Wednesday, March 29, 2023

The riddle of Khama’s empty chair at the Sadc summit

A story gleaned from apocrypha finds a younger Ian Khama kicking the dust and storming out of the Botswana Defence Force (BDF) pitch almost in tears after his side lost a friendly football game against fellow soldiers. Khama private life is full of such competitive and sore loser stories.

So when the incoming Sadc deputy Chairman failed to show up for President Robert Mugabe’s acceptance speech as Sadc Chairman last week, Khama watchers simply joined the dots and an all too familiar outline emerged: The President could not muster the courage to grin and bear it through Mugabe’s speeches. Instead he was sulking in his room at Elephants Hills Hotel. As officials strained to explain the empty deputy Chairman’s seat during the Chairman’s opening and closing remarks, journalists were trying to decode Khama’s body language while analysts were plotting how far down the line Sadc is in resolving the running rivalry between the two leaders. “Mugabe, Ian Khama tiff plays out at Sadc Summit” screamed a Bulawayo24 headline. The media version was that Khama had snubbed Mugabe’s official opening and closing remarks.

Although reasons for Khama’s absence at the two sessions were not disclosed to the public, NewsDay reported that that the Botswana leader was avoiding being publicly humiliated by Mugabe. The two leaders, who incidentally were elected Sadc chair and deputy respectively, have had an uneasy relationship. The list of arguments is long, reaching fever pitch over claims that Botswana was hosting opposition MDC military bases, allegations that Khama was financing MDC President MorganTsvangirai and charges that Mugabe had rigged elections with Khama dismissing the Zimbabwean leader as “illegitimately elected” while Mugabe hit back labeling Khama a political novice and an agent of the West. During the official opening, Khama was represented by Trade and Industry minister Dorcus Makgato-Malesu while Finance minister Kenneth Matambo attended Mugabe’s closing speech. Khama jetted into Victoria Falls resort town on Sunday morning and was at the Elephants Hills Hotel, the venue of the summit; at around 11 am when Mugabe was about to officially open the summit. Khama however went straight to his hotel room and only surfaced for a Head of States group photo session after the official opening of the summit. He then attended the Heads of State meeting that ended on Monday afternoon and immediately left before Mugabe officially closed the summit.

Foreign Affairs secretary Ambassador Joey Bimha, however played down the alleged tiff saying there was nothing unusual about what Khama did as he always came late at all Sadc summits.”He came late and he attended the most important session of the summit. He always does that at summits,” Bimha said. As if to confirm the bad blood between the two leaders, the Botswana Embassy in Harare reportedly snubbed government-owned CMED chauffer driven vehicles for Khama’s delegation and instead hired escort vehicles from a private safari operator in Victoria Falls. Bimha again defended the decision, saying the Botswana delegation was bigger and the private vehicles were for use by other additional delegates.”All Heads of State are provided with security requirements for their officials,” Bimba said. But a source however told the Zimbabwean media that “President Khama also expressed dismay that the regional bloc would now be led by Zimbabwe, [a country] with a soiled human rights record.” Mugabe’s ascent to the SADC chairmanship is seen as a slap on the face for Khama who has fought long and hard to convince the world that the Zimbabwean President had rigged the elections.

The veteran leader took over the chairmanship of SADC last Sunday at the Victoria Falls resort where the regional group held a two day summit. He is also in line to take over leadership of the African Union from next year. “This is an endorsement of the political change that has taken place in Zimbabwe,” Aditi Lalbahadur, a researcher at the South African Institute for International Affairs, told Bloomberg News. African leaders, he added, were signaling they recognize Mugabe’s “unequivocal winning of the election, contested as it was.” The opposition, led by former prime minister and MDC-T leader Morgan Tsvangirai backed by Khama has refused to accept Mugabe’s landslide victory in last year’s elections, claiming the Zanu PF leader cheated. The elections were endorsed by African observers but the United States and the European Union expressed reservations although the latter has since moved to lift sanctions and normalise relations with Mugabe, further flummoxing the country’s splintering opposition. For the first time in seven years, Zimbabwe was not on the SADC summit agenda ÔÇô and it may remain that way for the next year. It is believed that with Mugabe now chairing the 15-member regional body, Zimbabwean opposition parties will find it difficult to push SADC for an audience to complain about Mugabe as they have done in the past.

In the past decade the opposition has found a willing audience at the SADC, which called extraordinary summits on Zimbabwe at their behest and forced Mugabe into a unity government. Now Mugabe’s new SADC role may force the country’s fragmented and weak opposition parties to work together or look for new strategies to draw attention to their cause. Alex Magaisa, a political commentator and former adviser to Morgan Tsvangirai, was quoted in the Zimbabwean media saying the next 12 months under Mugabe at the SADC would be a wasted period for the opposition. “It is year zero for the opposition. It’s a year of no consequence; a wasted year in which SADC is going through the motions. It’s a year of appeasement of Mugabe and there will be no progress.” Magaisa said the opposition would have to park their regional mobilisation of leaders until next year when Botswana President Ian Khama takes over as SADC head. Zimbabwe’s opposition has had some, though limited, success in lobbying SADC. The country’s political and economic crisis has hogged the spotlight at the bloc’s summits.

SADC’s mediation efforts led by former South African president Thabo Mbeki in 2008 resulted in a government of national unity ÔÇô a compromise after a contested election. But Tsvangirai’s MDC is reported to be downplaying the Mugabe effect. Nelson Chamisa, the organising secretary of the MDC is quoted saying nothing had changed as far as the party was concerned with Mugabe’s rise to lead the regional bloc. “Mugabe is not Sadc, the regional body is bigger than him. He may be the chairperson, but he is not the business of Sadc and we will continue to engage Sadc as we have always done before,” Chamisa told the Mail & Guardian. But a splinter of the MDC, MDC Renewal Team, says the rise of Mugabe in the region will not force it to talks with the Tsvangirai group. “We are already in conversation with other opposition players, but are not prepared to have anything to do with Tsvangirai,” said Elton Mangoma, a senior official in the MDC Renewal Team. Nhlanhla Dube, a spokesperson of another MDC splinter led by Welshman Ncube, said by making Mugabe its chairperson, it was evident that Sadc is comfortable with Mugabe and that Zimbabwe has been removed from the agenda.

“Ultimately only we can save ourselves. The MDC is and has always been ready to work with other democratic forces, including political parties,” Dube said. Simba Makoni, leader of the Mavambo/Kusile/Dawn and a former SADC executive secretary for a decade, told Mail&Guardian that it’s the MDC that will suffer most as a result of Mugabe’s SADC ascension because other opposition political players had never graced the summits or had audience with regional leaders. “SADC remains important for regional development, solidarity and dialogue, but SADC was never the correct platform for the grievances that confront the people of Zimbabwe, such as unemployment and poverty.”


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