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Being a minister comes with a lot of power, prestige and monetary reward but few would have wanted to be in the shoes of the Minister of International Affairs and Cooperation, Pelonomi Venson-Moitoi, when she presented her ministry’s budget estimates for the 2018/19 financial year.
The sort of speech a minister gives to the Committee of Supply is a standard fare of bromides but in the case of the nation’s chief diplomat, one too many false statements were made in order to sound diplomatic.
“His Excellency the President [Ian Khama] hosted the newly-elected President of the Republic of Zimbabwe, His Excellency Mr. Emmerson Mnangagwa, on his first state visit to Botswana, in February this year,” Venson-Moitoi said when reviewing the most noteworthy international engagements from the recent past.
The fact of the matter is that Mnangagwa was not elected but erected by the Zimbabwean Defence Forces following a coup d’etat that toppled Robert Mugabe. Venson-Moitoi was staying within a SADC position that still refuses to acknowledge that there was a coup in Zimbabwe. During the duration of the coup, the SADC Organ Troika, which was chaired by then South African president, Jacob Zuma, held an emergency meeting in Gaborone. It later released a statement that reaffirmed the body’s commitment to the African Union Constitutive Act and its own Democratic Principles “as they relate to the unconstitutional removal of democratically-elected governments.” The Troika “noted with great concern the unfolding situation in the Republic of Zimbabwe” and “called upon all stakeholders in Zimbabwe to settle the political challenges through peaceful means.” No condemnation of the coup plotters, no threat of military action as was the case with Madagascar years ago and the language was equivocation writ large. Days before the coup, a Zimbabwean war veteran leader, who is now a cabinet minister, had flown to South Africa and managed to convince Zuma to not publicly refer to the coup as a coup. As the rest of SADC leaders, Venson-Moitoi still can’t refer to last year’s coup as a coup.
The minister paid tribute to “our Chief Diplomat His Excellency the President for his sterling stewardship of Botswana's foreign policy.” Most unusual for a chief diplomat, Khama has never attended a single United Nations General Assembly or African Union summit. His absence at the latter was actually the chief reason why Venson-Moitoi’s bid for the position of Chairperson of the African Union Commission failed. There was always 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 Mugabe 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.”
According to Venson-Moitoi’s statement in parliament, Khama's “consistent and principled approach to global issues” gave Botswana international visibility.
“His Excellency has never hesitated to speak against human rights transgressions and actions that grossly undermine democracy whenever and wherever they occurred,” said the minister adding that such assertiveness was in service of advocating for positive changes as well as galvanising the region and the international community into action. “His Excellency will be remembered as a bold and visionary leader in this regard.”
The fact of the matter though is that Khama selectively spoke out against human rights transgressions. Never once did he condemn transgressions by the Swaziland or of Israel in the Occupied Territories of Palestine.
Where she was not mythologizing Mnangagwa’s presidency and Khama diplomatic standing internationally, Venson-Moitoi was obfuscating facts.
“Botswana, as a member of the African Union, continues to play a critical role in advancing the work of our continental organization. Under the leadership of His Honour the Vice President, Botswana continues to participate in summit deliberations and activities, which are geared towards the implementation of Africa’s transformation agenda for peace, stability and prosperity, as well as making our Continental body more efficient and effective,” she said.
Similarly, the minister stated that she had the opportunity to accompany Vice President Mokgweetsi Masisi to the 72nd Session of the United Nations General Assembly, which was held in New York last September.
“The UN platform enabled Botswana to make meaningful contribution in devising global solutions to critical challenges such as terrorism, international organized crime, human trafficking and climate change,” she said.
As his two predecessors, Masisi came to represent Botswana at the UN and AU because Khama never did. The Leader of the Opposition, Duma Boko, has taken issue with this asserting by not attending meetings of the UN General Assembly, Khama was passing up an opportunity to participate in the formulation of public international law.
“The rules of public international law are developed in critical part by the participation and conduct of states through their presidents in international affairs. When the United Nations General Assembly meets in New York and the president is busy in Mosu or wherever he is, that is a sad, a searing indictment of our country,” said Boko, adding that the latter state of affairs depicts a president who is not interested in engaging with other world leaders in shaping public international law. The press has reported that Khama has a “holiday home” in Mosu, a small village in the Central District.
In buttressing the same point much later, Francistown South MP, Wynter Mmolotsi, said that vice presidents and foreign affairs ministers standing in for presidents at the UN General Assembly don’t get pride of place on the speaking roster.
“At the UN General Assembly, President Barack Obama and his peers speak first,” Mmolotsi said in parliament. “During that time, Vice President Masisi doesn’t get to speak but President Khama would. Masisi comes last and doesn’t even command attention. For that reason, we need to be represented by the president because presidents command attention. My plea to you, Your Honour the Vice President, is that if you get lucky enough to become president in 2018 and rule for that very short period of time, one of the things you should do is to attend summits yourself.”
Happily for Venson-Moitoi, Masisi’s presidency will allow her to conduct foreign affairs in a more rational manner as a direct result of having a more pragmatic boss.