Echoing a sentiment that was widely shared in the Colonial Office, the Bechuanaland Protectorate’s last Resident Commissioner, Peter Fawcus, insisted that the granting of independence to the future state of Botswana must be “conditional on a bill of rights.”
That phrase now forms part of the title of an explosive academic paper (“Conditional on a Bill of Rights”: Race and Human Rights in the Constitution of Botswana, 1960-66”) written by Dr. James Kirby of La Trobe University in Australia. Kirby’s thesis is that the bill of rights put the economic interests of a white minority before those of a black majority. He further asserts that by embracing that bill of rights, the Botswana Democratic Party ostracized itself from other African countries.
“The bill of rights enshrining liberal-democratic values was an essential tool for targeting western audiences, but it was not such a source of appeal for fellow members in the Organisation of African Unity,” writes Kirby in his paper. “At independence, states like Ghana and Tanzania identified more closely with the familiar anti-colonial nationalism of the People’s Party, and treated the Democratic Party’s political cooperation with the British and willingness to maintain economic ties with South Africa with skepticism.”
Five years earlier, Tanganyika (present-day Tanzania) had gained independence without a bill of rights, becoming as it did, “the first British dependency since 1957 to gain sovereignty without a bill of rights and the first to have a political leadership that opposed such constitutional provisions.” Kirby’s contention is that only when Botswana embraced South Africa’s liberation movements, would OAU leaders look at it with new eyes.
During this time, Botswana’s president was Seretse Khama who died in 1980, making way for Ketumile Masire who died last year. Africa doesn’t seem to have had a problem with either Masire or his successor, Festus Mogae, but it has certainly had a problem with the current president and Seretse Khama’s son, Ian Khama, who steps down on April 1. Under the latter’s predecessors, Botswana maintained a policy of silent diplomacy when dealing with other countries. That policy was replaced with the so-called rooftop diplomacy which is antithetical to the unstated policy and practice of the renamed African Union (AU) and has been selectively applied. Through General Khama’s rooftop diplomacy, Botswana has publicly made condemnatory statements against countries like Zimbabwe, Sudan, Ivory Coast, Libya, North Korea, China and surprisingly, even the United States.
Not once has Gen Khama attended an AU summit, preferring instead to delegate all three of his successive vice presidents. When the rest of Africa expressed grave misgivings about the International Criminal Court on grounds that it seemed to target only African leaders, Botswana was the only country that endorsed it.
Matters came to a head last year when Botswana fielded its Minister of International Affairs and Cooperation, Pelonomi Venson-Moitoi, to run for the position of Chairperson of the African Union Commission. Outsiders (the press included) rightly concluded that Khama’s attitude towards the AU and its code of brotherhood would work against Venson-Moitoi’s candidacy. That was indeed confirmed by one insider during a visit to South Africa.
“Everybody just said, ‘you, we have not seen your president here’,” said then Zimbabwean president, Robert 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.”