Khama's megaphone diplomacy

Not so long ago, Botswana favoured what is known in the diplomatic circles as ‘silent diplomacy’ over ‘megaphone diplomacy’. Although the policy is unwritten the government believed that it was better to carefully engage countries discreetly and constructively without causing unnecessary noise and injuring the egos of other countries.

October 4th, 2013

Not so long ago, Botswana favoured what is known in the diplomatic circles as ‘silent diplomacy’ over ‘megaphone diplomacy’. Although the policy is unwritten the government believed that it was better to carefully engage countries discreetly and constructively without causing unnecessary noise and injuring the egos of other countries.

Under Sir Seretse Khama, Sir Ketumile Masire and much later Festus Mogae, Botswana shied away from publicly condemning other heads of state or governments. Even when it was clear that some governments were oppressing and killing their own people, Botswana felt that it wasn’t in its interest to openly criticise the brutal governments.

While the apartheid regime in South Africa was ruthlessly oppressing the black majority in the 1970s and the 1980s, Botswana preferred not to publicly rebuke the regime in Pretoria to the chagrin of those fighting to bring apartheid to an end – even though the government in Gaborone was, of course, totally against white minority rule in South Africa. Instead, the government of Botswana chose to ‘silently’ engage the South African regime.

Meanwhile, the government’s support for South Africa’s liberation struggle wasn’t a public affair either. The Botswanan authorities opted instead to express its support behind closed doors, secretly assisting the liberation struggle with funds and other logistics – no doubt fearful of acting publicly in case it provoked its militarily much-more powerful neighbour.

And when Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe was accused of human rights abuses and running the economy of his country into the ground in the early 2000s, former president Festus Mogae flatly refused to publicly chastise his fellow leader. Mogae insisted that Botswana and the rest of the SADC countries were privately engaging Mugabe – and that ‘silent diplomacy’ was the best way to deal with the issue.

Was this the right move? Opinion was divided. Opponents of silent diplomacy felt that in failing to take other governments to task, the authorities in Botswana were acting in a cowardly fashion. Mogae, in particular, was criticised for his poor handling of the crisis in Zimbabwe, which saw thousands of illegal immigrants flooding across the border, with the opposition and the media in Botswana calling him a coward for not confronting Mugabe.

Mogae’s response has always been that there was no need to rock the boat, even if the boat was clearly sinking.

The death of silent diplomacy

When Mogae retired in 2008, President Ian Khama ditched the policy of silent diplomacy and adopted megaphone diplomacy. A retired army general, Khama introduced a far more combative approach to issues of foreign relations and abandoned Mogae’s see-no-evil, hear- no-evil, speak-no-evil approach. With his vocal foreign minister, Phandu Skelemani, acting as his enforcer, Khama embraced Botswana’s new foreign tactics with gusto.

Following the much-contested 2008 Zimbabwean presidential elections, Botswana denounced Mugabe as an illegitimate leader – while other SADC countries failed to take the aging leader to task. Before the SADC initiated negotiations to resolve the Zimbabwean impasse began, Botswana – through Skelemani – refused to take part in a meeting that was to include Mugabe. At one point, Botswana even called for SADC countries to overthrow Mugabe.

And the policy continues to this day despite its climb-down over the 2013 elections in Zimbabwe.

Initially, Botswana declared that the presidential and parliamentary polls in Zimbabwe did not measure up to the SADC election guidelines. Botswana was part of the SADC election observer mission, which declared the polls free and credible in its interim report. However, Botswana issued a separate statement denouncing the elections and called for an audit of the entire electoral process.

But later Botswana was forced – embarrassingly – to toe the SADC party line after it failed to convince other countries at the SADC summit in Malawi that the Zimbabwean elections were not free and fair. With no backing from its other nations, Botswana joined the rest of the SADC countries in accepting the outcome of the elections.

It was a serious setback for Botswana’s megaphone diplomacy and illustrated that its bark is much worse than its bite – unsurprisingly given its small population and lack of international clout. But the reality is that SADC works on consensus and no country can really go it alone, although at least Botswana had the guts to make its concerns about the clearly flawed electoral process in Zimbabwe public.

And it seems unlikely that Botswana will put down its megaphone just yet. After all, Botswana has not just spoken out on Zimbabwe. It also issued statements in 2011 during the Arab Spring calling for the ‘dictators’ such as Mummar Gaddaffi, Hosni Mubarak, and Bashir Al-Assad to step down. Indeed, just a few weeks ago, when the US was contemplating military action in Syria, Botswana called for military intervention to topple Assad.

But this raises another question. Why does Botswana speak out about some countries and not others? For example, why does it resort to the megaphone in relation to Zimbabwe and Syria but never in relation to the absolutist monarchy in Swaziland? President Khama has publicly condemned autocratic leaders in a number of countries but he flatly refuses to condemn Swaziland’s King Mswati, who rules a country which boasts little – if any – respect for democracy, human rights and the rule of law.

The question is why? Botswana maintains that the situation in Swaziland is not bad as in Zimbabwe, Libya, Syria and other war torn countries. But this is false. The Swazi people live under an oppressive and ruthless regime – and most of them live in acute poverty with little access to basic services. In an ideal world, Botswana would publicly condemn Swaziland too. But this is the real world – and for whatever reasons, the government has decided to publicly criticise Zimbabwe but not Swaziland.

And that is at least better than not criticising any other country at all.

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