Masisi quietly resumes silent diplomacy

15 Apr 2018

With no foreign policy doctrine in place, Botswana’s has been largely guided by who is president. Never once did Presidents Sir Seretse Khama, Sir Ketumile Masire and Festus Mogae publicly attack other leaders, preferring to talk over contentious issues behind closed doors. The term “silent diplomacy” has been used to describe the approach of the three men to foreign affairs but there was really nothing unusual about what they did. There is a global diplomatic standard that dictates that leaders don’t publicly talk ill about their counterparts and when you think of it, the silent diplomacy that Botswana presidents observed was nothing out of the global diplomatic norm.

Having made a decision to play to a gallery wholly made up of westerners, former president Ian Khama assumed a foreign policy posture that was the direct opposite of his predecessors’ – “rooftop diplomacy” as it came to be known. Born of a black father and white mother, the former president has asymmetrically straddled similarly hued worlds. In the Wikileaks cables, the United States Embassy in Gaborone, Botswana’s capital city, rightly observed to the State Department in Washington that Khama’s primary cultural identity is western. Never having reconciled his worldview to Pan-Africanism, General Khama always marched in lockstep with the west on geopolitical issues from the International Criminal Court to the South China Sea to Syria to Zimbabwe to North Korea. Ironically, it has been a sad fact that Khama’s rule bought Botswana closer to Third World dysfunction than to First World efficiency.

Leaders who meet at the African Union headquarters in Addis Ababa each January recognises that they share the same colonial and post-colonial experience and same challenges and through this continental body, are trying to forge a common future. They have realised that they have been hoodwinked into signing onto the International Criminal Court process by  a group of people who, while more genocidal, face no threat of ever tried by that court. Thus it was that they wanted out but Khama raised lone-voiced opposition to such plan. AU’s January Summit is a family get-together but Khama stayed away for the entire decade that he was president. The extent of the displeasure that African leaders felt over this snub was revealed when they rejected Pelonomi Venson-Moitoi, Botswana’s candidate for the position ofChairperson of the African Union Commission in 2016. Of course, there had always been a view that Khama’s attitude towards the AU and its code of brotherhood would work against Venson-Moitoi’s candidacy. That was indeed confirmed by then President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe during a visit to South Africa.

“Everybody just said, ‘you, we have not seen your president here’,” said Mugabe about the attitude of other African presidents to the Botswana candidate. “He doesn’t attend our meetings and what would happen if we placed our organisation in your hands, in his hands. So sorry, lady, we won’t give you the votes.

Nothing on the public record suggests that the new president, Mokgweetsi Masisi, wants to continue Khama’s foreign policy. The first piece of evidence is his first inauguration speech which makes absolutely no mention of how other foreign leaders should conduct themselves.

“We will continue to ensure that the conduct of our foreign relations contributes to national development and the improvement of the living standards of our people,” Masisi said on April 1 when he introduced himself to the world. “Our relations with other countries will be enhanced for the benefit of Botswana and its economy.”

The second piece of evidence doesn’t exist in physical form but is plain to see. In Masisi’s second week in office, the Syrian civil war escalated with (at least according to western media) government forces using chemical weapons on civilians. Under Khama, the Ministry of Internationals Affairs and Cooperation would already have issued a strongly worded statement. As pragmatic leaders of other small Third World nations know, their individual voices don’t matter in high-stakes international affairs. To that end, Masisi seems content to let the Botswana diplomatic mission in New York respond to this issue through established mechanisms of the United Nations. In the pre-April 1 era, another condemnatory statement would have been issued against President Pierre Nkurunziza of Burundi who wants to prolong his rule through unlawful means. Africa has continental as well as regional economic community mechanisms and processes through which it deals with issues such as these. Granted, these processes and mechanisms don’t always yield desired results - Khama’s rooftop diplomacy didn’t produce tangible results itself.

As an indication, perhaps, that he wants to tie his foreign policy to international trade, Masisi has moved Vincent Seretse from the Ministry of Trade, Investment and Industry to the Ministry of International Affairs and Cooperation. That would hew very close to orthodoxy that foreign relations are contracted on the basis of commerce and not a shared value system. What appointments Masisi makes to diplomatic missions in the future will help illuminate how much premium he places on commerce as the main element of foreign relations. If there is enough of it, Colin Blackbeard will not stay any longer in London where he has been High Commissioner for some 20 years now.

As is common knowledge, Blackbeard’s posting has absolutely nothing to do with foreign policy imperatives. Within 24 hours of relinquishing command of the Botswana Defence Force, Lieutenant General Khama showed up in a business suit at the Office of the President to start work as President Festus Mogae’s vice president. As veep, he needed a constituency and Blackbeard gave up his seat as Serowe North MP to ease Khama’s transition into politics. However, that incontrovertible fact didn’t form part of an answer to a parliamentary question that was posed by Francistown South MP, Wynter Mmolotsi, some time back. Mmolotsi wanted to know why Blackbeard wasn’t being moved around like other diplomats. Of course the MP knew what the answer was but merely wanted to embarrass the government. The answer (from then foreign affairs minister Venson-Moitoi) was that another diplomat, Joseph Legwaila, had been stationed at the United Nations for a much longer period of time. This was a false equivalence because the latter is a highly credentialed diplomat with a meritorious track record in international diplomacy. On the other hand, Blackbeard is merely a political operative who fetched up in the diplomatic service due to backroom dealing and has yet to distinguish himself as a diplomat.