Wednesday, January 19, 2022

Does Botswana’s foreign policy make any sense?

Dear Spencer

There is absolutely no reason why, after 45 years of self rule, Botswana still does not have a documented foreign policy.

What guides and informs the country’s foreign policy remains a completely closed book to the public.
And, as you know, our Government likes to think that its many conflicting and contradictory foreign affairs decisions are taken on behalf of the nation.

Without a written document, how do we scrutinize and determine if the foreign policy suits our convenience and purpose? How do we determine if it is a policy in the right direction? How do we know if the government of the day is breaching the policy it has set out for itself?
As people, how are we expected to reach a decision that our foreign policy is in sync with modern democratic cultures and dispensations or, for that matter, how are we to determine that the policy needs to be reviewed?

When it comes to Botswana’s foreign policy many questions arise but we are unable to ask them meaningfully, let alone answer them because we do not know what the foreign policy entails and when it should be applied.

A lack of a documented foreign policy has in some instances led government to taking haphazard decisions some of which have in the past tended to antagonize and isolate us as a country.
In some instances, Botswana has naively acted as a lone ranger and outside the ambit of regional and continental bodies such as SADC and the AU of which we are members.

The country has witnessed a paradigm shift in its foreign relations policy following the ascendancy of Ian Khama to the presidency on April 1, 2008, from silent diplomacy to roof top diplomacy.
Some of the decisions taken by government could have endeared us to our colonial masters and the west, but they may not necessarily have been the best decisions that we ought to have taken as a country ÔÇô they certainly were not in our best interests as a small landlocked country in Southern Africa.

Certain decisions could also have been taken in haste without fully appreciating the circumstances prevailing in those countries affected not to speak of attendant future consequences.

 It is nonetheless commendable that our government has continued to publicly denounce atrocities committed by some rulers on their people. It is, however, worrisome that we have tended to play double standards and failed to condemn some countries whose leaders are believed to have personal relationships with Khama and his regime.

Back to the point in question, did we take the right stand when atrocities and human rights violations were committed in Zimbabwe, Libya, Syria and others?

On the surface of it all it would seem that the Khama administration took the right decisions in forthrightly condemning the human rights violations in Zimbabwe and imploring SADC to take action against the Robert Mugabe regime.

The same could be said in the cases of Libya and Syria as well as Mauritius.
I am, however, baffled that the Khama administration, despite its zeal and commitment to the protection of human rights, continues to see nothing wrong with what is happening in Swaziland and Malawi. In Swaziland the monarchy is hell bent on oppressing the opposition in addition suppressing freedom of expression, including the media.
In Malawi the Bingu wa Mutharika administration is killing innocent people who are protesting against the misguided economic policies which are affecting their livelihoods.

We have, however, remained silent in condemning the ruthlessness with which these demonstrations are suppressed and the killing of the innocent demonstrators as if nothing is happening in that country. Why is our foreign policy applied selectively? Is the selective application of the foreign policy not amounting to double standards displayed by the current administration?

Yours
Joseph Balise

Dear Joseph

Let me, for once, acknowledge that you raise some pertinent questions, and I must add in a more sober and thoughtful manner than I have heard you do in a very long time.

To me, the problem of Botswana’s foreign policy is not so much the absence of a document as the glaring inconsistencies in applying that which we call our foreign policy.

Putting the country’s foreign policy into a document may very be good, but I learnt many years ago at college that one of the oldest and most entrenched constitutional democracies in the world did not have a written constitution at all.

What matters is to have a set of values that are wholly embraced by the largest section of the public, plainly and consistently applied but most importantly reflecting a sense of ownership among the vast majority of people on whose behalf those values exist.
That unfortunately cannot be said about Botswana’s foreign policy, certainly not since the date of April 2008 you have mentioned.
The Achilles Heel of Botswana’s foreign policy, like all other policies under President Khama, is that it is not only personalized but also privatized. It is intended to serve the whims and pleasures of the president.
No attempt has been spared to create this policy if one may call it that in the image of the leader – typically African, isn’t it, even as we like to claim to be different from other Africans.

