exactly like you. We seek to really put our voice in strongly in the AU for us to pay greater attention to Haiti. But then again,’ he says, ‘we have our own challenges.’

The President goes back to the trophy hunting ban. ‘You get so many little dirty hands all over our resources, and they take them out, add value to them, and that seems to sanitise what they do,’ he says. While Botswana’s diamond trade, which represents 90 per cent of its exports, is free from the abuses which plague the mining industry in other African countries, Masisi is critical of Britain’s laissez faire approach to less blatantly unethical imports from the continent as a whole: ‘Why shouldn’t there be a ban on those who steal our resources, add value to them and wear them on their wrists, or use them as their cell phones?’

How does he square this view with China’s investment in his country’s infrastructure? ‘We allow other players who offer a service or a product to play, according to our rules.’

But it’s ‘nothing astounding’ that Chinese companies win contracts in Botswana, he says. ‘Like everywhere else in the world, Britain included, the US included, the Western hemisphere included, China is a powerhouse,’ he says. ‘We are less invested in by the Chinese than they have invested in your own country.’ He isn’t going to be threatening Beijing with elephants any time soon, though.

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