Botswana has been downgraded from ‘narrowed’ to ‘obstructed’ in a new report by the CIVICUS Monitor, a global research collaboration that rates and tracks fundamental freedoms in 197 countries and territories. Over the years, Botswana has been known as a beacon of democracy, but could the CIVICUS report spell a change in ethos in Botswana?
The report, People Power Under Attack 2021, says restrictions on the right to protest and attacks on free speech have led to Botswana’s downgrade Botswana is now rated ‘obstructed’ on the CIVICUS Monitor. Botswana is among 42 other countries with this rating. The latest update from Africa is that Mali, Mozambique and South Africa have been downgraded alongside Botswana. According to the report the top five violations include: Journalist detainment, Censorship, Protestor(s) detained, Attack on Journalists and Protest Disruption.
An ‘obstructed’ rating, according to the report, is broadly understood as a Civic space that is heavily contested by power holders, who impose a combination of legal and practical constraints on the full enjoyment of fundamental rights. Although civil society organisations exist, state authorities undermine them, including through the use of illegal surveillance, bureaucratic harassment and demeaning public statements. Citizens can organise and assemble peacefully but they are vulnerable to frequent use of excessive force by law enforcement agencies, including rubber bullets, tear gas and baton charges. There is some space for non-state media and editorial independence, but journalists face the risk of physical attack and criminal defamation charges, which encourage self-censorship.
The previous ranking ‘narrowed’ meant that “the state allows individuals and civil society organisations to exercise their rights to freedom of association, peaceful assembly and expression, violations of these rights also take place. People can form associations to pursue a wide range of interests, but full enjoyment of this right is impeded by occasional harassment, arrest or assault of people deemed critical of those in power. Protests are conducted peacefully, although authorities sometimes deny permission, citing security concerns, and excessive force, which may include tear gas and rubber bullets, are sometimes used against peaceful demonstrators. The media is free to disseminate a wide range of information, although the state undermines complete press freedom either through strict regulation or by exerting political pressure on media owners.”
Civic rights violations have increased in Botswana this year, especially rights relating to the freedom of assembly. The month of September 2021 was a handful for Botswana. An increasing number of arrests of citizens who held peaceful demonstrations calling for, accountability from the government, condemning the declining socioeconomic status of citizens or exposing government corruption was rampant among the citizens.
The highlight being 7th September 2021, Reverend Thuso Tiego was arrested for allegedly violating Section 4(3) of the Public Order Act, after he held a demonstration with two other pastors calling for the resignation of President Mokgweetsi Masisi. Following the arrests, several members of the public made their way to the police station to demand his release, only to end up being arrested themselves and some violently dispersed.
Separately, in mid-September 2021, a group of artists was jailed after holding a peaceful demonstration calling for the resignation of the Minister of Youth Empowerment, Sport and Culture Development, Honourable Tumiso Rakgare. The reason for their arrests, as with many other peaceful demonstrations, was for protesting without a permit as required by the Public Order Act and breaching COVID-19 protocols.
The CIVICUS Monitor is concerned about the increased use of the flawed and controversial Public Order Act to police peaceful assemblies in Botswana, and the use of COVID-19 protocols as a pretext to restrict freedom of expression. Across Africa, the detention of journalists is a growing concern and in 2021, for the second year in a row, it was the top civic violation documented across the continent.
The detention of journalists is once again the top violation in the African region. Almost 45% of the updates for the African register journalists being detained because their reporting criticised the authorities, or focused on issues considered sensitive such as corruption. One such instance locally is; the arrest of local journalists Oratile Dikologang, Letsogile Barupi and Justice Motlhabani for publishing information on their Facebook news pages, Botswana People’s Daily News and Botswana Trending News, related to COVID-19 and local politics, which they deny publishing.
As reported by the Committee to Protect Journalists, the three are currently facing charges of publishing “with the intention to deceive” under the emergency COVID-19 regulations, plus a charge of “publication of alarming statements” under the Penal Code, and another charge of “offensive electronic communication” under the Cybercrime Act. If found guilty, the three could face a jail sentence of up to five years or a fine of 100,000 pula.
