To many Zimbabweans, Botswana President Ian Khama was seen as a bastion of democracy and was admired for being President Robert Mugabe’s staunchest critic in Africa.
It was refreshing for many people to hear a leader from Southern Africa speaking out against Mugabe and going as far as boycotting Southern African Development Community (SADC) meetings in 2008 and 2009 in South Africa and Mozambique, respectively, because Mugabe had been allowed to attend.
Citing intimidation and violence, Botswana was the only SADC country that said it did not consider Mugabe’s re-election in the bloody June 2008 elections as valid or legitimate. It said the elections were neither free nor fair, as purported by SADC and the African Union.
Botswana was the only SADC country that asked the regional body to confront Mugabe head-on by completely isolating him by closing their borders.
In his first state of the nation address after he became President in 2008, Khama took a dig at Mugabe when he said: “It should be unacceptable for ruling parties to seek to manipulate election outcomes to extend their stay in power, as this is bad for democracy on our continent.”
While SADC – a club of associates – tried to paint a picture hoodwinking people into thinking that all was well with Zimbabwe’s fragile unity government, Khama lashed out at Zanu PF for not fully honouring the spirit of the agreement and called for elections to determine who should form the government in Zimbabwe.
When Khama visits Zimbabwe, he gets a standing ovation and those in the opposition would have wanted to see the chairmanship of the Troika, the SADC organ on Politics, Defence and Security Cooperation, go to Botswana. They would have preferred him as the SADC facilitator because he had publicly stated that he was opposed to South Africa’s quiet diplomacy.
But now Zimbabweans are wondering why Botswana has suddenly gone quiet.
At first, Khama just toned down and this was then followed by stone silence. He had become the lone hard-hitting voice after the 2008 death of Mugabe’s other critic in the region, Zambian President Levy Mwanawasa.
Khama’s silence has raised a lot of speculation, with both Batswana and Zimbabwean analysts saying he was now chickening out because reality has finally dawned on him that he cannot change SADC, which never reins in one of its own.
Political analyst at the University of Botswana, Professor Kenneth Dipholo, told the Sunday Standard this week that when President Khama came into power, his criticism of Mugabe was more like an excitement and that he wanted to showcase his power without taking consideration of many other issues.
“He was blunt in the beginning but over time he became realistic and people are now wondering why Botswana is no longer talking. Over time, it may look like the country has softened and that they have chickened out,” he said, adding that: “The President is no longer making serious comments; he has left everything to the Minister of Foreign Affairs and all the minister says now is that Botswana still stands by its position that the solution has to be through elections.”
Professor Dipholo pointed out that: “They have now become part of Africa. The region is made up of friends who cover for each other ÔÇô no one wants to be seen to be offending the other, silent diplomacy is back.”
The Executive Chairperson of the African Reform Institute based in Harare, Trevor Maisiri, told this newspaper in a telephone interview that Khama, like the other new kid on the African block, Kenyan Prime Minister Raila Odinga, has gone quiet on greater African governance issues.
“Firstly, he was obviously drowned by the entirety of the African club of poor governors. Khama realized that African regional and continental bodies are not just loosely organized bodies, they are mechanistic in nature and operate in synchrony,” he said.
“These leaders are so united in doing all the wrong things that they stand by each other even in glaring instances where they are in breach of fundamental governance principles. Khama’s voice became overwhelmed in that tirade.”
The analysts said Botswana is now isolated in the region because of the confrontational approach it took and can no longer make much contribution in assisting Zimbabwe find a lasting solution.
“It is a problem with the President ÔÇô he wants to own a solution and personalize issues ÔÇô without realising that he was setting himself apart from everyone,” said Professor Dipholo. “He now realises that the path he took was unsustainable and he doesn’t want to tell people that he has failed. He is now saying Zimbabwe must find its own solution.”
Another analyst, Takura Zhangazha, the former director of the Zimbabwe-chapter of the Media Institute of Southern Africa, said Khama realised that he could not continue to be at variance with other regional leaders.
“He has also realized that his own standing with SADC leaders might be compromised if he continued insisting on a path that seemed less diplomatic than that adopted by his colleagues,” he said.
“To put it more straightforwardly, Khama is the classic example of a leader who has demonstrated that in international relations there are no permanent friends but permanent interests.”
The other reason for Khama’s stone silence, the analysts said, could be because of domestic pressure due to his leadership style, which is currently under scrutiny, locally and regionally.
They pointed out that Khama might now not have any moral high ground to stand on in criticizing Mugabe.
“It is his failure to expressly practice the democratic leadership that he called for in other nations,” said Maisiri. “He stood directly against President Mugabe of Zimbabwe and coined him a dictator.”
Maisiri added that, like a proverbial biblical insinuation, Khama had tried to remove a fleck of wood from other African leaders’ eyes, but forgot the log in his own.
“However, Khama has actually shown tendencies of dictatorship himself in his own nation and party. This has therefore scrapped off his credibility. His leadership style leaves a lot to be desired and does not represent the foundational principles of good governance that he has been calling for in other nations such as Zimbabwe,” he said.
Professor Dipholo said Botswana was now undergoing critical introspection due to its own problems, related to the constitution that gives the President too much power.
“We presented ourselves as the African big brother in terms of democracy and civil liberties. Botswana has its own problems of democracy,” he said.
“When you speak like that and say Mugabe this and Mugabe that, people tell you that charity begins at home ÔÇô solve your problems first. Khama has no moral ground to stand. He cannot criticise Mugabe.”
What cannot be disputed is that President Khama has disappeared from the frontline of champions of democracy.