Thursday, July 18, 2024

Botswana takes regional centerstage

Dr Lemogang Kwape has all SADC foreign affairs ministers on speed dial.

On an easy day, Botswana’s Minister of International Affairs and Cooperation simply punches his dialer and, in a flash, he is on a “How’s your day going” call with his counterparts.

This time, however, the news wasn’t good.

A new covid-19 strain – Omicron – had just been discovered in Botswana and South Africa. In the heat of the moment, The United Kingdom reacted by adding Southern African countries to its travel red list.

Dr Kwape was not impressed. He immediately started working the phones. A few calls later, all Southern African countries came up with a united position against the red list. “Angola is the only country in the region that was not part of the decision because I could not reach their minister of foreign affairs as he was out of the country”, Dr Kwape explained.

The 30 minutes or so long interview with Botswana’s chief diplomat is full of such anecdotes and vignettes illustrating how far Botswana has come over the past three years, from isolationism to playing a leadership role in brokering regional solidarity.

As the conversation flowed, Dr Kwape dished out more instructive bits about his personal relationship with his peers. His friendship with Zimbabwe’s Foreign Affairs and International Trade Minister, Ambassador Frederick Shava has deepened beyond first name terms to granting each other a measure of intimacy allowed only to close blood relatives: “He is a few years younger than my father so I call him “baba Mnini” (Shona for small uncle), reveals Dr Kwape. Ambassador Shava on the other hand addresses Dr Kwape as Mzukuru which is Shona for nephew. The personal idioms have stuck to the point where if Dr Kwape were to hear Ambassador Shava addressing him by his real name over the phone, he would probably worry that something seriously wrong must have happened. “President Masisi has encouraged us to establish personal relationships with our counterparts”, he says.

This buddy-buddy is a far cry from the hostile relationship between Zimbabwe and Botswana only four years ago, when former president Lt Gen Ian Khama and his Zimbabwean opposite number Robert Mugabe publicly traded jibes.

For all the talk of a strained relationship between Botswana and South Africa, Dr Kwape describes his relation with Pretoria’s Minister of International relations Naledi Pandor as more kinship than professional, a tad shy of sibling good-humoured raillery.

“She grew up and went to school in Botswana, so we usually trade banter in Setswana”, he said.

Perhaps most intriguing is his friendship with Dhoihir Dhoulkamal, Comoros’ Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation. Theirs is a camaraderie that defies all odds. Dr Kwape speaks Setswana and English while Dhoulkamal speaks French, Comorian and Arabic. Their friendship has however transcended the language barrier.

“We share light moments and laughter. You should see us having a meaningful conversation in sign language. But once in a while a good Samaritan would step in and help with the translation”, quipped Dr Kwape.

“I am in constant communication with all of them, from Tanzania to eSwatini”, he says.

We are sitting with Dr Kwape in his spacious office at the government enclave, where he is fielding questions from his floral Victorian Gentleman’s arm chair. He is raving about how President Mokgweetsi Masisi “wants to use diplomacy as leverage for economic development.” The minister is on a roll, but we manage to get a question edgewise. Suddenly he paused, his face lit up, then… “that was symbolic. It was a symbol that Botswana is back”, he enthused. Then out came another anecdote about a vignette that emblematized Botswana grand arrival on the international diplomatic scene.

The Islamist insurgency in the gas-rich northern province of Mozambique was spiraling out of control, offsetting major gas exploration projects and raising fears that it could spread to neighboring countries. In one incident that traumatized the region, jihadists swooped on the coastal town of Palma, killing dozens of people and triggering an exodus that included workers on a multi-billion dollar liquified natural gas (LNG) project led by France’s Total. The raids marked a major intensification on an insurgency that had raged across the province for over three years. After dithering for some time, the government of Mozambique finally sent an S.O.S to SADC countries.

On the other side of the Limpopo River, about 900 Kilometers away, President Masisi, Minister Kwape and their entourage were huddled around a conference table, preparing to sign the Status of Forces agreement that would allow SADC forces to join the fight alongside Mozambican forces. There however was a small hiccup. Masisi and his team did not have a pen. They looked around, but could not raise any. Botswana Defence Force deputy commander Major General Mpho Mophuting “had to run around looking for a pen”, quipped Kwape. After sometime he showed up with the pen that inked the agreement, paving the way for Botswana to be the first SADC country to dispatch military troops to help battle the Islamic extremist insurgency in northern Cabo Delgado province.

General Mophuting reckoned President Masisi would hold the incident in his heart forever. As a shrine to the medley of emotions they shared during the signing ceremony, the BDF second in command mounted the famous pen and a copy of the agreement on a frame and gave them to the president as a gift during a televised event.

