The ascendance of President Ian Khama to the chairmanship of the 15-nation Southern African Development Community (SADC), provides the first real test of his political and economic potency in the region. Analysis by Staff Writers MBONGENI MGUNI & NTIBINYANE NTIBINYANE
Cometh the hour, cometh the man? For the 277 million citizens spread out across the 15 states making up the SADC region, President Ian Khama’s ascension to their chairmanship on Monday is a Godsend, a non-event or an annoyance.
SADC’s evolution from the Southern African Development Coordination Conference in August 1992 marked the ebbing away of the liberation and anti-apartheid agenda and the ushering in of a new focus on regional integration and development.
However, while the successive holders of the revolving chairmanship have made ambitious pledges, the mineral, tourism and agriculture-rich region has struggled to uplift the standards of living for the majority of its people.
Today, an air of shock is expected at the SADC Council of Ministers’ meeting when it is revealed that about 40 percent of the region lives below the bread line.
The ministers will be informed that the latest African Development Bank and World Bank figures show that in some member states, four in five people live in extreme poverty.
The ministers and the Heads of State, who start arriving on Sunday, will hear that the region is home to at least 17 million orphans and that child-headed households are on the increase due to HIV/AIDS and other diseases.
The Council of Ministers and the Heads of State Summit on Monday will also learn that the average unemployment rate in the region is 25 percent, ranging from nearly 50 percent in one country to as low as two percent in another.
Unemployment among the youth, who are the worst affected, is more than double that of adults in the same predicament.
Should technocrats hold back on the sugar-coating, the ministers and the Heads of State will hear how SADC’s stated goal of eradicating poverty is drifting further away into an uncertain future. Progress on tearing down of borders and heightening regional economic integration have been slow and to date, numerous milestones, such as the formulation of a common external tariff and formation of a customs union, are still in the wind.
The common currency and the UNIVISA to enable smooth tourist and citizen travel through the region are generations away.
Khama will no doubt be familiar with many of these noble economic development goals, and having been SADC vice chair since last year, he will have become intimately acquainted with them as part of the top decision-making ‘troika’ in the regional grouping.
The nature of the new chair
Whether Monday’s ascension will be a case of ‘Khama the hour, Khama the man’ depends on an analysis of the President’s historical performance in economic matters.
While his critics have differed on his political achievements or failings, many observers are agreed that Khama is shrewd in economic policy. His approach, even before his ascension to the presidency, is to ‘contract-out’ expertise in any particular area of economic policy and be guided by those closest to the workings of the system.
While the establishment of both the Botswana Economic Advisory Council and High Level Consultative Council are the works of Khama’s predecessors, the President is credited with raising their profile and taking on board their recommendations.
A few years ago, he became one of the first known presidents to summon a select group of economists to the Office of the President for a frank discussion on solutions to the economy’s growth.
Khama’s approach to economic policy steered the country through the global financial crisis, which dogged the first two years of his presidency. With a slump in commodity prices already evident this year, Khama could have the unenviable distinction of being the country’s first leader to face two recessions.
Where his political rivals criticise him as inflexible and authoritarian, Khama has shown himself more than willing to bend his ear to economists, the private sector as well as fiscal and monetary policy authorities.
The actions of fiscal and monetary authorities over the years have shown that Khama laid down an over-arching target or policy of social upliftment and then charged experts with achieving it, with minimal damage to the economy and its prospects in the process.
Thus, deficit budgets spent the country out of the 2009 recession and subsequent slow years, while the Bank of Botswana moved from a single-minded focus on inflation-targeting to supporting growth.
SADC challenge beckons
In the same manner that he received an economic baptism of fire upon ascending to the presidency, Khama’s one year term as SADC chair begins with resolving a humanitarian crisis in which one-tenth of the citizens of the region are facing hunger.
According to SADC officials, a staggering 27.4 million people in SADC will require food relief this year, after a disastrous farming season. While the response is presently at national level, SADC under Khama will be required to show itself alive to the hunger in the region and possibly mount a regional appeal for relief to international bodies and others.
Even as he turns to the food crisis, Khama will also be wary of the electricity shortages in the region that have the potential of causing resentment towards political leaders from citizens.
He could also try his hand at moving along the glacier-speed regional integration project. With his experience at poverty eradication in Botswana, the new chair could be just what the doctor ordered for SADC’s own aspirations in this vein.
Khama’s seven years in office in Botswana have shown that whatever the tone of his upcoming tenure, it will be anything but unmemorable.
