President Mokgweetsi Masisi’s place in the public consciousness has been immortalized in four words: “Ke a le tsamaela”
Masisi uttered the oft-quoted line which loosely translates to – “I travel on your behalf” – as a witty attempt to shut down critics of his whirlwind globetrotting.
The four – word quip has since crossed over into mainstream conversation and has sparked a memefest on Botswana’s microblogging platform.
No sooner had Masisi ascended to the presidency than he started racking up miles on OK One in a diplomatic offensive, targeting friend and foe.
As at end of July 2022 the presidential jet had burned more than P10 million in aviation fuel to 60 international destinations since April 2018 when Masisi was sworn in as President.
For the new president, the diplomatic flurry was a crucial first step toward normalizing relations which had been severely strained by his predecessor, Lt Gen Ian Khama’s “wolf-warrior” diplomacy.
Minister of State President, Kabo Morwaeng says.
Khama’s self-imposed international isolation proved extremely costly for Botswana. The minister pointed out that former Foreign Affairs Minister, Pelonomi Venson-Moitoi’s loss in the contest for African Union Chairmanship came down to a failure of Botswana diplomacy.
“Venson-Moitoi, an otherwise absolutely capable woman, lost an opportunity to exert Botswana’s influence at the AU because she was simply told by African presidents, ‘we don’t know you because we never see your president’
Morwaeng was defending Masisi’s globe-trotting during a series of Kgotla meetings in his constituency two weeks ago.
Morwaeng’s view is shared by Current Leader of Opposition and Selebi-Phikwe West Member of Parliament Dithapelo Keorapetse who in the past asked a question in Parliament on whether Khama’s diplomatic disengagement affected Moitoi’s AU candidature.
Zimbabwe’s former president Robert Mugabe was more blunt: “Everybody just said: ‘Aah, you. We have not seen your President here. He doesn’t attend our meetings and what would happen if we placed our organisation in your hands, in his hand? So sorry, lady’.
“She worked hard. She was very sorry to lose, we were sorry also, but we knew in advance that we were trying a very impossible one,” he told a South African delegation.
Eighteen months earlier, Botswana’s candidate for the position of Commonwealth Secretary General Mmasekgoa Masire-Mwamba had lost to a relative arriviste from Dominica by 24 votes to 26 votes. It is widely believed that Masire-Mwamba who was deputy Secretary General of the Commonwealth was a shoo in for the top post in the contest against the outsider, but lost because of Botswana’s diplomatic detachment.
Masisi had his work cut out for him. He inherited a country hemmed in by hostile neighbors. To the west, Namibia was still smarting from Khama’s “shoot to kill policy.” Up north was a radio-active Zimbabwe which only a few years earlier had massed up its army on the Botswana border, ready to attack. Zimbabwe’s former president Robert Mugabe accused Khama of sponsoring an attempt to topple his government. At some state Botswana Defence Force generals approached the US government for military assistance to parry the anticipated Zimbabwean offensive.
Hardly a week after Masisi was sworn in as Botswana’s fifth President, military commanders ceded way to diplomats. Masisi jumped on OK 1 for a visit to Zimbabwe and Namibia to clean up after his predecessor.
Briefing foreign diplomats in Gaborone a few days past his 100th day in office, Masisi said his administration would “endeavour to take friendship with other countries to greater heights” pointing out that the quest to nurture the relationships was the reason he visited neighbouring countries shortly after assuming the presidency.
Botswana’s diplomatic doldrums however stretched far beyond the Southern African region. Across seas and oceans, the country’s diplomatic bridges were up in flames. About10,550 km away, across the Indian Ocean, China had blown a fuse following Khama’s position on the Dalai Lama, the South China Sea and Taiwan.
For a week in 2016, scores of Botswana investors who import their merchandise from China were left in the lurch after President Xi allegedly ordered an indefinite closure of the Chinese Embassy in Gaborone.
Staff at the Chinese embassy was ordered to down tool and processing of visa applications was halted as Beijing expressed its anger with a press statement issued by the Botswana government condemning China’s position on the China Sea controversy.
On the other side of the oceans, Botswana was involved in a heated trans-Atlantic spat with the United States of America.
Four Months before Masisi took over as President, Botswana issued a statement condemning President Donald Trump on his decision to recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. The leader of the most powerful country in the world was straining the leash to confront the knock-back. Trump issued a threat to withdraw aid from Botswana and other countries that slighted him.
