By Godfrey Ganetsang
The diplomatic spat between Botswana and Zimbabwe continues to worsen as the two countries trade diplomatic blows in the international arena.
The former bosom buddies have now turned into the worst of enemies, after the recent arrest of three Botswana wildlife officers who had strayed into Zimbabwean territory while tracking lions that had killed some cattle at Lesoma.
After languishing in jail for weeks, the three officers finally had their day in court, and they were convicted of entering Zimbabwe illegally. They were charged US $100 and released. But the Zimbabwean authorities immediately launched an appeal against the ruling. Botswana would later release a statement slamming the decision to appeal.
“This means that there is a likelihood that the wildlife officers will once again stand for the appeal case in Zimbabwe. Currently government properties, including the vehicle that the officers were using, are still impounded by Zimbabwean police pending the appeal case,” read the statement.
After remaining mum on the issue, the Zimbabwean authorities would later release a statement slamming the previous utterances by Botswana’s Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation Phandu Skelemani.
After the arrest of the three wildlife officers, Skelemani revealed that Botswana’s efforts to engage the Zimbabwean authorities were met with deafening silence.
“The actions of the Zimbabwean authorities spits on the spirit of our previous working relationship with them. Our security personnel have in the past sent back armed Zimbabwean security personnel who had strayed into Botswana without charging them. Sometime back, Zimbabwean security personnel were arrested by Botswana police while in the possession of ivory, but were allowed to go back home to stand trial,” he said.
He also revealed that they had unsuccessfully tried to engage the Zimbabwean government through the Zimbabwean ambassador to Botswana.
Other efforts, he said, included numerous phone calls by Skelemani and Botswana Police Commissioner Thebeyame Tsimako to their Zimbabwean counterparts, which to date remain unreturned. Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe also reportedly snubbed Botswana’s Vice President Lt Gen Mompati Merafhe at a recent African Union summit in Addis Ababa.
At the height of the diplomatic row, Botswana recalled its defense and intelligence attachés from Zimbabwe, also demanding that Harare withdraw its defense and Central Intelligence Organization personnel from its Gaborone embassy.
But the Zimbabwean authorities last week hit back at Skelemani, saying that they had found it fitting to set the record straight “in light of the numerous misconceptions and allegations emanating from Gaborone”.
Zimbabwe rubbished Skelemani’s claims that his efforts to contact Zimbabwean Foreign Minister were met with silence.
“During that time, Minister Mumbengegwi was out of the country. Upon his return there was never any indication of any communication by Skelemani. Zimbabwe regrets that Botswana has decided to take such a strong action without seriously examining the facts on the ground,” said the Zimbabwean Foreign Ministry.
At the same time, the Zimbabwean government declared the three wildlife officials prohibited persons in Zimbabwe.
Never the ones to shy away from controversy, Botswana once again released a statement slamming the decision.
“We view this as an unfortunate event because our countries’ wildlife officers must genuinely cooperate in the development of the envisaged transfrontier conservation areas. The imposed movement restriction is not conducive to the spirit of transfrontier conservation,” said Botswana.
After coming into power in 1998, President Seretse Khama Ian Khama diverted from the initial quiet diplomacy stance taken by his predecessors, openly castigating Zimbabwe and refusing to recognize Robert Mugabe as president until Zimbabwe holds free and fair elections.
Zimbabwe would later accuse Botswana of colluding with the opposition Movement for Democratic Change leader and Zimbabwean Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai, even going to the extent of saying that Botswana has established camps at which it trains MDC operatives with the intention of overthrowing the Mugabe government.
The Southern African Development Community would later launch investigations into the allegations, the findings of which are still to be release. Zimbabwe once again took a shot at Botswana, accusing her of spreading regime change sentiments against Zimbabwe through the United States relay station Voice of America. Botswana Sunday Standard