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Botswana urged to abolish the death penalty

Sharon Tshipa
November 19, 2020

Botswana has seen a steep rise in executions since President Mokgweetsi Masisi took office just over a year ago. Human rights groups are calling on the nation to ban capital punishment.

Three nooses and a stop sign advocating for an end to the death penalty.
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/W. Steinberg

Four people have been put to death in Botswana since the inauguration of President Mokgweetsi Masisi in November 2019. This contrasts with two executions in 2018.

Thirty-three African countries still retain the death penalty. But Botswana is one of only three nations to recently carry out an execution. The other two to do so — the conflict-ridden nations of Somalia and South Sudan — stand in stark contrast to Botswana's international reputation as a peaceful and stable democracy.

Read more: Botswana: Mokgweetsi Masisi takes over presidency amid opposition resurgence

The speaker of Botswana's National Assembly, Phandu Skelemani, a former prosecutor, said it is normal for the number of executions to increase if there is a rise in the number of murders. 

"We can't reduce the numbers. It's not a question of numbers. It's a question of guilt," Skelemani told DW.

Amnesty International has called on Botswana to stop executions pending the abolition of the death penalty for all crimes.

Botswana President Mokgweetsi Masisi and his wife Neo Masisi.
There have been four executions since President Mokgweetsi Masisi (L) came to powerImage: Xinhua/Imago Images

“President Masisi has missed an opportunity to break the cycle of executions in Botswana and demonstrate that justice can be delivered without using the death penalty," said Deprose Muchena, Amnesty International’s Director for East and Southern Africa.

"There is no evidence that the death penalty is an effective deterrent to crime,” he said in a press statement. 

Botswana only southern African nation to carry out executions

The death penalty is the mandatory sentence for murder in Botswana. Since Botswana's independence in 1966, at least one execution has taken place each year.

Mmoloki Gabatlhaolwe, a UK-based Motswana scholar, also stresses that the death penalty is not a deterrent to murder. 

"Killing [offenders] does not reduce crime," he told DW. "If it really does work then it has failed miserably since killings are rising in Botswana instead of being eliminated."

Pointing to those African countries who still retain capital punishment laws but "haven't killed anyone for years," Gabatlhaolwe said this is because these countries "know capital punishment doesn't work."

People in Botswana unmoved by the argument

Many Botswana citizens, however, support the death penalty — making it difficult for abolitionists to overturn the practice.

Francinah Silos, waiting on the street at a Gabarone taxi rank, told DW that those who "kill intentionally should be killed." He added however that this shouldn't apply to those who kill by accident for in self-defense.

Dintla Mothowabeng, also waiting for a taxi, agreed. 

A police "crime scene" tape.
Human rights activists say Botswana's death penalty has not deterred crimeImage: picture-alliance/empic/P. Byrne

"The person should not be put in prison all his life because life imprisonment wastes government funds as that person has to be fed and taken care of. That person should just be killed," Mothowabeng said.

Even the chairperson of the Institute of Rehabilitation and Reintegration of Offenders, an NGO founded by ex-convicts that works with former prisoners, believes Botswana's citizens retain the right to decide how the country deals with criminals. 

"Capital punishment is not the president's, it is not the parliament's, it is a system chosen and agreed on by Botswana citizens. The president has no powers in it, neither does parliament," Mothei Sejakgomo told DW. "Citizens are the ones who decided that if you kill anyone in Botswana you should equally be killed."

Number of African countries abolished death penalty in past decade

Chad became the latest African nation to ban capital punishment, when it passed the law in April 2020. Others who abolished the death penalty in the past 10 years include Burkina Faso, Guinea, Congo and Benin. 

Silvia Bopp-Hamrouni from the Delegation of the European Union to Botswana and Southern Africa said Botswana needs join the trend. 

Read more: Amnesty International: Number of executions worldwide has gone down

"Almost 80% of African countries have abolished the death penalty in law or practice. Botswana should follow this example and abolish the death penalty or at least establish a moratorium on executions," Bopp-Hamrouni told DW.

"Botswana should initiate a public debate on the death penalty as it agreed to do during the last universal periodic reviews of the UN Human Rights Council," she said. 

Amnesty report indicates big fall in executions around world

Sharon Tshipa Sharon Tshipa is DW correspondent based in Gaborone, Botswana.