When Robert Mugabe and his henchmen were terrorising ordinary Zimbabweans and the opposition in a desperate quest to subvert the democratic process and further strengthen his stranglehold on power, it made perfect sense that there were growing outcries to isolate him. Any continuing attempts to antagonise Mugabe are nonsensical and counterproductive because President Mbeki has secured an agreement between both warring parties to find a lasting negotiated settlement. As a result there is renewed optimism in the streets of cities and villages in Zimbabwe. Ordinary Zimbabweans are hopeful that at last they will be extricated from this nightmare of tyranny that they have been subjected to for more than two decades.
As South Africa hosts a meeting of the SADC, President of Botswana Ian Khama has taken a decision to boycott this meeting in protest against the presence of Robert Mugabe there. Botswana has previously taken a principled position to not recognise the presidency of Robert Mugabe after the election of March 29 2008 and the subsequent farcical run-off. But when Morgan Tsvangirai and Robert Mugabe are close to finalising a deal that sees a transitional government established, with the aim of fresh democratic elections being held, the hostile attitude of Ian Khama appears to be inappropriate.
If indeed Botswana’s position on Zimbabwe was a principle and moral issue, then what is its foreign minister going to do at the SADC meeting? It has become predictable that Gordon Brown and George Bush would want to be seen to be standing for freedom, and they would sustain their saber-rattling in order to appear resolute and unflinching, in spite of the fact that such position does nothing to yield any favourable results in Zimbabwe.
It is therefore mind-boggling to see Ian Khama maintain an antagonistic stance against Robert Mugabe as though Botswana does not share a border with Zimbabwe. Common sense would suggest that Khama should support initiatives by SADC, of which Botswana is a member, to find a solution to the Zimbabwean problem and halt the influx of illegal Zimbabwean immigrants to his country.
It may perhaps be appropriate to examine what could be motivating Ian Khama to remain stubborn when the political landscape in Zimbabwe is shifting. Botswana has very close and historic ties with Britain and we can not be certain of the influence that 10 Downing Street still exerts in its former protectorate. Europe is Botswana’s largest trading partner; over 70% of export trade is directed to Europe. It would not be surprising if Botswana was acting to protect its own economic interests and not to offend the position taken by Britain. After all, it is bad manners to bite the hand that feeds you.
Where does the US fit in to all this? In 1980, Botswana entered into a training agreement with US military — a commitment that it has sustained over the years. To date the development of the Botswana military has been sustained primarily through contributions from the US.
Botswana had also recently expressed interest in hosting Africa Command (Africom), when the rest of the SADC countries were hostile to the idea of the US establishing military bases on their soil (the source of contention between Bin Laden and the US). Not only did Botswana express its interest, it went further and signed in 2003, under controversial circumstances, the so-called Status-of-Force Agreement (SOFA), a non-surrender pact defining the legal standing of US soldiers stationed abroad.
The US demanded that a country volunteering to host Africom sign this SOFA to bind itself not to surrender US soldiers to international tribunals. Again in this instance other SADC countries told Washington to bugger off and predictably the US withdrew military aid to these countries.
Maintaining the military support received from the US is important to Botswana and Ian Khama, as a former army commander. Botswana, with a population of a mere 1.8 million, does not have sufficient men in boots to defend itself in case of a military threat. It would appear that Khama does not want to be seen to be showing the Bush Administration a middle finger.
It may after all be a strategic rather than a principled position by Khama to boycott the SADC meeting, confident in the knowledge that a solution will definitely be found; while appeasing his masters and maintaining continued military support, as well as sustaining Botswana’s economic relationship with Europe.