Botswana faces diminishing chances of receiving more financial support and other forms of aid from the United States of America due to the souring diplomatic relations.
Experts this week warned that the United States is likely to halt state financial assistance to Botswana as the relationship between the two countries reached a new low following a diplomatic spat over the arrest of Sunday Standard Newspaper Editor Outsa Mokone by security agents for what the state believes amounts to sedition by Mokone.
Reports indicate that tensions which allegedly go as far back as the WikiLeaks saga that exposed some within the American Embassy’s views on Botswana. Recently the ruling Botswana Democratic Party (BDP) refused to participate in the GabzFM Radio Station general election debates which are sponsored by the American Government. Early last year Minister of Minerals Kitso Mokaila clashed with the United States Embassy in Gaborone over the safety of portable water in Gaborone.
Commenting on the current war of words between the US and Botswana over the arrest and detention of Mokone, Attorney Onalethata Kambai of Kambai Attorneys said that the statement by the United States denouncing Botswana’s treatment of journalists should not be taken lightly.
“The condemning of Botswana by the US should be taken in the context of the relationship between the two countries. It is uncommon for the US to make its voice heard especially on issues of democracy and the rule of law,” he said.
Kambai said the statement should be a warning to the authorities that it must respect the rule of law, democracy and human rights.
“When the US government is concerned about such issues, it has gone on to express its displeasure at such violations. Such steps can include but are not limited to termination of aid and we know that Botswana receives a lot of foreign aid from US such as funds for the fight against HIV and benefits relating to the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA,” said Kambai.
Kambai who holds a masters degree in law from an American University added that “to participate in AGOA there are some strings attached. Here I’m talking about the rule of law not rule by law which are two different concepts.”
Kambai said Swaziland was at one point barred from AGOA after alleged harassment of journalists and human right activists.
Another commentator, University of Botswana law lecturer Patrick Gunda said Botswana and the United States have had a long history of smooth relations-with the US providing aid in education and health, notably the fight against HIV and Aids.
“I recall the commendable work of the Billand Mellinda Gates Foundation, cooperation in areas of military and related logistics (to mention but a few). It is sad that the incident concerning and related to Sunday Standard journalists might have been taken out of proportion, noting that good relations have always existed between Botswana and the USA. There are or could have been a more sober and calm way towards addressing the issue,” he said.
Ordinarily Governments (especially those that may find themselves in a tight corner), Gunda said, do not want what is generally called “megaphone diplomacy”; where one country openly and publicly criticizes the other.
“I think it is human nature; if one gets publicly criticized the tendency is to be defensive – you have your back against the wall, and, anything said from that posture is aimed at either flight or fright – the ultimate aim being to survive at all costs. In the end relations become antagonized,” said Gunda.
At International Law all countries are equal and should respect the sovereignty of the other, said Gunda.
“Like human beings countries also have faults. This may explain why when the USA criticized Botswana, the latter hit back citing issues relating to Guantanamo Bay,” he said.
For his part, Professor Zibani Maundeni of UB also said that it is common policy, including in Botswana that when things are happening elsewhere some countries find it fit to issue a statement.
“Botswana has been making some comments on countries such as Sudan, Ukraine and Libya on issues of concern in those countries. The thing is we don’t expect that our comments should make those countries react angrily. Equally when things in our own backyard happen we should not react angrily,” he said.
On Thursday the Botswana Government reacted angrily to concerns raised by the United States following the arrest of Mokone who published a story claiming the president was involved in a car accident.
The United States had criticised Botswana for arresting Mokone for sedition. The Department of State said Mokone’s arrest is “inconsistent with … fundamental freedoms and at odds with Botswana’s strong tradition of democratic governance”.
In a no-holds-barred response, spokesman Jeff Ramsay said Botswana’s government had noted with “dismay” the US reaction.
He suggested the US government “might wish to put its own house in order before rushing to hastily comment on the judicial affairs of others”.
Ramsay cited last month’s alleged “detention without charge” by American police of Washington Post reporter Wesley Lowery, while he was covering the unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, following the police shooting of an unarmed black teenager.
Mokone was arrested last week over a story alleging President Ian Khama had a night-time crash, which resulted in the other driver being given a new Jeep.
Mokone’s arrest sparked a flurry of reactions from media rights groups alleging the stifling of press freedom.