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Zimbabwe crisis: Kicking the can down the road

By Bame Piet | Mmegi Online |

With his one-year tenure as SADC chair a few weeks away from ending, President Ian Khama leaves as fresh unrest stirs in Zimbabwe. Before Khama, Robert Mugabe was chair and after Khama, King Mswati III comes in. As Bame Piet observes, there have been few windows of opportunities to tackle the Zimbabwe crisis.

President Robert Mugabe seen here with Botswana President Ian Khama
President Robert Mugabe seen here with Botswana President Ian Khama

The last time the long-running Zimbabwe crisis came up as an agenda item before SADC was in 2013 when the troubled nation held a highly disputed election, which Mugabe “coasted” to victory in.

Voters’ roll irregularities, intimidation by state agents and claims of outright electoral fraud against Mugabe were made, but SADC and Africa in general declared the elections free, peaceful and fair. Only Botswana expressed its reservations, again swimming against the tide as it has frequently done in its relations with Zimbabwe.

At the time, SADC was chaired by Joyce Banda who was pre-occupied by political battles within her own country of Malawi, that saw her ousted in May 2014. Her successor, Peter Mutharika, took over the SADC chair, but again the Zimbabwean issue was swept under the rug as a “fait accompli” particularly as opposition parties in Zimbabwe splintered into factions.

Whatever chance Zimbabwe had of returning to the SADC agenda was squashed when Mugabe himself took over from Mutharika in August 2014. As chair, Mugabe could hardly call extraordinary meetings about himself or invite regional states to probe his own governance!

In August 2015, Khama took over the chair and whatever energies he wanted to exert on Zimbabwe, the country was enjoying a period of relative political and economic calm.

That calm, analysts say, was the result of the coalition government Zimbabwe had prior to the 2013 elections, which ushered in a multicurrency regime, several economic measures and regained a level of international support.

After 2013, Mugabe’s government again began rocking the boat, doggedly pursuing anti-investor policies, resuming a hardline stance against the West, purging white farmers amid rising incidents of grievous public corruption and maladministration.

In recent months, Mugabe’s government has steered the economy into a severe cash crisis, with public servants unpaid, while a ban on imports has pushed prices out of the ordinary Zimbabweans’ reach, while reducing quality and availability.

In recent weeks, the usually peaceable Zimbabweans have begun pushing back, demonstrating in the streets and staging stay-aways. Social media campaigns have also revealed numerous acts of police brutality against the demonstrators and SADC’s attention has once again been grabbed, as the simmering Zimbabwe crisis boils over.

However, Khama is left with a short time as SADC chair and analysts say his successor, King Mswati III of Swaziland – like Banda and Mutharika before him, lacks the willpower to do anything about Zimbabwe.

Mswati faces civil anger in Swaziland over his autocratic rule and lavish spending in a country battling with poverty, HIV/AIDS and unemployment. Challenging Mugabe and dragging Zimbabwe back onto the SADC agenda will be akin to a pot calling a meeting to discuss how black the kettle is.

Zimbabwe’s best chance for intervention was under Khama, but he did not have sufficient motivation to tackle the issue.

Swimming against the tide

When Khama took power in 2008, he walked straight into an office that had a history of wait-and-see diplomacy on regional issues. Zimbabwe was still a problem as it is today. Despite global recession, the country’s economy was good and Batswana were a happy nation.

He appointed Phandu Skelemani who supported his tough stance against Mugabe. Skelemani, with the assistance of the late vice president, Mompati Merafhe at the time, was very vocal against ZANU-PF especially following the 2008 presidential elections between Morgan Tsvangirai and Mugabe.

The tension in the run-up to the elections was so high and Khama opened borders for Zimbabweans to find asylum in the country while the Botswana government continued with its condemnation of the Mugabe regime. Hundreds of thousands other Zimbabweans fled to South Africa where they still reside, despite constant threats from the SA inhabitants who accuse them of taking their jobs and business opportunities.

At the time, Khama had no experience in the Presidency, was full of ambitions, and led a united party in the Botswana Democratic Party (BDP). The environment was not only healthy and inspiring for him to speak out his mind about issues at home or abroad, it was also exciting. He had just assumed power a few months earlier; there was too much hope or faith in him and was viewed as a ‘Mr Fix-It’. At home he was viewed as a cleaning broom for corruption, whilst abroad he was associated with his late father – Sir Seretse Khama’s legacy.

Indeed Khama’s voice created waves in Zimbabwe and Tsvangirai boycotted the presidential run off citing state-sponsored violence killings and displacement of his supporters.

