It never rains, but it pours for flamboyant prophet Shepherd Bushiri's Enlightened Christian Gathering church as government closes down all of his church branches following the deregistration of the organisation last year by the Botswana government.
As a result, disciples of Bushiri in Botswana have resorted to following their leader through his television channel, while those who have the means are travelling to South AFrica on weekends to attend Sunday services.
The recent crackdown on the church comes just a few weeks after the government of Botswana lifted a visa travelling ban imposed on Bushiri during former president Ian Khama's presidency. Unlike other Malawian citizens, Bushiri, who is also known as Major One, was forced to apply for a visa each time he entered Botswana in 2017. The then nationality, immigration and gender affairs minister Edwin Batshu told MPs that Bushiri was "too demanding".
Batshu indicated that the government slapped Bushiri with a visa restriction because of his demands, which were tantamount to a national security threat. He revealed that Bushiri wanted heavy security from state security organs whenever he was in the country and also wanted government to direct all entry points to be opened around the clock for his convenience.
"His church wrote a letter to my ministry requesting that we open our borders for 24 hours. They stated in the letter that, given the stature of the pastor, we should open the borders as per their request," he said.
The lifting of the travel restrictions came into effect on 21 October 2019 and no reasons were given for the decision. However, the jovial mood among Bushiri's disciples following that decision turned sour last week. They were stunned when the government moved swiftly to close church branches around the country.
Last year, the government, through the nationality, immigration and gender affairs department, deregistered the church after it failed to provide the state with a copy of its audited financials for three years in a row. The church approached the courts last year to oppose the deregistration, but later withdrew after Bushiri intervened and asked the leadership to desist from taking the court route to resolve their differences with the government.
Last week, a letter that was dispatched to the church from Botswana police commissioner Keabetswe Makgophe, dated 11 November 2019, warned the church to stop congregating or undertaking church activities because they were operating illegally.
The Botswana Police Service indicated in the letter that it was executing a decision that was made by the department to deregister the church in March last year.
"Following the deregistration of the church and its branches by the Registrar of Societies, the church sought to challenge the decision through the courts," reads part of the letter.
"The church, however, withdrew its application as per court order… dated July 3, 2019. This meant that the decision to deregister the church stood, hence it should not operate in Botswana. Notwithstanding the above, it appears that the church continues to operate unlawfully within our country. We have therefore within our country. We have therefore been requested to intervene, and its branches around the country do not congregate or undertake any church-related activities."
Pelotshweu Baeng, the national executive secretary of the church, confirmed that they had received the letter.
"We knew that the letter was on its way. We are law-abiding citizens and we will abide by the law," he said.
According to Baeng, there were 60 branches of the church in the country – in Gaborone, Francistown, Jwaneng, Maun, Kasane and other towns, as well as in smaller villages.
Baeng also confirmed that the church had resolved to withdraw the case to challenge the deregistration. He said the church was of the view that the court route was not the right channel to end the differences therefore was not seen as a viable solution.
However, he said they would continue to find other means to end the impasse with the government. When quizzed about what he made of the dicision to lift the visa restriction ban on Bushiri and the clampdown on the church, Baeng said it was a private and personal issue. Baeng further confirmed that church followers were attending live television services, known as televangelism, while others were attending services in Pretoria.
He said hundreds of followers attended last week's session in South Africa's capital following the letter from the police commissioner.
Credit: City Press