Once the blue-eyed boy of the west, President Festus Mogae is breaking ranks with America and the EU and is shaking hands with China ÔÇô Writes SUNDAY STANDARD REPORTER
IT’S April 13, 2006, a pivotal moment in America and Europe’s campaign to alienate Zimbabwe. At a televised press conference by President Festus Mogae and visiting German President Horst Kohler inside the Sir Seretse Khama Airport VIP lounge, temperatures are rising.
The two presidents, fresh out of a series of uncomfortable private meetings, are now squaring up publicly.
Kohler is frustrated that Mogae would not come round to America and EU’s decision to impose sanctions against Zimbabwe.
Mogae has his own beef: for the past few days, the Botswana president has held his fire as Kohler publicly harped on the Zimbabwean issue. This time his patience had run out:
“My advice to the EU and America is that they should talk to Zimbabwe. I have said that to you in our private meetings and I will say it now,” Mogae said as Kohler and his entourage of red faces squirmed at the round of applause that greeted Mogae’s outburst.
Mogae’s relationship with the west is full of such explosive moments these days.
British journalist, Lindsay Hilsum, who interviewed Mogae during his recent visit to China, recalls how she was struck by the president of Botswana’s love for China and his loathing for the west. Mogae told Hilsum, “I find that the Chinese treat us as equals.
The west treats us as former subjects. Which is a reality. I prefer the attitude of the Chinese to the west’s, but there’s bugger all I can do about it!” Mogae said, chuckling away in his hotel suite.
Old resentments die hard. Mogae related how Botswana’s first president, Sir Seretse Khama, was greeted at Heathrow Airport by “some old man from the Colonial Office”, while even back in the 1960s and 1970s, the Chinese would roll out the red carpet for any high-level visitor, however small a country they represented.
“They treated Sir Seretse just as they treated Richard Nixon!” he declared, possibly with a little exaggeration. Richard Nixon was the American president who was forced to resign after being shamed by the Watergate scandal.
Mogae knows first hand, the pain of being treated shabbily by the west. A while ago, the British Prime Minister would not fit him in his schedule during a state visit to the UK, but made time to meet South Africa’s president Thabo Mbeki.
The then Debswana Managing Director, Louis Nchindo, was so incensed with Mogae’s cold reception in Britain that he threatened to stop Botswana diamonds from being sent to cutting and polishing factories in the UK where they created thousands of jobs.
Is Mogae finally breaking ranks with America and EU? Well this is not being spelled out in so many words, but something is stirring. Mogae is no longer offering himself as a rubber stamp of the US and the EU’s foreign policies.
He is positioning Botswana to cash in on China’s relentless economic growth and, so far, things are humming along: prices of copper and nickel, which had been depressed for sometime, have gone up because of the growing influence of China in the world economy.
Mogae is rubbing his hands gleefully in anticipation of a surge in Beijing’s demand for Botswana diamonds on the back of China’s increasing personal incomes.
For now, he seems just thrilled that China is talking about trade, investment and brotherhood rather than the pesky subjects western leaders like to bring up like human rights, good governance, corruption and all.
Mogae’s turnaround, however, is making the EU and America jittery. Last month, a few days before the interview with Hilsum, Mogae was fielding questions from a British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) journalist, Malcolm Borthwick, who seemed uncomfortable with Botswana’s cozy relationship with China.
“Don’t you think China is just after your resources?” Borthwick quizzed. Mogae did not hold anything back.
“Everyone is after our resources. The United States of America is after our resources and Europe is after our resources. What’s wrong with China being after our resources?” he asked.
The Chinese have the muscle and they take Africa seriously, because they need Africa’s resources to fuel their own growth. Their investors are hacking huge factory shells and warehouses out of Botswana’s bushes.
Chinese newspapers are suddenly appearing on newsstands where once there were only English titles and almost all Batswana have a Chinese boss, friend or neighbour.
While western donor countries are closing their purses to Botswana because the country has graduated from the group of poor countries, China is flashing its Yen. China says it will offer four billion euros in loans and credit, and double aid to Africa by 2009.
Mogae recently told the ITN News, a British television station, that Botswana was looking to the east, because it was being excluded from certain development initiatives geared to assist African nations.
Speaking during a visit to China, Mogae said, “We are here to ensure that we are included in the list of the beneficiaries and China is willing to help.”
Hilsun recently observed, “Africa has a unique opportunity as China overtakes the west as the continent’s most important trade and investment partner.
“They cannot complain they’re not getting a fair deal because of western bullying and old imperialist ways. The Chinese are not imposing any ideology, it’s willing buyer, willing seller.
“So Africa can strike a better bargain, insist on technology transfer and job opportunities, taking the best advantage of this new opportunity.
“European ministers will tell you that Africa needs to improve its record on corruption and human rights in order to develop, not just because this is morally right. But China gives the lie to that wishful thinking.”
Dogged by the international outcry over the relocation of Basarwa from the Central Kgalagadi Game Reserve, the deportation of Professor Kenneth Good and the treatment of refugees, Mogae is losing patience with the west’s tendency to lecture Africa on democracy, human rights, corruption and good governance.
During a recent visit to Brussels he urged the EU to stop pushing a one-size-fits-all aid plan for African nations, which he said would do more harm than good in trying to combat poverty. He added that each country had a different approach to what democracy and good governance meant in dealing with corruption, human rights and freedoms.
“Do encourage and inspire us to practice good governance, but, for goodness sake, do not use your wealth and power and our poverty to try to make us in your image,” Mogae said.
So much for spreading democracy, China has something else to offer, and Botswana is beginning to think that’s a better way forward.
A while ago, I laid my hands on a report by the then Botswana’s ambassador in Beijing, Alfred Dube, addressed to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Botswana was preparing to chair a United Nations Security Council sitting and Dube was lobbying the Botswana government to show appreciation for the help it is getting from China by turning a blind eye to China’s human rights record if the issue came up.
As it turned out, Botswana took sides with China against America and the EU. In another break with EU and America, Botswana does not recognise Taiwan and has taken sides with China.