An international public relations offensive by former president Ian Khama has resulted in a comedy of errors that has media outlets across the globe attributing a highly critical statement from his PR machinery to the United Nations. What will be nightmarish for the government’s own PR machinery is that the statement is being picked up by highly credible media houses and media personalities, some with an international profile, and amplifying it further.
Act 1, Scene 1 unfolded in a sombre setting – the auditorium of a UN building in Geneva, Switzerland where the Minister of Justice, Ronald Shamukuni, appeared before the UN Human Rights Council for Botswana’s Universal Peer Review (UPR) process. Shamukuni gave the standard, dry speech of what Botswana is doing to firm up its human rights regime. Scene 2 of the same act was not nearly as dramatic as the press release from Khama’s PR machinery would portray it: representatives of UN member states, from Argentina to Zimbabwe, took turns reacting to what Shamukuni had said – this was the UPR in earnest. Virtually all of the reps used language that was about as dry as the one the minister had used and recommended certain corrective actions with regard to what they considered problematic aspects of Botswana’s human rights.
As the Vice President of the Council, Muhammadou Kah of Gambia, reminded members of at the start of the UPR, the tone and texture of the UPR is highly choreographed.
“As usual, issues of political, bilateral and territorial nature should be kept out of our deliberations and UN terminology should be used when referring to state and territories,” he said. “Only use of the words ‘recommend’ or ‘recommendation’ will ensure that the relevant part of our statements are included in the recommendations sections of the working country report.”
In their very short speeches, the representatives uniformly congratulated Botswana for presenting its UPR.
Scene 1, Act 2, which was likely scripted in London, was infused with Shakespearean drama as intense as to cause jitters at the Government Enclave.
As part of his no-holds-barred war with President Mokgweetsi Masisi, Khama has engaged the services of Omnia Strategy LLP, a London-based international law firm which, according to its website, “specialises in dispute prevention and resolution around the globe.” In as far as the Khama-Masisi dispute is concerned, the law firm has not been successful in executing either task. Omnia was co-founded by Cherie Blair who most would remember as the wife of Tony Blair, former British Prime Minister, but is actually a powerhouse legal brain in her own right. Aliko Dangote, a Nigerian businessman who is said to be the world’s richest black person, sits on its advisory board.
As an international law firm, Omnia understands how the UN system works and going back to when Khama started using its services, has been using those same systems to fight Khama’s battle. In one respect, that has taken the form of releasing public statements through a South African PR company linked to Bridgette Motsepe-Radebe, a friend to and some claim, business associate of Khama. Those press statements are typically issued by Bridget von Holdt, who is the Managing Director of a Johannesburg PR firm called BCW Africa.
Khama is himself an important part of this PR machinery – perhaps the most important because as the one bankrolling this operation, he would certainly be signing off on these statements. In one too many instances, Khama then sends these statements to the Botswana press through his local aides. For some reason, Von Holdt’s name doesn’t feature in the latest press statement.
From a country that gave western literature a bearded writer known as The Bard, Botswana’s UPR was infused with Shakespeare drama that actually misrepresents what had actually transpired at the UN Human Rights Council.
“Botswana’s human rights record criticised in United Nations review – UN Member States recommend action,” reads the headline of a May 4, 2023 “draft press statement” that purported to summarise Botswana’s UPR.
On the basis of what Vice President Kah said and what was indeed said by country representatives that reacted to Shamukuni’s statement, “criticised” is the last word anyone would want to use. For that reason, the criticism – which didn’t exist in the UPR, was manufactured in the press statement, largely through quoting the UPR proceedings out of context. Multi-theme presentations by seven countries, six of them European, were mainly boiled down to two themes which – ironically, Khama never cared about when he was still in office: freedom of expression and press freedom.
The full statement by the UK representative is as follows: “The United Kingdom commends Botswana for commencement of gender equality as well as incremental policy interventions to counter rising cases of sexual and gender-based violence. We also recognise Botswana’s effort to enhance child protection through child-friendly police stations. However, we remain concerned by Botswana’s continued use of the death penalty. We recommend that Botswana 1) impose an immediate moratorium on the death penalty while working towards further reforms of its justice system and gathering public opinion on its relevance and efficiency as a deterrent; 2) continue strengthening legislation to end violence against women and girls, including repealing the use of corporal punishment and strengthening penalties for sexual and gender violence-related offences; 3) take effective measures to address threats to democracy by strengthening media freedom, freedom of expression, and transparency and accountability.”
The press statement picked out the last part only: The United Kingdom called on Botswana to “take effective measures to address threats to democracy by strengthening media freedom, freedom of expression, and transparency and accountability
The full statement by the representative of Germany is as follows: “Germany welcomes the delegation of Botswana and commenced positive developments in the field of human rights, in particular, the decriminalisation of homosexual acts through court decisions in 2019 and 2021. However, Germany remains concerned about the persistence of capital punishment, consistently high numbers of gender-based violence and discrimination of ethnic minorities, refugees and migrants. We therefore recommend: 1) imposition of a moratorium on execution of the death penalty; 2) creating human rights institutions independent of existing governmental ministries reporting directly to the president to enhance safeguarding of human rights; 3) encouraging measures to ensure adequate representation of women in the political sphere and combating gender-based violence. We encourage Botswana to cooperate with NGOs in this field; 4) Guarantee the protection of politicians, journalists and dissidents, investigate any intimidation and threats against them and eliminate from legislation, all provisions that undermine freedom of the press.”
The summary picked out the last part only: Germany said Botswana should guarantee the protection of politicians, journalists and dissidents, investigate intimidation and threats against them and eliminate from legislation all provisions that undermine freedom of the press.”
This pattern was repeated with Switzerland, Italy, Spain, The Netherlands and Kenya. By ignoring all the other issues that representatives of the seven countries, the press statement from Khama’s PR machinery contrived a non-existent human rights crisis in Botswana – which was then fed into the echo chamber and lapped up by journalists across the globe (especially in South Africa) who assumed that it was actually an official report from the UN itself.
The latter prompted the Ministry of Justice to issue a rebuttal in which Chief Public Relations Officer, Oteng Mokowe, refuted the “inaccurate and misleading allegations made in the three publications with regard to the UPR.” While Mokowe’s statement singled out Sunday Standard as well as two South African publications, The Daily Maverick and The City Press, the list is actually much longer.