Khama’s sworn enemy Masisi dismantling legacy

Saturday June 29 2019

 Mokgweetsi Eric Keabetswe Masisi

Botswana's Predident Mokgweetsi Eric Keabetswe Masisi during an interview with 'The EastAfrican'. PHOTO | PETER DUBE | NMG 

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Former Botswana president Ian Khama always cut a lone figure on the African diplomatic stage, but his successor, Mokgweetsi Masisi, has proved the complete opposite.

Under Mr Khama, Botswana occasionally distanced itself from its regional and continental allies, and the England-born leader was seen to be closer to the West than his fellow African leaders.

He differed with Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe, Kenya’s Uhuru Kenyatta and even China.

But not so President Masisi, now Khama’s sworn enemy, who seems to be undoing some of his predecessor’s signature policies.

In an interview with The EastAfrican, the Botswana leader said there are positive sides to the changes he is making.

“It’s good to have change, as long as it is well-ordered,” he said.


In 2014 after being elected deputy chairman of the Southern African Development Community, Mr Khama skipped the ceremony when then Zimbabwe president Robert Mugabe took over the chairmanship.

He accused Mr Mugabe of rigging elections. Mr Mugabe hit back and labelled Mr Khama a political novice and an agent of the West.

Now Mr Masisi is seeking better relations with Zimbabwe and has no issue with President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s election in July 2018, which was shrouded in controversy.

“I’m going to Victoria Falls for the Wildlife Summit at the invitation of President Mnangagwa,” he told The EastAfrican last week.

“When the harmonised elections were held in Zimbabwe, we were part of the Southern African Development Community team of observers and our own team liaised with the African Union team and other observers, and the findings were that the elections were held in a manner that sufficiently legitimised the government of Zimbabwe. We recognised and applauded that.”

In 2013, Botswana tried to block Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta, from visiting the country while on trial at the International Criminal Court.

“We made it clear that he was not welcome in Botswana if he refused to go (to The Hague) because it would mean that they do not know the rule of law,” said former foreign affairs minister, Phandu Skelemani.

“You can’t establish a court and refuse to go when it calls you. If he refuses, he won’t set foot here,” the Botswana leader said at the time.

Gaborone was to allow the Kenyan leader to visit in June 2016, after the case was dismissed. Kenya and Botswana relations have since grown warmer.

Botswana is among five Southern African nations that are demanding the right to sell ivory. Calls for a lifting of the ban on the ivory trade were renewed at the just-ended Wildlife Economy Summit in Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe.

Ivory sales currently require approval from the international community through the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Fauna and Flora.

“We cannot continue to be spectators while others debate and take decisions about our elephants,” President Masisi said.

President Mnangagwa also called the embargo unfair.

“We are gravely concerned, however, by the one-size-fits-all approach. Banning of trade is creeping into the Cites decision-making processes. We call upon the institution to resist the temptation to be a policing institution but instead to be a developmental organisation to promote conservation and sustainable utilisation of all wildlife resources,” he said.

In April, Mr Khama flew to India to meet Tibetan leader, Dalai Lama, against the wishes of his successor.

China stands accused of religious and political suppression of Tibet. The Dalai Lama was scheduled to visit Botswana in 2017, when Mr Khama was in office.

China reacted by threatening to recall its ambassador to Botswana, while Mr Khama remained defiant and said the southern African country was not “a China colony.”

The Dalai Lama eventually cancelled his trip, citing exhaustion, which prevented the diplomatic tiff from escalating.

The new Botswana administration feared the April trip was likely to rub China, a key economic ally, the wrong way.

In a clear sign that Botswana was now willing to repair relations with the East Asian country, the Botswana Permanent Secretary to the President, Carter Morupisi, told Mr Khama not to travel as the visit could create a diplomatic row with China.

“We expect him to understand as a former head of state, the position of Botswana on international matters. It is important as citizens of this country to appreciate and respect the sovereignty and the rights of Botswana when it comes to international relations,” Mr Morupisi said at the time.

“It is important to uphold and respect conventions and treaties that Botswana is party to. We hope that for the image of the country at international level, Khama does not undertake the trip.”

President Masisi says he did not understand what the anxiety was about China.

“We, in Botswana, are very comfortable (with China) because we determine who we relate with and how we relate,” President Masisi said.

President Masisi has made it clear he intends to build relations across the globe. He attended his first AU Heads of State Summit two months after assuming office. In his first seven years in office, Mr Khama never attended a UN General Assembly or AU summit.


What is Botswana’s current foreign policy as it seems to have changed since you took over?

We guard our values, our peace and prosperity, which we created and earned. We guard our future.

Botswana belongs to Batswana, but it is not to suggest there is disregard or disdain for non-Batswanas.

If anything, the making of Botswana is almost as much a function of the input of non-Batswana as it is of the Batswana. We are acutely aware of that.

Our being Batswana is inextricably connected to the rest of the world. The relations we nurture and grow with other nations are guided by commonly held values and principles. A commitment to peaceful resolution of conflicts is welcome to help us journey through the world.

We also want to position ourselves agilely in our foreign policy manoeuvres for the simple reason that we need the world.

We respect the ideals of multilateralism and the declaration of the United Nations charter to maintain world peace and order.

Botswana has always been isolated in the region. Will you change this outlook?

Realising that we are a small country has compelled us to think outside the box in terms of growing our economy, income levels and jobs at the same time. A lot of that lies beyond the shores of Botswana.

So we have to add value to the services and goods we produce to become more competitive to the rest of the world that has the resources to pay for them and return a profit, and therefore raise income levels.

We are also surrounded by friendly countries and it is important that we maintain those relations.

There has been pressure from the West over the lifting of the hunting ban...

I will offer any nation 20-40 elephants on condition that they keep them under the same conditions they would want us to keep them in Botswana. After that we can start talking.

When people in London or Copenhagen commute to work they would never expect to encounter an elephant. If they did, you know who will be the loser?

There are allegations that a powerful South African is attempting to influence the succession politics in Botswana and straining relations between the two countries?

We have a unique situation where more Batswana are in South Africa than in Botswana. I do not know of any Motswana who cannot associate with South Africa, even by digging into their lineage.

I hardly know anyone in the North West, Gauteng and Limpopo who would not encounter the same situation.

Our relations with South Africa are more than rock solid. The allegations, which I’ve read, I am not in a position to determine whether they are true because I’m not well informed on the truthfulness or lack thereof. But those who may be involved know the truth.