Little realising that the historic November 15 development in Harare was a different order of magnitude, President Ian Khama took a reflexive, business-as-usual approach. First, he resorted to his contrarian default position on Zimbabwe by posting a fourÔÇôword idiom from his mother tongue and following up with an ill-conceived media interview and latter an open letter to then President Robert Mugabe. In the process, he severely compromised Botswana’s ability to defuse a combustible situation in which tens of millions of lives were at stake.
“Better late than never,” Khama posted on his Facebook page a few hours after the Zimbabwean Defence Forces spokesman had gone on national television to announce that Mugabe and his family had been taken into custody.
The post made international news but still eager to reach an international (meaning western) audience, Khama gave an interview to Reuter’s news agency. He expressed belief that the end of Mugabe’s reign could be an opportunity to put Zimbabwe on a path to peace and prosperity.
“I don’t think anyone should be president for that amount of time. We are presidents, we are not monarchs. It’s just common sense,” Khama told Reuters.
Hours before Mugabe finally caved in, Khama took the unprecedented step of urging him to step down through an open letter. Himself insensitive to the protocols of diplomatic conduct, Khama appealed to Mugabe “to be sensitive to the wishes of the people of Zimbabwe and to do the honourable thing by voluntarily relinquishing power as the President of Zimbabwe.”
It is also just common sense that if your country belongs to a regional organisation that has developed a set of protocols on how to deal with issues of peace and security, you have to align your public statements with such protocols. In line with the broader policy of the African Union, the SADC has taken a position to reject change of government through unconstitutional means ÔÇô especially through coups d’etat. Khama’s Facebook post essentially endorsed a process that Botswana, through its SADC membership, is against and went up before SADC made a public statement expressing collective sentiment. When that statement came, it reiterated the regional body’s aversion to coups and called for peaceful resolution of the Zimbabwean impasse. By undermining SADC processes in a bid to please the west, Khama is effectively lowering Botswana’s stature both regionally and continentally.
Ironically, Khama has adhered to this protocol when it suited him. When the Madagascan military deposed President Marc Ravalomanana and installed Andry Rajoelina in his place, Khama publicly expressed opposition to this coup, restating SADC’s position. His government refused to recognise Rajoelina as head of state and wouldn’t accord him VIP treatment, which is part of international diplomatic protocol, when he landed in Gaborone for a SADC meeting.
Another layer of irony is that Botswana, which is the headquarters of SADC, came to host a meeting of the peace and security troika a day after the Zimbabwean coup. With his post, Khama had undermined not only the troika but the authority of a colleague of his (President Jacob Zuma) who is the current chairperson of SADC. It is well known what side Zuma might reflexively take in a conflict where Mugabe is a party but the South African president was very careful in his public statements.
The troika recommended an extraordinary SADC summit and such recommendation remained feasible until the dramatic events that followed later: ZANU-PF’s removal of Mugabe as party leader, expulsion of his wife for life and the former’s resignation as parliament started impeachment proceedings. Had developments not moved past the latter and the extraordinary summit had to happen, Khama would have been a non-factor. That would have been due to the fact that of all SADC leaders, he would have been the only one who had taken sides, then became part of a meeting that had to adjudicate in a dispute in which his position was already known. Mugabe would certainly have brought this up at the summit and Khama would have had a hard time explaining himself.
That would have been an abnormality because Botswana has very good reason to take substantial interest in Zimbabwean affairs and should have a big say when such affairs are discussed at a level that that high. Over the years, Botswana has had to bear fiscal responsibility for the bad decisions made by Mugabe.
A large number of Zimbabweans reside in Botswana as either legal or illegal migrants, putting a massive strain on state resources which have been shrinking over the years. After dark, some Gaborone and Francistown streets turn red as a swarm of Zimbabwean prostitutes line up to sate lust of the flesh for male customers. This adds to Botswana’s public health woes, notably with HIV/AIDS. In Francistown, the government has built a multi-million pula detention centre for illegal immigrants, most of whom happen to be Zimbabwean. Given how important cattle farming is to a majority of the population, Botswana has among the best animal disease control protocols in the world. However, efforts to contain the outbreak and spread of foot-and-mouth disease along the northern border is often frustrated by Zimbabwe’s inability to implement measures as stringent and as effective as Botswana’s. In his state-of-the-nation three weeks ago, Khama announced that Botswana plans to collaborate with its neighbour to harmonise such protocols.
“We are in constant contact with our Zimbabwean counterparts to develop a joint disease prevention strategy. This will involve regular vaccinations of cattle within Zimbabwe,” he told parliament.
The president’s Facebook post and reveals that he has no real interest in problem-solving and that his go-it-alone instinct places Botswana outside the realm of problem-solving. Zuma would not have been able to send envoys to Harare to seek a solution to the stalemate if he had also made a critical Facebook post and publicly criticized Mugabe. The closure of the Botswana embassy in Harare created another complication because it effectively shut off an important communication channel between the two countries. Khama’s open letter to Mugabe was clearly not meant for the addressee’s eyes but for those of the international community ÔÇô especially the west. If it was, it only succeeded in drawing personal attention to Khama.
As a SADC member Botswana has responsibility to ensure that the regional body’s organs work effectively. One such responsibility involve helping to broker peace and restore stability, not saying things or doing things that undermine such effort. Grandstanding via Facebook posts, media interviews with western news outlets and open letters is neither a legitimate method of doing foreign policy nor one that SADC has ever used to defuse combustible situations.