Diplomacy: Botswana ceases praising in public and scolding in private
With its powerful neighbour, South Africa treading carefully on the Zimbabwe crisis, Botswana’s new president Ian Khama has shown very little regard for Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe
Dismissed as an upstart in African diplomacy and regional power politics for long, Botswana has suddenly emerged as the most vocal and concerted voice in the continent against the Zimbabwe crisis.
The diamond-rich southern African country now rivals South Africa and Zambia as the focal points of southern African diplomacy. Through straight talk and bold pre-emptive actions, Botswana has won the diplomatic initiative on Zimbabwe and emerged as an important player in the region, thanks to the new administration of President Ian Khama who took over in April.
As the rest of Africa wrings its hands at every turn on how to handle the unfolding crisis in Zimbabwe, previously less regarded Botswana has provided leadership by being very clear and proactive on the matter.
Days after coming to power, Khama engineered an emergency summit of Southern African Development Community (SADC) in Lusaka, Zambia to discuss Zimbabwe post-election crisis. Despite opposition from some countries, Botswana made sure that Zimbabwean opposition leader, Morgan Tsvangirai of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) attended the summit although he is not a head of state.
Botswana followed this up by publicly welcoming Zimbabwean refugees fleeing violence in their country and providing temporary asylum to Tsvangirai who had fled the country.
Khama himself visited the refugees and assured them that they would be taken care of at a time when Zimbabweans were being killed and chased away in South Africa in xenophobic attacks.
As the situation in Zimbabwe deteriorated, Botswana summoned Zimbabwe’s ambassador in Gaborone to register its protest.
Meanwhile, the straight-shooting new Botswana Foreign Minister, Phandu Skelemani, kept the pressure by releasing unequivocal statements on the crisis occasioned by an electoral result that had not produced an outright winner and President Mugabe’s reluctance to organise a free and fair run off.
At the same time, the state media in Botswana was instructed to highlight the situation in Zimbabwe through special reports. For the first, the Botswana authorities allowed journalists from privately media unfettered access to the refugees.
At the AU Summit in Egypt weeks later, Botswana through its Vice-President Mompati Merafhe did not mince words. In the presence of the combative Mugabe, Merafhe was very categorical that the controversial one-man Zimbabwean presidential election run-off that gave Mugabe victory was a nullity and called for the exclusion of Zimbabwe from AU or SADC meetings to avoid legitimising the run off.
Contrary to tradition, Botswana publicised the hard-hitting presentation it made at the AU Summit. Back in Gaborone, Skelemani followed the representation in Egypt stressing that Botswana did not recognise Mugabe and his government. Skelemani’s logic was simple: Zimbabwe under Mugabe had committed itself to SADC principles on elections and had to honour them.
As SADC observers and other election monitors had dismissed the Zimbabwean presidential election run-off as utterly flawed, it was a given that whoever claimed was in office because of that poll was relying on an illegality.
While this argument is right, perhaps the point of departure is the manner in which Botswana has handled the Zimbabwe crisis.
Gaborone’s approach has been robust with very little of the usual diplomatic waffling and double-speak so common in African politics. The proactive stance has been helped along by the fact that regional power broker, South Africa has marred its credentials on the Zimbabwe crisis by failing to see it for what it is and appearing too lenient on Mugabe.
South African President Thabo Mbeki has failed to use his position as mediator in the Zimbabwean crisis to good effect, leaving the region flailing. Old regional power broker, Zambia seems to have woken up from collective diplomatic amnesia and made some strong noises on Zimbabwe. But Lusaka had somewhat diluted its case by wavering in the past when confronted by Mugabe and failing to speak unequivocally.
Kenyan Prime Minister Raila Odinga has been consistent and blunt against Mugabe and the silence of Africa as things go wrong in Zimbabwe with the Kibaki government throwing its weight behind belatedly.
The change in Botswana’s diplomacy from a see-no-evil, hear-no-evil and speak-no-evil has been as sudden as it has been effective.
