Masisi re-aligns Botswana’s foreign policy


FRANCISTOWN: Under former president Ian Khama the country’s voice and place in the international arena was perceived to be shrinking.

Khama had cultivated a culture of speaking out of turn while other countries particularly in the AU and SADC region often spoke with a collective or lone voice. His penchant for speaking out turn was often perceived to be an outright danger. Under Khama Botswana became isolated from other countries in the African region and beyond. When the country lost the position of African Union chairperson, where it had fielded Pelonomi Venson, the loss was largely attributed to Botswana’s (under Khama) ‘bad’ relationship with other African states.

But under Masisi, Botswana’s foreign policy appears to have diverged. The country has been gradually making its way to the regional and international stage. Masisi has shown eagerness to consolidate Botswana’s position as a regional and global player. Botswana’s voice has often been resounding on many topical issues in the regional and the international arena.He has also has appeared keen to mend relations with other African countries and beyond.

Elias Magosi’s recent win at the elections for the position of SADC Executive Secretary is widely viewed as a sign that Botswana has somehow gone a long way in rebuilding the relationship, she had with some of her allies in the regional bloc, whom Khama had alienated.

Masisi travelled to most SADC countries in an effort to lobby support for Magosi. He visited countries such as Zambia, SA, Lesotho, Zimbabwe and Namibia including the Democratic Republic of Congo that had fielded Faustin Lunga Mukela to oppose Magosi. Magosi often accompanied the President in all his visits.

On the flip side, critics have often maintained Masisi’s focus on consolidating Botswana’s position in the regional and global arena is not what the country needs now. They argue that the President has ignored pressing issues domestically.

The opposition for example has seized the opportunity to discredit Masisi and often accuse him of dismally failing to deliver on his post-election promises. When he took over Masisi promised that his government will champion the plight of accused of failing to engineer sound economic reforms to bail Batswana out of poverty. Botswana is saddled with relatively high inflation rate and unemployment among youth. Additionally, the President has been accused of failing to manage the COVID-19 pandemic that has claimed so many lives and continues to be on the surge. Masisi is also accused of failing to come up with comprehensive policies to fight corruption.

“When you analyze our foreign policy, you must analyze it from what the objectives are. Getting a person elected into the position of ES is not the most difficult thing in the world especially when it’s a two horse race. SADC is predominantly Anglophone. For this reason, the foregone conclusion was that a candidate from an English part of the region was going to win,” Botswana Patriotic Front spokesperson Lawrence Ookeditse told Mmegi this week.

Ookeditse is among the strong critics of Masisi’s foreign policy.

Ookeditse pointed out that the country’s foreign policy should be judged based on foreign direct investment and economic benefits brought.

“If we are going to say Masisi has had a successful foreign policy it will have to be in the context of his policy having had a huge boost to the economy. If that has not happened, I do not see how we should say Masisi's foreign policy has been a success.

Under Masisi, Ookeditse also says there has been an element of mistrust between Botswana and South Africa. For this reason, he says that Botswana’s foreign policy under Masisi cannot be seen to be heading in the right direct when the country alienates its strategic partner.

Bakang Ntshingane, a political economist with interest in foreign policy and economic development offered an extensive assessment of how Botswana’s foreign policy has changed under Masisi and how it will benefit the country going forward and its flaws.

“Since Botswana has aspirations to be a high-income country, consolidating a favorable position in international affairs can help it achieve this status. There will be increasing competition in the tourism and investment sectors post-COVID-19. Many opportunities and potential benefits like rapid economic growth, jobs, industrialisation etc. will depend on how Botswana recovers from the pandemic,” Ntshingane told Mmegi this week.

Ntshingane says that every President struggles with maintaining balance between domestic policy and foreign policy.

He opines that former president Festus Mogae was often accused of 'flying too much' and on the other hand former president Ian Khama was often chided for not 'flying enough’. Masisi has been accused of channeling much of energy to traversing the world and giving little attention to socio economic challenges at home.

“Our domestic issues are currently at their most contentious, so its only natural that the President is criticised for his foreign policy. The President is undoubtedly performing better on foreign policy than he is on domestic governance issues, and the difference is glaring. But I also believe the two are mutually reinforcing: his foreign policy will feed into domestic priorities and vice versa, it is just that right now COVID-19 is crippling the economy and pushing everyone into discomfort, hence the need for a strong presidency to provide leadership,” Ntshingane said.

Ntshingane also addressed suggestions that Magosi’s recent victory as SADC ES is a sign that Botswana has somehow gone a long way in rebuilding the relationship, she had with some of her allies, whom Khama had alienated and has (Botswana) somehow made remarkable progress in an effort to fully regain her status as a regional and global player on very topical issues.

He argues that Botswana has always been an active player in the regional as well as global arena, even when the country’s foreign policy was not visible enough at a presidential level between 2008 and 2018, when Khama was at the helm.

“Our embassies and representatives did fairly well to keep our diplomacy going. I would argue that we are certainly much more proactive in the regional agenda than we have been before and the SADC ES position is one of the benefits we are reaping,” he said.

Botswana still has a lot of work to do in the bigger scheme of things with reference to her foreign relations according to hm. Ntshingane articulate his position by saying that COVID-19 is actively reshaping global power dynamics, and as a result Botswana will have to figure out how she will navigate such dynamics and make her voice heard, especially in the vaccine equity and distribution debate.

The analyst also offered his opinion as to why Botswana’s foreign policy under Masisi is yet to bring economic benefits to the country or attract investors.

“His foreign policy is still unfolding. But his priorities from the beginning were to revive our image, re-engage with allies and find pathways to promote our interests at international forums. The President also had a strong leaning towards 'economic diplomacy' before the COVID-19 pandemic: his speeches always referenced investment attraction and positioning Botswana's brand as an attractive investment destination.”

Added, Ntshingane, “Since COVID-19, the priorities have changed slightly: his main concern is obviously finding vaccines plus increasing our bilateral and regional engagements, e.g., the countless trips to countries in the SADC region. The bulk of his foreign policy in the last year has been focused on regional stability: notably, Mozambique, eSwatini.”

Ntshingane on Magosi’s win as SADC ES

“Botswana had a good advantage from the beginning of the race. We (Botswana) announced Magosi's candidacy earlier, and his campaign was backed by the presidency. This gave it more visibility and Masisi was able to use his OPDS Chairmanship to kill two birds with one stone (provide regional leadership in a time of crisis, lobby regional votes for Magosi),” Ntshigane says.

Ntshingane added that with the headquarters of SADC being in Gaborone and Botswana's good standing in SADC gave Magosi's campaign an added advantage.

“I also think its valid to argue that DRC's candidate may have felt a bit out of place because DRC is the only French speaking country in SADC. But that doesnt mean they didnt put up a good candidate. It was more about who ran a better campaign than Anglo-Francophone divisions.”

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