When the Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe finally hands over the chairmanship badge to President Ian Khama on Monday morning at the 35th SADC Heads of State Summit Gaborone, all eyes will be on the 62-year-old Botswana leader. Khama will be watched closely to see how he responds to the region’s litany of political and socio-economic issues within the next 12 months.
This will be Khama’s first major regional assignment since taking office in 2008. Considered aloof and indifferent to regional and international politics, Khama’s ascendance to the SADC chairmanship will bring him closer to the world of international diplomacy than ever before. His leadership style and way of doing things will be subjected to microscopic scrutiny even by some of the SADC leaders.
Will Khama use the SADC chairmanship to win the political capital in the sub-region, the continent and the rest of the world by cracking the whip on wayward member states?
Will he attempt to use Botswana’s democratic credentials to promote democracy in the region? Or will he tread carefully and inconspicuously to avoid unnecessary tensions within the region?
A frank leader when it comes to regional politics, Khama is best remembered as an African statesman who gustily challenged and criticised one of Africa’s liberation icons without fear.
Khama’s tiff with Mugabe is legendry.
At the height of the 2008 political crisis in Zimbabwe, an outsider in the SADC politics, Khama did not shy away from criticising Mugabe for the political crisis that befell the country after the much disputed elections.
To the surprise of many after the 2013 general elections Khama’s administration took a contrarian stance and once again denounced the elections as neither free nor fair.
The Zimbabwean elections were a sham, Gaborone said immediately after Mugabe won the elections.
Khama’s contrarian stance and megaphone diplomacy has often won him cheers from the western world and muted boos in the region and the African continent.
One thing that is clear is that Khama would not continue Mugabe’s anti-West rhetoric. Other than his public spat with Mugabe, Khama is relatively unknown in the region.
Unlike his 91-year-old predecessor, his view of the African agenda is not methodically and clearly pronounced.
He remains a black box to many including his fellow regional leaders. Perhaps this can be traced to his limited participation on regional matters, something that has isolated him from other leaders.
But how will he fare as a SADC chair?
According to University of Botswana lecturer, Gabriel Malebang, Khama has no choice but to tread carefully in his new regional role.
SADC, he says, is an organisation that works on consensus and it will be foolhardy for Botswana to ‘annoy’ some member states within the regional bloc because the country needs others to reach consensus on issues affecting the region. Malebang says that the fact that Mugabe has not made any radical changes to the organisation in the one-year he was the chairperson is a clear demonstration that no single person is powerful within SADC.
According to Malebang, Khama may not make any meaningful or radical impact as chair because of the nature of the organisation’s decision-making mechanism of SADC Troika - which means that decisions are taken through consultation between the incumbent, the outgoing and the incoming chairperson.
Malebang says the system applies to the summit, the organ, the council, the integrated, the Committee of Ministers and the standing committee of officials.
“As such radical policy proposition can’t go ahead without any form of consultation,” says Malebang.
For Anthony Morima, a local political analyst, Khama’s ascendance to the chairmanship of SADC is a major political recognition for him and Botswana. He says it is also a perfect opportunity for Khama to reassert Botswana’s role in the world of international relations.
“Khama has often been criticised for caring less about the African agenda as a result this has alienated Botswana from the rest of the continent. Khama has a perfect opportunity to reassert Botswana’s position in the region and in the African continent,” says Morima.
Political challenges ahead
Khama assumes the SADC chairmanship at a time when the organisation, through its security organ, is trying to defuse political tensions in Lesotho and Madagascar.
In Lesotho, the country is facing a crisis following the alleged assassination of a former military chief loyal to former Prime Minister Tom Thabane, May this year. The Lesotho crisis is currently being handled by South Africa, the chair of SADC politics, defence and security organ.
In Madagascar President Hery Rajaonarimampianina is fighting for his political life following the decision by the country’s Members of Parliament to impeach him.
These are the challenges that will confront Khama in the coming 12 months, but he will not be alone, because of the Troika system. He will have to consult Mugabe and the incoming deputy chair on all decisions that affect the operations and direction of the organisation.
Meet the press
A day after assuming the SADC chairmanship Khama will be expected to hold a post summit media briefing.
According to the summit programme from SADC, Khama will address the regional and international media late in the afternoon.
This is something that Khama has not done in Botswana, but it is the standard practice for SADC chairpersons to hold such press conferences at the end of the summit.
Unlike his predecessor, Khama is not expected to hold rousing and animating media briefings. The Tuesday press conference will test Khama’s temperament in the face of the probing regional and international media.