Within hours of coming to power on April 1, Khama performed a major reshuffled the Botswana cabinet and civil service, dropping five cabinet ministers and promoting long-serving Foreign Affairs Minister, Merafhe, to vice-presidency.
His place at Foreign Affairs was taken by Skelemani who moved from Defence, Justice and Security. Under the veteran politician Merafhe, Botswana’s foreign policy and diplomacy had been laid back and silent in what became known as “we scold in private, but praise in public”.
Though a former police chief and army commander, Merafhe was a master at cautious speak and circular diplomatic talk, never revealing much and talking out of turn. In former President Festus Mogae, he found a boss who was not willing to rock the regional diplomatic set-up.
When told to be more robust on the Zimbabwe issue, Mogae pleaded that Botswana was a small country and didn’t have the clout to impose its will on anybody least of all Mugabe. He added that Botswana could only advise behind closed doors which could either be taken up or ignored.
Ironically, Merafhe should have been more fitted to the current strengthening of Botswana diplomacy and foreign policy but not Skelemani. With his military background Merafhe should have been blunter than Skelemani, a former Attorney-General.
It is likely that the performance of the two ministers has been so different because of the men they served. While Khama is not afraid to rattle the old boys club of southern African presidents, his predecessor Mogae showed no such guts.
Mogae preferred to let sleeping dogs to lie, perhaps because of his gentle mien and the fact that most presidents in the region were his peers. The more youthful and athletic Khama has very little in common with the greying and paunchy men who live in southern African state houses. He owes them nothing and he can therefore afford to be frank and proactive as they engage in their usual shuffling of the feet.
Previously, there has been pressure on Botswana that as Africa’s longest running multiparty democracy and economic success story to take the lead in effecting good governance in the continent.
Proponents of this argument said that Botswana was the only country in Africa with the moral authority to lecture others on democracy, good governance and peace and didn’t have to be apologetic about it.
However, under both Sir Ketumile Masire and his successor, Mogae, Botswana seemed to put much emphasis on domestic matters than foreign affairs. While Masire had a foreign affairs nightmare in the form of apartheid South Africa, Mogae had no such ill-luck. However, the two men shared the advantage of leading a country hosting the headquarters of SADC, arguably the most vibrant regional organisation in Africa. This however, added little to Botswana’s diplomatic weight until Khama arrived on the scene.
Historically, Botswana has walked a diplomatic tightrope. At independence Botswana was one of the poorest countries in world yet it overwhelmingly depended for years on apartheid South Africa - a neighbour whose policies it was fiercely opposed to.
Botswana was the only country in Africa that was for years after independence virtually surrounded by white racist regimes with South Africa provided its only link to the sea and access to vital supplies like fuel, power, manufactured goods and food.
The common border with Zambia is so negligible that effectively, Botswana’s real neighbours are Zimbabwe, Namibia and South Africa all of which were under hostile white supremacist regimes. To make matters worse, only the narrow Caprivi Strip in Namibia prevents Botswana from sharing a border with Angola, another country that only gained independence after most of Africa had been freed from colonial rule.
Besides tiny Lesotho, Botswana was the only African country dependent on Apartheid South Africa for access to the sea. Hence, Botswana’s geo-political position and narrow economic base put it in a diplomatic fix. The country therefore had to balance between joining the frontline states fighting against the white supremacist regimes and keeping apartheid South Africa happy for economic reasons.
Frequently, Botswana had problems in providing a safe haven for South African and Zimbabwean freedom fighters because of harassment from the more powerful apartheid forces.
All the same, Botswana survived apartheid era diplomatic difficulties with its reputation intact. But whether it will do the same with the new, robust foreign policy remains to be seen.
In the 1990s, Nelson Mandela tried a similar approach in dealing with Nigeria under Gen Sani Abacha but failed when the rest of Africa didn’t support him with Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni advising him to go slow.
However, unlike Mandela, several African presidents have taken Africa leaders are speaking strongly on the Zimbabwean issue and abandoning the discredited silent diplomacy.
Africa Insight is an initiative of the Nation Media Group’s Africa Media Network Project