Retired diplomat Molosiwa Selepeng has added to his voice growing criticism of President Ian Khama's refusal to attend international forums of Heads of State and Government, which defeats the country's efforts to entrench itself on the global arena. Presenting a Bot50 lecture at University of Botswana (UB) on the topic "Botswana as a Global Player in International Relations and Diplomacy" on Thursday, Selepeng said – without naming Khama – that it is critical for a head of state to meet his counterparts at high level fora to cut deals away from the glare of the public. Khama's continued absence at the AU Summit, UN assembly, TICAD and other high profile international meetings of Heads of State has been blamed for Botswana's diminishing fortunes on the international arena. Lately, such absence has been blamed for the loss by candidates from Botswana to win strategic positions at the African Union Commission, the Commonwealth and others.
"The operations of these international fora are driven by the highest diplomats of participating states, meaning the Heads of State and Government. Countries represented at lower levels are disadvantaged, as most decisions are made in informal bilateral meetings and in the corridors. The status and prestige of Heads of State and Government carry a lot of weight in securing goodwill, personal rapport and material support from donor countries. Botswana must re-calibrate her international relations and diplomacy, in the light of changing circumstances in the world economy," said Selepeng, citing the example of the 2015 Asia-Africa Conference of Heads of States in Indonesia where he – as a representative of Botswana – was denied access to high-level meetings. Selepeng said the good reputation earned by past generations for Botswana in the past 50 years, was crafted in the context of the international relations and diplomacy of the time. "But times have changed since then. Botswana has to change and adapt accordingly, in order to move with the times and circumstances of our time," he said.
To build on past successes and to add value to the legacy of good governance and socio-economic development achieved by our forebearers, Selepeng called for more engagement, more relations and more diplomacy with eastern countries, such as China, India, Japan, Indonesia and Korea. These are countries with rising economies and technologies, as well as the willingness to become friends and partners of African development. He said the United States and Western countries were no longer the largest donor countries, and their economies have been suffering of late, but those of Eastern countries particularly China, have been expanding in scope and scale. China is today the second biggest economy and is also growing in sophistication. The counterparts of the Silicon Valley in California are now well established in China and India. Yesterday, the legacy of colonialism had dictated that Botswana should look west for engaging in international relations and diplomacy. "Today, however, the ebb and flow of events call for more engagement with such Eastern countries like, China, India, Japan, Indonesia and Korea.
China and Japan have already pledged billions of dollars to assist African countries. The Chinese have set up what they call the Forum for China-Africa Cooperation and, the Japanese have the Tokyo International Conference for African Development. There is a third forum called the Asia-Africa Summit Conference, which reflects the South-South Cooperation, funded mostly by China," said Selepeng. As Botswana seeks to diversify her economy, it is equally important to diversify her international relations and diplomacy. There has been a paradigm shift in international relations, he said, reiterating that countries such as China, India, Indonesia and Korea represent the rising stars in terms of economic growth and technological sophistication. Therefore, Botswana should embrace them as friends and partners in development. It is noteworthy that these countries still offer Botswana students full scholarships and are willing to invest in the various sectors from software to brick and mortar projects.
China and India came to our help when we nationalised and rehabilitated what was then Rhodesia Railways, after 1974. China, India and Indonesia have the largest population in the world and therefore, have the greatest potential to buy Botswana coal, diamond and beef. It is in our national interest, therefore, to build more bridges with these countries, to promote trade and investment. Acknowledging that the road to the 50th Anniversary has not been adorned with beds of roses, Selepeng quipped that Botswana was not given much of a chance to survive at independence in 1966. He said Botswana took advantage of her cultural ethos of peace, mutual tolerance and respect, to shape and promote regional economic and political cooperation, peace and security, climate and the environment. On the role Botswana played in shaping and promoting political and economic cooperation, peace and security, Selepeng said the country adopted soft power diplomacy to achieve that.