The policy is so personalized that I doubt very much if your friend Phandu Skelemani, who is supposed to be its public face, has any clue what the policy really entails.
And, as you very much know, Skelemani is a very brilliant man ÔÇô or at least he was until he became Khama’s foreign affairs minister.┬á

What I suspect happens behind the scenes is that experienced and brilliant as he is, Skelemani has to continually confer and defer to the President on every small detail because as a minister he too does not really know ÔÇô that caprice cannot be right.

The absence of a clear, bigger picture is simply damning!
With specific references to the examples you gave, most notably Zimbabwe, my view is that President Khama was right up until it dawned on him that on its own Botswana was too small and inconsequential to achieve anything without the backing of such countries like South Africa.
That can only be the most valid explanation of Khama’s somersault on Zimbabwe.
Have you realized that even Khama’s friend, Morgan Tsvangirai, has since grown disillusioned with us. While he used to visit almost every other week, I now cannot recall when the Zimbabwean opposition leader was last in Botswana.

With regards to such countries like Syria, Libya and other North African countries, all I can say is that exuberance and an amazing appetite to attract international headline seem to have been the reasons behind Botswana’s conduct.

Otherwise what did we really hope to achieve?

Yours
Spencer Mogapi

Dear Spencer,
The most worrying aspect of the application of our foreign policy is that apart from Zimbabwe, it seems to focus too much on far away countries. I think there ought to be a deliberate need to zoom on our neighbours before we go offshore.

This is not to suggest that human rights violations elsewhere in the world should not be our concern. However, political instability in our neighbouring countries directly affects us and we, therefore, need to be proactive in helping forge solutions in those countries.

Khama should be credited for having acted swiftly in the case of Zimbabwe.
This is despite the fact that our stance has since been softened although the political situation still remains fragile in that country.
 I think, Spencer, you recall the hasty SADC meeting Khama initiated in Zambia where he got the full support of the late Levy Mwanawasa on the Zim political situation after Mugabe lost the elections. That was quite timely and we need to do more of such interventions, especially for southern countries.

It would, of course, be folly of me to argue that we should ignore human rights violations off shore. The underlying fact is that human rights violation is human rights violation irrespective of where it occurs, period. We should honestly be concerned when human rights are violated and innocent citizens killed with impunity for political gains if not motives.

But for us to turn a deaf ear when it happens to immediate neighbours like Malawi and Swaziland is not right. These countries are our neighbours and their people our brothers and sisters. We should stand up and condemn King Mswati and wa Mutharika without hesitation. What they are doing to their own people is evil.
I know that we cannot play God but our intervention might pump sense into them if we vigorously condemn their actions.
We did it with Libya and Syria. In fact, you would recall that we have cut ties with Libya because we did not condone what Muammar Gaddafi was doing to his people. We should apply the same to Mswati and wa Mutharika. We should never pamper them as we are currently doing. We should never allow them to visit their citizens with violence. It is only appropriate that we cut diplomatic ties with them and implore SADC to act expeditiously before more innocent lives are lost.

The most important thing is that if we condemn violence, we should never do it selectively. There is absolutely no reason why we should pamper these dictators. Dictators are, after all dictators. Respect for human rights and rule of law should apply squarely to everybody irrespective of whether some of the perpetrators are our friends.

In fact, I am inclined to believe that our friends should be the ones we condemn outright so that we show them that what they are doing to their innocent citizenry and is not right.
 
Yours
Joe

Dear Joe

Once again you are right in your observations. In Zimbabwe our government was up against a very experienced, scheming dictator who was already steeped in world politics when most of those in our cabinet were still school boys and girls.
The biggest mistake that Botswana made over Zimbabwe was to think that we could go it alone. No attempt was made to lobby such countries like Namibia, Angola and South Africa who are, by the way, Mugabe’s traditional allies. Contrary to what our government wants us to believe, these countries have never held Botswana in any high regard.

The upshot of our failure to lobby a critical mass of other SADC countries was that immediately Botswana went public against Mugabe we were branded an imperial stooge that had no liberation credentials.