While in Sudan, journalist Osman Hashim was detained by police in Port Sudan in September 2021 and later released on bail in relation to his Facebook posts alleging corruption in the former governor’s office. In Uganda, the Buganda Road Chief Magistrate’s Court detained Pidson Kareire and Darious Magara, online journalists for Drone Media and East African Watch, who were both charged with criminal libel under section 179 of the Penal Code over the Countries of concern
In the past year military coups in Chad, Guinea, Mali and Sudan have landed the nations under countries of concern. Raising distress over the respect for fundamental freedoms by non-civilian and undemocratic office bearers. On the brighter side of things, civil society action has helped to advocate for the passing of positive laws in Africa. On 1 July 2021, the Gambia’s National Assembly adopted the Access to Information Bill, a result of close collaboration between civil society and government departments. On 23 July 2021, Sierra Leone approved the Bill abolishing the death penalty.
Botswana has made improvements on preventing and ending arbitrary deprivation of liberty, but significant challenges remain in further developing and implementing a legal framework, the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention said at the end of a visit recently.
Head of the delegation, Elina Steinerte, appreciated the transparency of Botswana for opening her doors to them. Having had full and unimpeded access and visited 19 places of deprivation of liberty and confidentiality interviewing over 100 persons deprived of their liberty.
She mentioned “We commend Botswana for its openness in inviting the Working Group to conduct this visit which is the first visit of the Working Group to the Southern African region in over a decade. This is a further extension of the commitment to uphold international human rights obligations undertaken by Botswana through its ratification of international human rights treaties.”
Another good act Botswana has been praised for is the remission of sentences. Steinerte echoed that the Prisons Act grants remission of one third of the sentence to anyone who has been imprisoned for more than one month unless the person has been sentenced to life imprisonment or detained at the President’s Pleasure or if the remission would result in the discharge of any prisoner before serving a term of imprisonment of one month.
On the other side; The Group received testimonies about the police using excessive force, including beatings, electrocution, and suffocation of suspects to extract confessions. Of which when the suspects raised the matter with the magistrates, medical examinations would be ordered but often not carried out and the consideration of cases would proceed.
“The Group recall that any such treatment may amount to torture and ill-treatment absolutely prohibited in international law and also lead to arbitrary detention. Judicial authorities must ensure that the Government has met its obligation of demonstrating that confessions were given without coercion, including through any direct or indirect physical or undue psychological pressure. Judges should consider inadmissible any statement obtained through torture or ill-treatment and should order prompt and effective investigations into such allegations,” said Steinerte.
One of the group’s main concern was the DIS held suspects for over 48 hours for interviews. Established under the Intelligence and Security Service Act, the Directorate of Intelligence and Security (DIS) has powers to arrest with or without a warrant.
The group said the “DIS usually requests individuals to come in for an interview and has no powers to detain anyone beyond 48 hours; any overnight detention would take place in regular police stations.”
The Group was able to visit the DIS facilities in Sebele and received numerous testimonies from persons who have been taken there for interviewing, making it evident that individuals can be detained in the facility even if the detention does not last more than few hours.
Moreover, while arrest without a warrant is permissible only when there is a reasonable suspicion of a crime being committed, the evidence received indicates that arrests without a warrant are a rule rather than an exception, in contravention to article 9 of the Covenant.
Even short periods of detention constitute deprivation of liberty when a person is not free to leave at will and in all those instances when safeguards against arbitrary detention are violated, also such short periods may amount to arbitrary deprivation of liberty.
The group also learned of instances when persons were taken to DIS for interviewing without being given the possibility to notify their next of kin and that while individuals are allowed to consult their lawyers prior to being interviewed, lawyers are not allowed to be present during the interviews.
The UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention mentioned they will continue engaging in the constructive dialogue with the Government of Botswana over the following months while they determine their final conclusions in relation to the country visit.
Standard Chartered Bank Botswana (SCBB) has informed the government that it will not be accepting new loan applications for the Government Employees Motor Vehicle and Residential Property Advance Scheme (GEMVAS and LAMVAS) facility.