At some point Tsvangirai fled to Botswana for fear of his own life. Mugabe’s hollow victory was condemned internationally and the European Union imposed targeted sanctions against some members of his regime.

A coalition Government of National Unity was subsequently established in Zimbabwe in 2009 after months of negotiations and SADC presided over the signing and implementation of the agreement.

Leadership tested

Khama’s leadership was tested back home when his party went for an elective congress in Kanye where his faction lost brutally to the late Gomolemo Motswaledi’s faction in 2009. The defeat was a motion of no confidence by the party on its president and the effects lasted for years to come.

He was quick to suspend his rival Motswaledi from the party, a matter that ended in the High Court.

The general election of the same year produced a BDP-government with a reduced margin. It was not long before Khama presided over the party’s first ever split in 2010 that created panic, uncertainty and almost brought the country to a crisis after four MPs defected from the party, and others followed later.

At the time the GNU in Zimbabwe was moving inch by inch and the results were seen everywhere as stores began to put stock back on the shelves, and more money circulated in the economy.

Khama’s leadership was further tested in April 2011 when civil servants went on a two-month strike demanding a 16 percent salary increment.

Ordinary Zimbabweans watched from across the fence as Botswana, which they had admired for many years, once again sat on the verge of a political crisis.

Spats and peace

Zimbabwe and Botswana have had uneasy diplomatic relations in recent history.

Besides the spat over elections in 2008, there was the arrest of three wildlife officers who accidentally crossed into Zimbabwe in Kasane with weapons of war, which triggered a diplomatic incident. Instead of allowing the courts to resolve the issue, the Botswana government threatened to withdraw diplomatic relations with Zimbabwe should the detention of the officers be prolonged.

Again, there was another spat and exchange of accusations between the two governments when Zimbabwe accused Botswana of training opposition MDC soldiers.

Zimbabwe also accused Botswana of allowing the Voice of America to broadcast incendiary messages to Zimbabweans from its territory. For years, the Herald newspaper of Zimbabwe, the government’s official mouthpiece, published a host of articles meant to ridicule the Botswana government.

However, it has not always been prickly between the two governments, as in the middle of 2013, the BDP announced that it was working hand-in-hand with Mugabe’s ZANU-PF and learning ideas on good governance.

The relationship between Khama and Mugabe has been even more complicated and to the public eye, it has been one marked by mutual suspicion and even hostility.

The fact that Mugabe and Khama, from August 2014, were SADC chair and deputy chair respectively, must have been an uncomfortable arrangement, particularly in SADC’s Summit Troika, the regional group’s three-man top decision making body.

In April 2015, months after they took up their respective SADC positions, it was widely reported that the two leaders had an exchange at the SADC heads of State Summit in Victoria Falls in early 2015.

Khama was reported to have left the meeting in anger after blasting Mugabe for causing a regional refugee crisis and thus contributing to xenophobia.

Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation minister, Pelonomi Venson-Moitoi, later quashed the allegations.

In May 2015, the Mugabe/Khama dynamic was again in the spotlight when the latter, as SADC chair, visited the secretariat in Gaborone and was not met at the airport by Khama or given the usual fanfare, including a red carpet. Mugabe told journalists that he expected no less as protocol in SADC did not provide for a “bells and whistles” treatment when visiting as the SADC chair.

End of tenure

Khama has been at the helm of Botswana for eight years now and has seen and heard a lot on what is going on around the world. He is a different man from the one who walked to the Office of the President top room nine years ago.

He has had all sorts of problems to address at home, among them an ailing economy, high youth unemployment and most importantly a succession plan that is not going his way.

Khama is most likely exhausted and probably looking forward to his last day in the SADC office and at OP as he seemingly harbours no ambitions of engaging further in politics.

Zimbabweans know that they are on their own. Mswati has his own priorities, including filling prisons with those who dare challenge his policies and powers. The probability of Mswati finding a solution to Zimbabwe’s political woes is equivalent to winning a lottery three times in a row.

As the outgoing chair, Khama will remain in the SADC Summit troika and Mugabe, who has been in the Troika since 2013, will go back to being an ordinary head of state. Mugabe can never become SADC chair again, as the rotational position will only return to Zimbabwe after 14 years, by which time he will be 106 years of age.

The past nine years have not only exhausted Khama, they have also transformed him and changed the way he looks at the world. He is now focused on his legacy as he prepares to step down in 20 months’ time.

It is a painful truth; Zimbabweans should not expect Khama to rescue them like he did eight years ago for the simple reason that he is a ‘born again’ with other priorities.