I still think President Khama’s policy on Mugabe was right if not in anything then at least in principle.

But it was destined to fail. How different things would be had Botswana government lobbied and consulted more so that many other bigger regional players could see things from our perspective.
But then inexperience got the better of us ÔÇô and we now see ourselves having to literally beg the same dictator to help us fight foot and mouth. I recently laughed my lungs out watching our President receive a present from Mugabe.
As in many other instances, our policy towards Zimbabwe was a clear cut example of punching above one’s weight.
Knowing how sarcastic Mugabe man can be, I am dead certain that in the company of his ministers he has no shortage of demeaning adjectives and adverbs to describe our president. How tragic! It is yet another missed opportunity. While Botswana government has gone silent, for the Zimbabwean people the misery continues ÔÇô unabated.

Yours forever
Spencer

Dear Spencer.
I earlier on lamented the absence of a documented foreign policy.
I take exception to the foreign policy direction of our country being solely left at the whim of the president and his foreign affairs minister. As things stand, we are not even sure whether their pronouncements are endorsed by cabinet.

What is clear though is that parliament plays no role.
This is why the opposition collective is currently barking at government over its silence on the Malawi issue. At least the Leader of Opposition should be consulted before certain policy views are taken. In that way we may be assured that the decision is somewhat collective.
I am quite aware that foreign relations literature succinctly gives the president and his foreign affairs minister the latitude to determine the country’s foreign policy. That notwithstanding, I think whatever decision is taken by the two should bear some semblance of national approval.
This is because while we have taken what from a distance appear to be correct stances against countries like Libya, Syria, Madagascar and others, we have fallen into the trap of endorsing atrocities committed by those closest to our President.
The other problem is that, as a country, we have at times taken positions that differ materially from those adopted by the African Union. When the other members of the AU took a certain position on Al Bashir of Sudan, we differed with them and offered ourselves to arrest him if he dared set foot in our country. What message we were sending to the AU. Should we not abide by the consensus of our African brothers?

I am aware that we are signatories to the Rome Statute, but does that give us the leeway to contemptuously differ with the rest of Africa. Who are we trying to please?

The lone ranger attitude we often display may, in the long term, antagonize and polarize us from what the rest of Africa thinks. This is notwithstanding that Africa is littered with dictators who have no respect for human rights and democracy.

As I sign off, I still firmly argue that our foreign policy needs to be documented so that it becomes a subject to public scrutiny. In that way we can always seek appropriate review to remedy its flaws.

Yours
Joseph Balise

P.S ÔÇô By the way, what did you make of Skelemani’s response to Ntuane over Malawi in parliament?

Dear Joseph

That must have been the most uncomfortable moments in Skelemani’s career ÔÇô and as you know the man has had a very long public service career.

I still do not believe Skelemani saw nothing wrong with a Government of Malawi killing 18 civilians.
This is the agony perhaps that all ministers have to undergo by way of defending those things that they do not agree with.
So far, Malawi remains the most indelible blight on Botswana’s attempts to portray herself as a good boy. In fact, while many of our people were appalled by our failure to condemn the Swazi King, our stance on Malawi has simply been indefensible. Our Malawian debacle is most outstanding in that it has eclipsed all our past foreign policy failures.

It has not gone unnoticed that our traditional allies, Britain and the United States, have condemned the Malawian dictator while we chose to stand by him.

There is no better and more glaring example of deciding a national foreign policy based on the whims of personal friendships.

It does not get any more capricious than that. The less we speak about our embarrassing stance on Malawi, the better for all of us.

I cannot think of a more cruel emotional national abuse than what Batswana have been forced to go through by their own government on Malawi. At least officially what government position has adopted on Malawi is supposed to represent what all of us think. That is the tragedy of it all.

As in many other policies Botswana’s foreign policy is very much dictated by the president’s personal tastes, lifestyle and personal preferences.

The journey continues. I read somewhere that President Khama may refuse to relinquish office were he to lose.

Our double standards on Malawi will only serve to buttress that position, God forbid!

Yours
Spencer

RELATED STORIES

Read this week's paper