SADC integration under threat as Botswana impounds Zambian trucks
By Mpho Tebele
Gaborone – In a move that observers say is threatening trade relations in the region and could reverse regional integration efforts, Botswana is the latest country to impound cargo trucks belonging to a fellow SADC members state.
Zambian trucks recently loaded with fish bought by 30 Zambian cross-border traders were stranded in Botswana after the four truckloads were not allowed to leave the country.
Reports indicate that the four trucks, which were loaded with fresh fish from Botswana to Zambia, were not allowed to cross the border by the Ministry of Environment, Natural Resources and Tourism. The trucks are currently stranded in Chobe near the Zambian border.
Botswana’s decision to impound the trucks comes on the heels of the impounding of 200 Namibian trucks and the detaining of 70 drivers by Zambian authorities recently. The Namibian trucks were carrying timber from the Democratic Republic of Congo.
A representative of the 30 Zambian traders, Gift Mutambo, reportedly said while in Botswana the traders reported their predicament to the Zambian ambassador to Botswana Patrick Tembo to help them persuade the Botswana government to release their fish, but that did not work out.
“This was fresh fish which we bought on 26 March this year and this is now July. We were not surprised that we found it rotten and could not be sold even if it is given back to us now. But even in that condition, the Botswana government has refused to surrender the fish, having vowed that it will all be set on fire in Botswana,” Mutambo is quoted as saying.
Botswana Congress Party (BCP) deputy president Kesitegile Gobotswang said while the leadership of his party was in Maun in north-western Botswana on party assignment they were visited by a delegation representing fishermen and women, fish traders/exporters and Zambian truck drivers.
“They came with a very specific request asking the BCP to intervene in a protracted battle with the Ministry of Environment, Natural Resources Conservation and Tourism over a fishing ban at Lake Ngami,” said Gobotswang.
“A meeting of all the affected people was quickly convened at Ema Reje shopping complex (in Maun) where scores of trucks loaded with dried fish were grounded since March 2017. The victims turned up in large numbers. About 40 Batswana fish traders/exporters mainly women and close to 20 truck drivers and their crews are affected.”
Mutambo said no reason was given to the 30 traders for the impounding of their fish.
“This has been a puzzle to us. Some of us have been buying fish from Botswana since 2011. There was nothing illegal we did. We bought the fish at Sitwa Market in the usual way and no one told us we were doing anything wrong. All of a sudden, we just heard that all our fish was impounded!” he said.
The traders reportedly took up the matter with Tembo who allegedly told some of them in Kazungula that he was unable to help them because the Minister of Environment, Natural Resources Conservation and Tourism, Tshekedi Khama, had totally refused to release the fish. He said he had exhausted all channels open to him to persuade the minister to allow the 30 Zambian traders to cross the border back into Zambia with their fish.
He reportedly said two weeks ago, the Botswana government had permitted the four truckloads of fish to cross into Zambia but as soon as Khama learnt about it, he ordered Botswana customs and security officers to follow the trucks into Zambia and ensure they got back to Botswana.
Tembo said when the fish re-entered Botswana, Khama allegedly gave orders to off-load all the four trucks and destroy the fish. The fish was off-loaded from the trucks last week but when checked by the traders, they were found to be completely rotten.
But the permanent secretary in the Ministry of Environment, Natural Resources Conservation and Tourism Jimmy Opelo said the reports that the minister had instructed the customs officials to follow the trucks across the border and return them to Botswana were not true.
“The ministry has never stopped anyone from transporting fresh fish out of Botswana. Furthermore, the ministry has no authority over cross border issues,” he said.
Opelo also said that there was no ban on the export of fresh fish and there has never been.
“There is also no ban on fishing, the fishing season was opened this year and licenses for fishing have been given out appropriately as per the different fishing areas. The only prohibition in place is on the export of dried fish,” he said.
“The ministry reiterates its position to assist Batswana to partake and benefit from the fish industry and is currently considering findings of the study undertaken by the Okavango Research Institute on Lake Ngami fish stocks, after which appropriate decisions would be made regarding the fishing quotas, including introduction of measures to assist with controlling and monitoring the business to ensure that it benefits the country and its citizens.”