Thursday, September 24, 2020

An officer and a gentleman

OUTSA MOKONE and SPENCER MOGAPI take you inside how Lt Gen Mompati Merafhe is turning Botswana from a reluctant international player into a global mover and shaker

“I was walking a tight rope” Lt Gen Mompati Merafhe says in a commanding voice, deep in pitch, confiding in tone, a voice that fills the spacious room with a nameplate that says “Leader of the House” on the door.

The “Leader of the House” office, which is only two doors away from the Parliament bar, is a somewhat convenient place for him at the moment.

At the trill of the parliament bell, he asks to be excused, and swaggers a few steps to scold MPs who had decided to linger at the bar for a drink instead of returning to the house after the morning break.

This is the Mompati Merafhe that most people have come to know: The Lieutenant General.
The Mompati Merafhe who has turned up for the interview today, however, is Minister of Foreign Relations and International Cooperation ÔÇô Botswana’s chief diplomat. For the uninitiated this means Merafhe’s primary responsibility is to never reveal anything remotely newsworthy to the press.

The press, for its part, should be responsible for repeatedly badgering him with questions that he has refused to answer, until the hostility level in the room reaches the point where the smoke detectors go off. However, as is to be expected with the past master of walking tight ropes, we do not have to go through this ritualistic routine.

And the interview goes on: “I found myself in a very precarious position of having to fulfill my role as Chairman of the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group (CMAG) and not jeopardizing Botswana’s relationship with Zimbabwe.” With that, out comes one of the most inspiring stories of conflict management in Botswana’s history.

The story involves Zimbabwe’s longtime president Robert Mugabe, the CMAG and the Secretary General of the Commonwealth, Don McKinnon.

This is how one local newspaper captured Merafhe’s precarious position: “It is perhaps a fitting symbolism that Merafhe’s election to chair the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group (CMAG) should be competing for newspaper space with reports of Zimbabwean white farmers being attacked by Mugabe’s supporters and stories of anti-Mugabe demonstrators being bludgeoned to death on the streets of Harare.”

The symbolism was in how Merafhe’s history with Zimbabwe mirrored that of the Commonwealth. Both had been battle hardened by Zimbabwe’s turbulence. Merafhe was commander of the Botswana Defence Force when 15 Botswana soldiers were killed by Rhodesian (Zimbabwe’s pre-independence name) forces during the Lesoma ambush in 1977.

He was still commander of the BDF when his charges killed a Zimbabwean army officer during the Zimbabwean unrest, which resulted in the suppression of dissenters in Matebeleland after independence.

The Commonwealth had absorbed equally tough blows from Zimbabwe and the country’s hard-line Robert Mugabe.

In his autobiography, Eye of Fire, former Secretary General of the Commonwealth, Emeka Anyaoku, says, “Zimbabwe occupies a special place in the history of the evolution of the modern Commonwealth.

The crisis in Rhodesia posed the most serious threat to the continued cohesion ÔÇô indeed at a certain stage, the existence of the modern Commonwealth.”

In his acceptance speech as chairman of CMAG, Merafhe stated: “As Commonwealth member states, we share a common interest in the search for solutions that will usher in peace, stability and security.

“As CMAG, we must demonstrate our resolve to foster unity and to uphold the Harare principles with respect to democracy, good governance, respect for human rights and the rule of law.”
All that was easier said than done.

The British and Southern African media, however, had other plans. Accusing the Mugabe government of flouting the Harare Principles, they demanded that Zimbabwe be expelled from the Commonwealth.

The situation was further complicated by the marathon-shouting match between Mugabe and Mckinnon. The Commonwealth Secretary General was supported by the British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, and a junior Minister, Peter Hain, who had a penchant for picking a fight with Mugabe.

There was also a school of thought arguing that western countries were more concerned about the Zimbabwean crisis because the people at the receiving end were white farmers.

A racial element crept in to add to the crisis, and if anyone was to be counted on to bring Mugabe to his senses, it would not be Mckinnon. The best bet was an African voice. Merafhe stepped up to the plate.

Unlike Mckinnon, Merafhe was Mugabe’s neighbour and did not have the luxury of shouting and criticizing Zimbabwe from the safe distance of thousands of kilometers.

He steered the issue with such deft dexterity that when he finally called it a day after a record six years with CMAG, British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, called him aside and said, “We have not always agreed, but I thought I should let you know that I admired your leadership.”

It was only two years after Merafhe’s exit from CMAG that, fed up with what he thought was endless meddling with the affairs of his country, Mugabe pulled Zimbabwe out of the Commonwealth; a loose body of countries many of which were formerly colonized by the ‘Great’ Britain.

Merafhe’s baptism of fire, however, came in the form of a small island that is submerged under water most of the year. Eight years ago, the government enclave circulated a confidential report that suggested that Namibia and Botswana were on the verge of war over the Sedudu Island.

All ingredients of war were in place. No one could say whether the mixture would be ignited or peacefully dispersed. Though neither side wanted to go to war, one foolhardy move could still set it on.

Said the document, “There still remains, however, the question as to what will happen on D-day when judgement is pronounced. Namibians have been quick to suggest that a winner-loser outcome, far from improving relations, will worsen the bilateral discord.”

D-day came. The International Court of Justice awarded the island to Botswana. But, instead of wagging his finger and shouting, “We told you so” ever a diplomat, General Merafhe issued a statement saying: “Nobody has lost.

What has won is our ability as Batswana and Namibians to resolve our differences peacefully.” Merafhe’s speech on that day went a long way in assuaging the feelings of the Namibians who were naturally hurt at losing the case on which they had staked their pride.