Selepeng on Botswana
In 1969, Botswana moved quickly to accede to the 1951 Geneva Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and, later, to its 1967 Protocol. This was a brave and gigantic step, considering the geo-politics of Botswana at the time. The country was literally in the belly of a whale, surrounded by apartheid South Africa, which also administered the UN-mandated territory of Namibia and the minority-ruled Rhodesia. Botswana had made it very clear that she would not entertain the idea of diplomatic relations with South Africa, although pragmatic enough to maintain the economic relations she had inherited. These were in the form of membership of the Customs Union of 1910, the use of South African ports and of Rhodesia Railways. Much to the delight and admiration of the UN, OAU, Non-Aligned Movement and the Commonwealth, which Botswana had already joined, refugees from neighbouring countries of Angola, Namibia, Rhodesia and South Africa began to pour in, reaching 4000 by 1969. The number had jumped to 25 000 in 1975, in a country without infrastructure, and whose recurrent budget of R3 Million, had been subsidized, to the extent of 50% by the British, until 1972.
The international community felt so indebted to Botswana that President Sir Seretse Khama was awarded the Nansen Medal in 1978, in recognition of Botswana's policy towards refugees. The act of granting succour and refuge to people fleeing oppression and injustice, epitomised political cooperation and solidarity with the people of Southern Africa. Botswana's role in shaping and promoting democracy in Southern Africa extended beyond the refugee policy. In December 1974, Botswana was invited to join the Frontline States or FLS, which had been formed by Zambia and Tanzania in 1973. The sole objective of the FLS was to abolish apartheid in South Africa and colonialism in Angola, Mozambique, Namibia and Rhodesia. The FLS, under the chair of Tanzania, held regular meetings at which leaders of the liberation movements of Southern Africa were invited as observers. At these meetings, leaders discussed an action programme to secure the moral and material support of countries, and international organisations, around the world, in the quest to realise their objective. Thus, in the context of multilateral diplomacy with the FLS, AOU, Non-Aligned Movement, the UN and the Commonwealth, Botswana's role, as a global player, snowballed beyond imagination.
Given her success in soft-power diplomacy, her voice was often heard in the corridors of power, and her opinion sought by all and sundry. Surely, if non-racialism worked in Botswana, why not in South Africa and other minority-ruled countries of Southern Africa! In the African region, Botswana played her part well, to drive the African political agenda. In 1975, when the fascist government of General Franco fell, all Spanish colonies were granted independence. But, against all expectations, Morocco decided to occupy the erstwhile colony of Western Sahara, thus undermining the OAU agenda to promote decolonisation. After all attempts to persuade Morocco to rescind her action, the OAU Council of Ministers, decided to recommend the admission of Western Sahara as a full member of the OAU, and the Summit Meeting accepted. It is notable that the Council of Ministers that took that decision was chaired by the then Minister for Foreign Affairs, Rre Archibald Mogwe. Although the question of Western Sahara has evaded resolution to this day, Botswana's diplomatic contribution to admit an occupied territory as a member of the OAU was historic. By 1980 Angola, Mozambique and Zimbabwe had achieved majority rule, and had joined the FLS as full members to help abolish apartheid and to liberate Namibia. Despite their success in popularising their agenda among countries and international organisations, the FLS met in Arusha, Tanzania in 1979 for a new initiative. They declared that political independence was incomplete without the concomitant economic independence and, decided to establish the "economic arm" of the FLS organisation.
The Southern African Development Coordination Conference or SADCC was therefore inaugurated on 1st April 1980, in Lusaka, under the chair of Botswana. For the next 12 years, Botswana shaped and promoted regional economic cooperation in Southern Africa. The purpose of SADCC was encapsulated as, "to reduce economic dependence on other countries, particularly South Africa; and to promote and coordinate sectoral development among member-states". At the initial stages, Botswana was not only Chair, even the Executive Secretary was a Motswana. So much goodwill and confidence were reposed upon Botswana that it was decided to build the SADCC Headquarters in Gaborone. Much later in 1992, SADCC was transformed into the Southern African Development Community, SADC, in Windhoek and Botswana was relieved of the Chair after a sterling performance of 12 years! The success and prestige of SADC can be measured by the scale and scope of the activities of its members from South Africa to the DRC, and from Angola to Mauritius. For Botswana, economic cooperation organs called Joint Commissions for Cooperation, were also established on a bilateral basis with Angola, Mozambique, Namibia, Zambia, Zimbabwe and South Africa.
These forums facilitate discussion of economic cooperation across sectors. Botswana has always been synonymous with the attributes of peace and democracy, rooted in the customs and traditions of its people. Flowing from its soft power diplomacy, other countries readily accepted Botswana's proposal to cooperate in the areas of peace and security. Consequently, Joint Permanent Commissions for Peace and Security have been established with Angola, Mozambique, Namibia, Zambia and Zimbabwe.