Masisi had to pack his backs and fly out to put out the fires. “The diplomacy of calling out your neighbor when you think they’ve done something terribly wrong… we don’t do it the way anymore. We have now chosen to stick to regular diplomatic engagements because we have diplomatic relations”, Masisi said in an interview during one of his international trips.
Morwaeng says less than two years into his first term in office, Botswana’s president had already built enough diplomatic goodwill to rally the region and the international community behind his key foreign policy initiatives. “Months of campaigning, led by Masisi were rewarded with a top SADC posting for his candidate, Elias Magosi, marking the beginnings of Botswana’s increased influence in the regional organisation.”
Morwaeng says since then, Masisi’s charm offensive “has been able to expand the presence of Botswana’s most valuable resource, Botswana citizens in influential positions of multilateral organisations, marking a new chapter of engagement after a decade of estrangement. This has set Botswana up for success when getting Batswana into influential positions in international organisations.
“So far Professor Mpho Molomo has been appointed to head the SADC Mission in Mozambique, Mr Gaeimelwe Goitsemang has assumed his new role in January 2023 as an Inspector of the UN Joint Inspection Unit (JIU) tenable in Geneva from 2023 to 2027. The Joint Inspection Unit is the only independent oversight body of the United Nations system. His appointment came after Botswana successful bid for the post. Botswana also served as President of the United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) from July 2021 to July 2022. The country was represented by Ambassador Kelapile. Five Batswana youth were selected to participate in the internship programme to augment the capacity of the ECOSOC Presidency; Botswana also succeeded in bidding for membership of the United Nations Educational Scientific Organisation (UNESCO).
Ambassador Mustaq Moorad currently represents the country on the board; Ms Mantlha Sankoloba, Chief Executive Officer of the Botswana Exporters and Manufacturers Association (BEMA) was elected to serve as the President of the Board of the Organisation of African Caribbean and Pacific States (OACPS) Business Forum; Mr Phologo Kaone Bogatsu has been appointed to serve a three year term with the United Nations Committee on Contributions (2022-2024); Botswana is currently part of the United Nations Committee foe Programme and Coordination (2022-2024); During 2022 Botswana chaired the Kimberly Process (KP), furthermore Botswana successfully bid to host the Permanent Secretariat of the KP ; Botswana currently serves as the Chair of the Bureau of Landlocked Developing Countries (LLDCs) Group ) 2022-23) ; Botswana was also selected as Member of the Global Vision 2030 Platform and will in this regard, play a leading role in the follow up of the implementation of Sustainable Development Goals.”
At home, however enthusiasm for Masisi’s drive to expand Botswana’s diplomatic horizons has been tempered by criticism of his apparent neglect of domestic issues.
For hundreds of Batswana who parrot the “ke a le tsamaela” phrase in jest every day, politics may not be at the forefront of their minds. Among Masisi’s critics, mostly opposition politicians, the meme is however being pressed into service for more sinister purpose: derisive mockery of the president
During one of his long overseas trips, Umbrella for Democratic Change Head of Communications, Moeti Mohwasa, slammed the president’s absence as “a disgrace and highly despicable.”
Masisi had left on an international trip that was expected to last three full weeks as he hoped from country to country in western Europe. Mohwasa described this trip as dereliction of duty on the president’s part.
“It is not only strange and disheartening for a president to be away for such a long time when there are so many political and economic crises in the country,” said Mohwasa. “It is unheard of for a head of state and government to be outside the country officially for such a long time. It is a disgrace and highly despicable to say the least.”
On the other hand, Masisi has described his visit in harmless terms. Speaking to reporters before boarding, the presidential jet, he said that “I am about to leave on your behalf.” In broader sense, “your” referred to all Batswana. His itinerary covered Switzerland, Sweden and France.
Morwaeng however expressed frustration at seeing opposition leaders boil Masisi’s “new power diplomacy” down to useless globe-trotting.
He attributed Botswana’s successful roll out of the Covid-19 vaccination programme to president Masisi’s capable leadership, adding that this feat would not have been achieved had it not been for president Masisi’s successful mending of Botswana’s relations with other nations. “It would have been extremely difficult for Botswana to source Covid-19 vaccines in the first place under a climate in which the country was a diplomatic recluse.”
The “Ke a le tsamaela” line is turning out to be a blithesome metaphor for a central element of President Masisi’s foreign policy legacy that has engendered stiff resistance, particularly among opposition members, and is likely to become a flash point in the 2024 general elections campaign.