Thursday, January 28, 2021

Khama, Merafhe – Southern Africa’s unlikely heroes

The typical image of an African dictator has always been a man with a military title behind his name. Champions of democracy on the other hand would usually be men of letters in pin-stripped suits.

Over the past few weeks, however, that picture has been changing fast. Lt Gen Ian Khama and Lt Gen Mompati Merafhe, Southern Africa’s only president and Vice President with military titles, have become pin up posters of regional democracy.

Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe and South Africa’s Thabo Mbeki, the region’s debonair men of letters on the other hand come across as the bane of democracy.

After weeks of turmoil since last month’s controversial general elections in Zimbabwe, Southern Africa now finds itself beset by doubt and insecurity. One of the few certainties, however, is that Lt Gen Ian Khama and Vice President Lt Gen Mompati Merafhe both hardly in office for 100 days will be stepping up to the plate to defend the region’s human rights and democracy. With Zambia’s Levi Mwanawasa now bedridden, Khama and Merafhe will shoulder the massive burden of containing Robert Mugabe and Thabo Mbeki.

There, the Botswana duo may find themselves punching above their weight. Khama, at this early stage of his presidency, still lacks the gravitas and presence of the region’s giants like Mbeki and Mugabe. Botswana, relatively small in comparison to its huge neighbours, will not be compensated by the international relations experience that Khama’s counterparts bring to the wheeling and dealing.

Khama and Merafhe’s talent and mental strength are about to be tested like never before. Ironically, the two men were battle tested by Zimbabwe in the 1970s. Merafhe was commander of the Botswana Defence Force and Khama his second in command.

Besides, Merafhe’s baptism of fire as Chairman of the Commonwealth Ministerial Group, (CMAG) was in Zimbabwe. In an interview with Sunday Standard two years ago, this is what he had to say: “I found myself in a very precarious position of having to fulfil 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 long-time president Robert Mugabe, and 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 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.

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 kilometres.

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.”

Two years after Merafhe’s exit from CMAG Mugabe pulled Zimbabwe out of the Commonwealth.

The Khama administration, however, has moved away from that of his predecessor who, like Mbeki, preferred silent diplomacy. They now find themselves on unchartered territory and there is no doubt that SADC and the AU will recognise Mugabe’s government although Merafhe was blunt in his criticism. Merafhe was, however, deprived of a key ally when president Mwanawasa was reported dead.

The situation of Lt Gen Ian Khama’s new administration is further complicated by threats from the Zimbabwean President. In anticipation of trouble spilling over from Zimbabwe, Botswana last week deployed an army brigade with artillery to patrol its border with Zimbabwe. In response to Botswana’s military build up, Mugabe this week warned neighbouring countries to ‘think twice’ before launching an attack against his regime. SWRadioAfrica, a radio station run by Mugabe’s exiled former broadcasters at the Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation and broadcasting from the UK, quoted analysts saying Mugabe’s statement could be viewed as a direct threat to Botswana.

President Lt Gen Khama has become increasingly critical of Mugabe’s rule and Lt Gen Mompati Merafhe refused to recognize Mugabe’s stolen election win while in Egypt. On Friday Presidential Affairs Minister Phandu Skelemani reiterated calls for Mugabe’s regime to be suspended from the AU and the 14-nation SADC community.

Skelemani told reporters at a press conference that as a country that practices democracy and the rule of law, Botswana does not recognize the outcome of Zimbabwe’s presidential run-off election, and would expect other SADC member states to do the same.

Speaking to his bussed in ‘supporters’ on his arrival home on Friday, Mugabe warned his neighbours to be careful about provoking his government.
“If there are some who may want to fight us, they should think twice. We don’t intend to fight any neighbours. We are a peaceful country, but if there is a country, a neighbouring country that is itching for a fight, ah, then let them try it.”

A military analyst told Newsreel in the unlikely event of a war situation Mugabe’s army would struggle to sustain a battle, due to a number of factors.
”The country’s airpower is almost ground to a halt due to lack of spare parts, soldiers’ morale is low because of poor serving conditions and the state of the economy limits the extent of how long the country can sustain a war. Currently, the army is sending its soldiers on forced leave due to food shortages in army barracks. These are all factors that constrain its operations,” the analyst said.

The United States of America, European Union and Nigeria this week joined the fray in support of Botswana’s position while South Africa, which has dithered on the Zimbabwean issue, remained non committal alongside China, which recently attempted to ship armaments to the troubled country and Russia.

Seeking to force Mugabe into negotiations with the opposition, the United States formally proposed United Nations Security Council sanctions on Zimbabwe, including an international arms embargo and punitive measures against the 14 people it deemed most responsible for undermining the presidential election through violence.

Besides Mugabe, those singled out Thursday in the draft resolution to be subject to an international travel ban and a freeze on personal assets include the chiefs of the various branches of the Zimbabwean armed forces, General Constantine Chiwenga, commander of the Zimbabwean Army, Gideon Gono, the Governor of the Central Bank, Justice minister Patrick Chinamasa, Mugabe’s spokesman George Charamba, Emerson Munangagwa, believed to be Mugabe’s heir apparent and others, including Happyton Bonyongwe, the Head of the feared Central Intelligence Organization.
The United States expects to bring the resolution to a vote as early as this coming week, he said. The mood around the council chamber was noncommittal, with even previously outspoken opponents to further UN interference, particularly South Africa, saying they would have to consult with their governments.

Although passage is not assured, the United States has apparently mustered enough support to garner nine of the 15 votes needed to approve the resolution. China and Russia, which have generally supported the position that this is an African problem that ought to be dealt with locally, could still veto it. Russia is considered unlikely to do so, diplomats noted, and China might feel pressured to avoid vetoing sanctions because of criticism of its own human rights record in the prelude to the Olympics.

In Berlin, Chancellor Angela Merkel said the European Union would seek “all possible sanctions” against Zimbabwe and Mugabe. “We will take up the issue again within the EU, under the leadership of the French presidency,” Merkel said in an interview with The Associated Press. “We will think up all possible sanctions and check to see what more we can do, such as travel bans for members of Mugabe’s regime.”

RELATED STORIES

Read this week's paper