The powder keg was detonated and peace won the day. This morning, Merafhe proudly leans against his rocking chair and pronounces, “We are in the best terms with Namibia.”

Today, eight years later, if you enter the name Mompati Merafhe on the Google search engine, it turns in 22, 600 entries, which is higher than that of any foreign affairs minister in the region.

This is internetese for: Mompati Merafhe is the most newsworthy foreign affairs minister in Southern Africa. He is at the crest of a life that has tilted toward recognition, toward the kind of respect that gets a person treated like royalty in diplomatic circles.

For example, it was South Africa’s former President, Nelson Mandela, who, during the commonwealth meeting in Edinburgh, Scotland in 1995, insisted that Merafhe should be co-opted into CMAG.

A while ago, Cameroon President Omar Konare coaxed him to contest the Secretary Generalship of the African Union. He was also approached by friends from Nigeria who promised their support. Merafhe passed up the opportunity. He would not leave the constituency of Mahalapye.

This, however, was a big vote of confidence on him and Botswana, a country that, for a longtime, was regarded as a reluctant international player.

For example, the 1999 conference of Botswana’s heads of missions complained that with only 12 missions and two consulates, Botswana’s presence was not felt in the outside world. “Botswana ranks lowest even among countries which have fewer resources and those which attained independence long after it,” said the meeting.

Merafhe concedes this, but maintains that a decision to open diplomatic missions is normally a result of cost benefit analysis. He says Botswana has been very strategic and frugal in opening missions. He reckons the country has to be more aggressive in marketing itself.

“I do not believe in the notion that Botswana is Africa’s best kept secret. I think that, small as we are, we should be more outward looking in our international relations.”

Merafhe is currently directing Southern Africa’s foreign policy and has been able to ensure that Botswana’s presence is felt in the outside world.
His subordinates, who have sat with him through meetings with other foreign affairs ministers, say he always has the last word.

A colleague from the ministry of foreign affairs remembers one of the meetings in Swaziland where Southern Africa’s foreign Affairs Ministers ‘discussed the region’s position on the United Nations Security Council.’

“All ministers had their time on the floor. There was haggling and shouting. When the debate was at its height, Merafhe took the floor and you could have heard a pin drop. And then presto! The riddle of Southern Africa’s position in the Security Council was solved.” Merafhe’s position became Southern Africa’s position. Once again he had prevailed over his raucous colleagues.

“I lay down the rules,” Merafhe says. He is dead right, his words, far from the ranting of a stuck up politician. Merafhe, who is dean of Southern Africa’s foreign Affairs ministers, holds considerable sway in diplomatic circles.

Having been Botswana’s foreign minister for close to thirteen years, his colleagues in the region always look up to him for counsel and guidance.

They have never been disappointed. His stewardship has made SADC a powerhouse in continental politics. “SADC candidates almost never loose in contests for continental positions. A small country as we are, Botswana candidates always win in the first round,” he says.

Former Executive Secretary of the Botswana Law Society, Sanji Monageng, currently High Court judge in Banjul, Gambia, likes to regale friends with stories of how Merafhe lobbied for her nomination to be commissioner of the African Union’s 53 member Commission on Human and People’s Rights, a body based in Banjul.

The 53 commissioners hear cases from individuals and NGOs who allege violations in AU countries. Monageng spent the nomination weekend next to the phone as Merafhe and his counterparts lobbied and jostled for the coveted posts.

Monageng could not believe her ears when the phone rang and the voice on the other end said “congratulations.” It was Merafhe phoning from Namibia. The nomination was Monageng’s stepping stone to her current position.

Midway through the interview, Merafhe challenges us to quiz him on the population figures of any country in the world. “If you ask me what the population of Indonesia is or any country in the world, I will tell you.”

This is an uncomfortable turning of the reportorial tables, and we are reluctant to take him up on that challenge. We are convinced he knows population figures of all countries in the world by heart.

“I go all the way to inform myself. To market Botswana, I have to understand details. People do not like abstracts,” he says as a matter of fact.

Once I had an opportunity to sit not far from him during a meeting with Japanese investors in Tokyo. He was reeling numbers of schools in Botswana, the total number of kilometers of Botswana’s tarmac roads and the total number of hospitals in the country – all off the cuff.

A few days ago he was fielding questions from a British television crew. During the interview, the reporters’ jaws dropped as they marveled at how Merafhe had all the facts and figures at the tip of his tongue.

Merafhe awakens to this life every morning. He hardly ever watches TV, he reads everything that catches his eye, and unwinds by listening to his car radio. “Reading is my hobby. No document passes without me reading it. I try to inform myself and when my car radio is not working, the car is not working,” he says.

His head for numbers has seen him set records, which have never been broken. In the late 1960s he scored an 83 percent in General Overseas Officer Police Duties Course in the United Kingdom, a record that has not been broken to this day. “This was a turning point in my career.”

From a police constable who was always chasing criminals on the streets of Lobatse and Barolong areas, Merafhe rose to the rank of Deputy Commissioner in a record 11 years. Six years later, he was appointed the first commander of the Botswana Defence Force with the rank of Major General in 1977.

“I skipped some ranks. I do not know how it feels like to be a Senior Superintendent because I moved straight from Superintendent to Assistant Commissioner of Police,” he says with a boyish smile of contentment.

At 70, he is the oldest member in Cabinet and parliament and now the longest serving cabinet minister.

RELATED STORIES

Read this week's paper

Masisi creates his own “deep state”?

The government enclave is discussing a new law that will expand the president’s overreach and make it easier for the Directorate of...