Saturday, July 4, 2020

Why a regional security summit can’t be held via Skype

If there was a credible reason for President Mokgweetsi Masisi to attend the inauguration of his Namibian counterpart, one would have been long tendered.

Following his visit to Windhoek ahead of an imminent national lockdown and at a time that he was preaching social distancing, Masisi was criticised by many. It would later emerge that he had ignored advice to not attend the event that was also attended by President Emmerson Mnangagwa of Zimbabwe. The official explanation was that Masisi travelled to Namibia to discuss the COVID-19 pandemic with leaders of neighbouring states. There was no explanation of why such summit didn’t feature the leader of a country (South Africa) which shares the longest border with Botswana – which also happens to be its largest trading partner. In short, there is no credible reason why Masisi had to attend Hage Geingob’s inauguration ceremony.

However, there is every credible reason why he had to travel to Harare last Tuesday in the middle of a national lockdown in which extreme social distancing was being observed across the region. When the government announced this trip, the Facebook peanut gallery, which had a lot of influence during the just-ended lockdown, was up in emojis. Most of the commentary was to the effect that Masisi was making another wasteful international trip when he could have communicated with Presidents Mnangagwa, Filipe Nyusi of Mozambique and Edgar Lungu of Zambia via tele-conferencing technology. One too many people were asking, “Why can’t they just Skype?” The exact same comment was made when President Cyril Ramaphosa’s Special Envoy for Lesotho, Jeff Radebe, flew into Gaborone at the height of the national lockdown in both Botswana and South Africa. The South African minister was in Botswana to brief Masisi about political developments in Lesotho.

The people making these comments would certainly know an awful lot about Skype and it seems, precious little about the broader geo-political context into which Botswana’s economic fortunes are baked in.

Africa’s estimated 120 billion tonnes of coal resources, which are largely unexplored, are concentrated in the SADC region and a study by the Botswana Training Authority (renamed the Botswana Qualifications Authority) has identified occupational areas for future skills that will be required by coal energy projects. Says the BOTA report: “The skills sets for all projects include artisan (coal) miners, basic construction skills, heavy plant and general power plant skills, and electrician skills.” Alongside, Mozambique and Zimbabwe, Botswana is part of the planned 1500-kilometre, US$600 million Ponto Techobanine railway project. The Zambesia Corridor, as this project is called, would start in Botswana, run through Zimbabwe and terminate at Techobanine, a port close to the north of the capital, Maputo. Techobanine would jointly be developed into a 12 million tonnes-per-year port with a coal terminal by participating governments. The development would entail the refurbishment and upgrading of existing lines in the three countries in order that it can take heavier loads.

It is yet whether the BCL copper mine in Selebi Phikwe, which was closed under mysterious circumstances during the presidency of Ian Khama, will ever be re-opened. If it is, the mine will dust off its Polaris 2 Strategy, which seeks to utilize BCL’s economies of scale by treating copper from all mines within a 1500-kilometre radius. This includes mines in Zimbabwe, Zambia, South Africa and Mozambique. At the time that the mine was shut down, discussions to establish partnerships between BCL and smaller copper mines in those countries were at an advanced stage and this initiative was a building block towards establishing an Iron Production Circuit which would see BCL diversifying from copper-nickel to other base metals.

The heartland of South Africa’s manufacturing industry in the Gauteng Province gets most of its water in Lesotho and is common knowledge, Botswana gets most of its goods (food included) from South Africa. Until this past week, Lesotho was experiencing another bout of its ritualistic political pornography as its prime minister refused to step down for fear of what fate awaits him as the murder case he faces gets underway. Radebe was in Botswana to brief Masisi on Lesotho’s political situation.

It so happens that at this point in time, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria has somehow reached SADC. In Mozambique, which has a significant Muslim population owing to a history of colonization by Arabs, ISIS has claimed a number of attacks. On the basis of propaganda that some westerners (including Donald Trump) have spouted, we are compelled to clarify the point that there is no connection between Islam and terrorism; what has happened is that ISIS is finding a foothold among the economically marginalised and there are many in a country which, despite its natural gas reserves, is still one of the poorest in the world. The presence of ISIS in Mozambique has implications for the multi-billion pula investments that Botswana is planning for Mozambique and the security meeting that Masisi attended in Harare discussed the Mozambican security situation. A communique issued after the summit commits and urges SADC member states to support the government of Mozambique in fighting against the terrorists and armed groups in some districts of Cabo Delgado.

In the case of Lesotho, if the mountain kingdom caught fire (as it has before), one real possibility was that the water supply to the Gauteng Province would have been disrupted and with it, the supply chain that puts goods (including food) on the shelves of Botswana’s supermarkets.

While a security summit is publicly announced, its deliberations happen behind tightly closed doors and are highly confidential. Unofficially, all the countries with which SADC states officially have “excellent” relations and which have embassies in SADC capitals, also want excellent intelligence about what a security summit discusses. Those countries are doubtless working behind the scenes to insert themselves into the political situations in both Mozambique and Lesotho.

A security professional says that tele-conferencing can only occur if the medium of communications is secure – meaning it is free of intercepts and eavesdropping. But who is to give such assurance? There is a real possibility of the more technologically advanced that SADC countries have excellent relations with – or ISIS itself, intercepting communications between the leaders and using what they gleaned to their advantage.

The Harare meeting was an emergency that couldn’t be postponed and there was nothing wrong with Masisi attending it. Ramaphosa could also not have risked skyping Masisi about the Lesotho turmoil.

With its one-liners and salty language, social media works more efficiently than traditional media. Unlike the latter, it has neither the time nor inclination to gather and synthesise facts. Resultantly, a surprisingly large number of people join the chant about a jet-setter president who is never at home, even during a global public health emergency. The government’s communication arms don’t help the situation because they merely issue press releases about Masisi’s next international trip without adequate explanation. In the particular case of a trip being undertaken in the middle of a global public health emergency, it would have been helpful to provide the broader geo-political context. Ultimately, the furore over the Harare trip was nothing more than mere mob sloganeering frantically searching for a scandal.

It would help to appreciate the fact that a president is a country’s chief diplomat and having been in office for only three years, Masisi is trying to clear a 10-year backlog of diplomatic engagement at presidential level.

On another level, the casualness and ignorance lavished on issues of national importance, which is becoming more and more common nowadays, and the zeal with which they are fed into the online and offline echo chambers, are a direct result of a failed education investment and system. At least twice a year, fly-by-night schools churn out thousands of stir-fried graduates they have only stir-fried to justify the million-pula invoices they send the government throughout the year. Never having been adequately trained in the rigours of logical thought, having misused an opportunity to drink deep from the well of knowledge but feeling the need to be relevant, one of the major purposes these graduates serve in public life is to swell the ranks of a national peanut gallery which ensures that whatever is on its mind comes out of the mouth with virtually no delay.

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Sunday Standard June 28 – 4 July

Digital copy of Sunday Standard issue of June 28 - 4 July, 2020.