This emerges in a correspondence between Acting Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Finance Boniface Mphetlhe and some government departments. In a letter he wrote recently to government departments informing them of the decision, Mphetlhe indicated that the Ministry received a request from the Bank to consider reviewing GEMVAS and LAMVAS agreement.
He said: “In summary SCBB requested the following; Government should consider reviewing GEMVAS and LAMVAS interest rate from prime plus 0.5% to prime plus 2%.” The Bank indicated that the review should be both for existing GEMVAS and LAMVAS clients and potential customers going forward.
Mphetlhe said the Bank informed the Ministry that the current GEMVAS and LAMVAS interest rate structure results into them making losses, “as the cost of loa disbursements is higher that their end collections.”
He said it also requested that the loan tenure for the residential property loans to be increased from 20 to 25 years and the loan tenure for new motor vehicles loans to be increased from 60 months to 72 months.
Mphetlhe indicated that the Bank’s request has been duly forwarded to the Directorate of Public Service Management for consideration, since GEMVAS and LAMVAS is a Condition of Service Scheme. He saidthe Bank did also inform the Ministry that if the matter is not resolved by the 6th June, 2022, they would cease receipt of new GEMVAS and LAMVAS loan applications.
“A follow up virtual meeting was held to discuss their resolution and SCB did confirm that they will not be accepting any new loans from GEMVAS and LAMVAS. The decision includes top-up advances,” said Mphetlhe. He advised civil servants to consider applying for loans from other banks.
In a letter addressed to the Ministry, SCBB Chief Executive Officer Mpho Masupe informed theministry that, “Reference is made to your letter dated 18th March 2022 wherein the Ministry had indicated that feedback to our proposal on the above subject is being sought.”
In thesame letter dated 10 May 2022, Masupe stated that the Bank was requesting for an update on the Ministry’s engagements with the relevant stakeholder (Directorate of Public Service Management) and provide an indicative timeline for conclusion.
He said the “SCBB informs the Ministry of its intention to cease issuance of new loans to applicants from 6th June 2022 in absence of any feedback on the matter and closure of the discussions between the two parties.” Previously, Masupe had also had requested the Ministry to consider a review of clause 3 of the agreement which speaks to the interest rate charged on the facilities.
Masupe indicated in the letter dated 21 December 2021 that although all the Banks in the market had signed a similar agreement, subject to amendments that each may have requested. “We would like to suggest that our review be considered individually as opposed to being an industry position as we are cognisant of the requirements of section 25 of the Competition Act of 2018 which discourages fixing of pricing set for consumers,” he said.
He added that,“In this way,clients would still have the opportunity to shop around for more favourable pricing and the other Banks, may if they wish to, similarly, individually approach your office for a review of their pricing to the extent that they deem suitable for their respective organisations.”
Masupe also stated that: “On the issue of our request for the revision of the Interest Rate, we kindly request for an increase from the current rate of prime plus 0.5% to prime plus 2%, with no other increases during the loan period.” The Bank CEO said the rationale for the request to review pricing is due to the current construct of the GEMVAS scheme which is currently structured in a way that is resulting in the Bank making a loss.
“The greater part of the GEMVAS portfolio is the mortgage boo which constitutes 40% of the Bank’s total mortgage portfolio,” said Masupe. He saidthe losses that the Bank is incurring are as a result of the legacy pricing of prime plus 0% as the 1995 agreement which a slight increase in the August 2018 agreement to prime plus 0.5%.
“With this pricing, the GEMVAS portfolio has not been profitable to the Bank, causing distress and impeding its ability to continue to support government employees to buy houses and cars. The portfolio is currently priced at 5.25%,” he said. Masupe said the performance of both the GEMVAS home loan and auto loan portfolios in terms of profitability have become unsustainable for the Bank.
Healso said, when the agreement was signed in August 2018, the prime lending rate was 6.75% which made the pricing in effect at the time sufficient from a profitable perspective. “It has since dropped by a total 1.5%. The funds that are loaned to customers are sourced at a high rate, which now leaves the Bank with marginal profits on the portfolio before factoring in other operational expenses associated with administration of the scheme and after sales care of the portfolio,” said the CEO.