It is believed the framed artifacts enjoy the pride of place on President Masisi’s display wall alongside his other treasured memories.

For a natural scientist, Dr Kwape has done very well on the fast-changing, inter-connected world of international diplomacy. His transition from health to international diplomacy, however was not a walk in the park. He likens it to the biblical fiery trial of faith which endures suffering: “It was a baptism by fire”, he says. This is a fitting metaphor for a novice who was thrust into playing “fire brigade” just when the region was caught up in raging fire and brimstone.

Dr Kwape was transferred to the Ministry of International Affairs and Cooperation on 26th August 2020, hardly a week after Botswana was elected to chair the SADC Organ on Politics, Defence and Security Cooperation. The greenhorn diplomat was thrown into the deep end. His “IN” was like a 911 call log on a busy day. The new minister came in just when the seething Mozambique insurgency was flaring up.

And there were other fires to put out. The Lesotho political crisis was still smoldering. Four months earlier South African President Cyril Ramaphosa’s Special Envoy to Lesotho, Jeff Radebe had flown into Gaborone to brief President Mokgweetsi Masisi in his capacity as the incoming chairperson of SADC’s Politics, Defence and Security organ about the Lesotho situation.

On Dr Kwape’s desk was also the ebbing border dispute between Zambia and Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) which for some time threatened to break into an all-out war. Since May 2020, three months before Botswana took the hot seat, a war had been on the verge of breaking out between Zambia and the DRC. Lusaka had crossed the border in March and deployed troops to Kalubamba and Kibanga in Moba territory, in the Congolese province of Tanganyika. Zambian tanks were also positioned along the border on the Zambian side, opposite the Congolese village of Lupia. Zambia claimed sovereignty over the Congolese localities it occupied.

For its part, the Congolese army strengthened its positions in the region and war was imminent. But the president of the DRC, Félix Tshisekedi, preferred to refer the matter to arbitration by SADC, the Southern African Community.

In July 2020 SADC deployed a team of technical experts to investigate the dispute. The team submited a detailed report which was part of the agenda of the virtual Organ Troika summit scheduled held on 15th August. The then Organ Troika comprised Zimbabwe as chairperson, Botswana as incoming (deputy) chairperson and Zambia as immediate past chairperson.

When Botswana stepped down as Chairperson of the SADC security organ, demarcation work had already resumed on the contentious border dispute in what is believed to be the final push in resolving the decades-old dispute.

“And then there was the Eswatini issue”, he said. By the eSwatini issue Dr Kwape is referring to pro-democracy protest against against the king in Africa’s last absolute monarchy.

Dr Kwape in July led a SADC delegation dispatched by President Masisi to meet the eSwatini government and civil society organisations over the deadly protests.

Dr Kwape points out that Botswana’s international diplomacy is a projection of her domestic values. As the shining example of peace and democracy, Botswana enjoys the moral authority to commandeer the regional move towards peace and democracy. He says this and “the support of his competent staff”, made his job easier.

Two months into his position as Chairperson of the Ministerial Committee of the Organ on Politics, Defence and Security Cooperation (MCO), Dr Kwape was leading the SADC observer mission during Seychelles elections where the opposition took power for the first time since 1977.

Anglican priest Wavel Ramkalawan defeated then President Danny Faure by 54.9% to 43.5%. “There was a smooth transition of power”, said Dr Kwape.

Two months later in November 2020 he was again leading the SADC observer mission during Tanzania’s elections where President John Magufuli won a second term, with a landslide victory of more than 84%.

“The next elections were in Zambia where Opposition leader Hakainde Hichilema defeated incumbent Edgar Lungu. Again, there was smooth transfer of power”, he said.

Almost a year into his role as Chairperson Ministerial Committee of the Organ on Politics, Defence and Security Cooperation (MCO), Dr Kwape looked back with muted satisfaction. While addressing the MCO virtual meeting on 7th July 2021, Dr Kwape highlighted that the region continues to make progress towards the consolidation of democratic ideals, including peace and stability, commending Member States who managed to hold peaceful and credible elections in accordance with their respective Constitutional mandates, despite the outbreak of COVID-19 pandemic.

The then Chairperson of the MCO noted that despite some achievements, there has also been worrying security threats of terrorism and violent extremism in the northern Cabo Delgado province of the Republic of Mozambique, and the volatile security situation in the eastern provinces of North Kivu and Ituri in the Democratic Republic of Congo, as well as the attendant humanitarian crisis.

Throughout the interview Dr Kwape kept going back to his favorite line, “kodu ya Botswana e simolotse go utlwala” (Botswana’s voice is being heard). His most enthusiasm inspiring phrase however seems to be, “Botswana is back”.

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