Botswana’s Foreign Policy Position and Practice Going Forward

03 Dec 2017

Political scientists, are very rarely caught off-guard; political power has a way of altering those who wield it. However, the international relations world was… dumbfounded … by our President’s open letter to Robert Mugabe. Bewilderment because it served no discernable purpose other than playing to the Western press, an accusation we are now compelled to give credence to. And then in an interview with Reuters, he is quoted as saying, “We are Presidents, not monarchs” – this coming from the same man who refused to step down from his own royal role when taking-on the Vice-Presidency. Both a monarch and a president, but it would seem that different rules apply to different people. Which is perhaps why he prefers going to CHOGM (The Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting), an organization rooted in Britain’s imperial past, headed by Britain’s Queen, but not to the United Nations General Assembly, populated by presidents with common origins.

Sadly, it’s just another example characteristic of Botswana’s foreign policy and practice. Hypocritical, self-righteous, illogical and serving no purpose whatsoever. If we were to list the number of faux-pas perpetrated by this government with respect to its foreign policy; an academic tome would emerge. A digest of ‘how not to behave in foreign affairs’. Particularly in the context of a land-locked developing nation, whose main source of income is mineral extraction, highly vulnerable to the international political-economy as much as it is on the socio-political economy within its own regional grouping. Without even having to go back and research the matter in painstaking detail; a number of occurrences immediately come to mind; but let’s limit ourselves to one - because it impinges upon and was the first indicator of this administration’s conduct in the global arena, for e.g.  the constant public shaming of Robert Mugabe, the unrelenting damning criticism, without any genuine attempts at generating viable solutions. From day one, our President was remarkably outspoken with regard to the issue of Mugabe stepping down, that he’d destroyed his own legacy, decimated his own people and so forth. But did he even once attempt to go talk to Mugabe, mano a mano or with the Southern African Development Communities (SADC’s) mediator at the time, Former President of South Africa Mr. Thabo Mbeki? No, instead our president employed "megaphone diplomacy" (Bheki Khumalo, a spokesperson for South African President Thabo Mbeki) garnering for himself, for a fleeting moment, laud for courageousness, from Western establishments. The praise-songs for his bravado came to an end, when our Foreign Minister at the time, was interviewed by the BBC’s Stephen Sackur on HARDtalk (November 2008), a current affairs interview programme on the BBC News Channel, internationally acknowledged as a serious current affairs broadcast, that asks world leaders and prominent personalities, the awkward questions that others will not. 

The content of the interview focused upon the Mugabe/Zimbabwe conundrum. (See: Phandu Skelemani, HARDtalk Interview 1.3, 2.3 and 3.3 on www.dailymotion.com/video/x2lcuo0).  Sackur asked the Minister if he felt that SADC had failed Zimbabweans? The Minister’s response? Emphatically in the affirmative, further stating that SADC as a grouping had decided to enshrine the principles of democracy within its charter, both in law and in spirit (we’ll ignore for the moment how this same administration has embraced Swaziland’s  King Mswati III, who rules as an absolute monarch and whose tenure has been described as one ‘gripped by years of fiscal indiscipline, government corruption … on the brink of economic disaster... human rights violations…torture and excessive force…. blatant discrimination against various dissenting groups... having perpetrated extrajudicial killings…arbitrary arrests, detentions, and unwarranted searches and seizures of homes and property… having restricted freedom of speech, assembly and association… harassed activists and journalists (Wikipedia, 2017)) and that he had betrayed these values and the people of Zimbabwe. Sackur then asked why ‘confronting Mugabe was a taboo in Southern Africa’? Why Botswana stood alone? The Minister re-joined that when SADC met, many of SADC’s other nations (in the corridors) agreed with Botswana, but when it came to challenging Mugabe openly in meetings, it was as if the other SADC states, ‘were speaking in tongues’. “Name names?”, said Sackur, to which the Minister said he could not, that the power-sharing negotiations were at a delicate stage and Botswana wanted to annoy as few people as possible. And that when our Vice-President at the time called for Zimbabwe’s immediate suspension from both SADC and the African Union, it received no support. All well and good stated Sackur, for your president to take positions like that, but when it’s come to confronting Mugabe directly, at the SADC Extraordinary Summit on Zimbabwe, instead President Khama went to a meeting of Conservation International in the United States? Sackur refused to accept, as would any earnest international relations practitioner, that a meeting of CI was of greater magnitude than the SADC Extraordinary Summit he spoke of. The interview, was pretty much downhill from that point on, Sackur pointing out contradictions, illogicalities and inconsistencies in the Minister’s responses.

If we were to examine other instances in this administration foreign affairs comportment, it’s just more of the same. Don’t sign what amounts to a prenuptial agreement with The Peoples Republic of China, committing oneself to a relationship based on certain agreed parameters; then, when caught with one’s pants down and one’s ignorance of the nuances of The One China Policy is exposed, turn around and make it a moral issue. And remind a group of journalists and researchers invited to visit Tibet, that in Botswana we value free speech and discourse. This coming from an Office of the President who refuse to engage with the private media. The same goes for calling out the Americans, when self-same government arrested and detained the editor of the Sunday Standard, using an archaic law dating back from the colonial period in an attempt to silence him and intimidate others.

We urgently require a codified foreign policy, that being a structured, organized and arranged set of general objectives that guide not only the establishment of official diplomatic ties between Botswana and other nations, but also informs the activities within these relationships. This policy must primarily be under-pinned by our domestic agenda; economic progress therefore economic and social cooperation that supports national objectives such as attracting foreign direct investment, diversifying our economy, job creation, the transfer of technology, capacity building, urbanization and industrialization and so on and so forth.  To say that we don’t need to codify this policy because it has always worked for us is naïve, times have changed and in 1966 our foreign policy practice had to be based upon such factors such as geography and external threats; we were surrounded by white minority led regimes that were not happy to be neighbored a self-determined black-ruled Botswana. But Sir Seretse Khama was a consummate diplomat and realized the need for maintaining good relations with these states, as much as we abhorred their racial politics. This was a pragmatic foreign policy, Botswana was non-aligned during the Cold War and it served us well, it was pre-globalization and the technological revolution that rendered physical borders less significant. Realpolitik.

The other argument coming from our Foreign Ministry today is that we haven’t codified our foreign policy owing to “unprecedented shifts in policies as well as the dynamic and turbulent nature of world politics”( https://www.facebook.com/Botswana.Government/posts/1231988193550503:0) and that “government’s foreign policy… is not codified but rather, is guided by national principles” (Mmegi Online, Goitsemodimo Kaelo, 2016) is simply an excuse for ignorance, indolence and a foreign policy practice predicated on posturing. This situation needs to be rectified immediately. Foreign policy is one of the most critical instruments in the executive toolkit. Our diplomats must speak with one voice; that we’ll collaborate with the likeminded in pursuit of progress and advancement. We need the best specialists and advisors in this regard, who can navigate the international space because they have the requisite training and because they are constantly studying the forces at work, who can speak with authority on Botswana’s socio-economic agenda, point to and even initiate opportunities for collaboration. And when they speak openly about international challenges, it is when and where we can positively contribute.  Robert Mugabe was right about one thing, the failure of our candidates run for the Chairmanship of the AU, rests solely, upon the shoulders of one man. Posturing.