Prompted by Robert Mugabe’s nostalgic look into SADC history at the SADC Summit on Monday, Mmegi Correspondent, GALE NGAKANE digs into his own archives and finds yesteryear gems
Does anyone recognise the big role President Robert Gabriel Mugabe of Zimbabwe played as mediator when Botswana and Namibia nearly went to war in the 1990s over a seemingly insignificant piece of island in the Chobe River called Sedudu?
The island, which is five square kilometres, is situated in the middle of the mighty Chobe River on the western side of Kasane. There are times when it is submerged in water and others when the waters subside.
Matters came to a head one day in 1995, when reports reached Gaborone that there had been an exchange of fire between the armed forces of Namibia and Botswana.
For me, and I believe the other journos I went for training with in Namibia in 1991, the incident represented serious pain as during my stay in Namibia, I had grown to really love the country.
A group of seven journalists, Ernest Moloi, Bernard Ragalase, Mesh Moeti, Kopano Rammekwa, Grace Mosinyi, the late James Motlhabane and myself went for an intensive journalism course in Windhoek, the capital city of Namibia.
The course, which was held at a nature resort on the outskirts of Windhoek, was organised by a journalism organisation in Finland and sponsored by a charity organisation from that country.
As the course progressed, we became firm friends with the Namibian journalists we studied with. I am referring to people like Kazenambo Kazenambo, who I heard became some top government official later, and TV personality Immanuel “Imms” Namaseb, who I also heard later became a top football official. So, for me it was unimaginable that my country could go to war with a country I took as my second home.
But on the day, gunfire was exchanged between the Botswana Defence Force (BDF) and the Namibian Defence Force (NDF), and as a BDF general told me in an interview by phone, the BDF had regained ground and succeeded in hoisting the blue/black/white Botswana flag on the island, perhaps as a dare. There is no reason to doubt that President Sir Ketumile Masire, a man of great humility who was at the forefront of peace negotiations over the island called Sedudu on the Botswana side and Kasikili on the Namibian side, must have spent sleepless nights after that.
Later, I was again one of seven Botswana journalists who were whisked off by chartered aircraft to Kasane to witness the peace deal cobbled by the two countries.
I had written the story I got from the general over the phone and I needed a follow up. The response from both the government and the BDF was that we should go and witness first hand, as events unfolded.
The atmosphere in the tourist town was abuzz with militarisation on the day. You could cut the tension as I walked behind the tall frame of Dikarabo Ramadubu and the diminutive one of Joseph Balisi.
There were two other journalists from the private press who I cannot readily remember and two others from the government media.
As we proceeded to the place of the meeting, soldiers in fatigues, lugging machine guns, trotted past while war tanks rumbled in the distance as if some mining activity was taking place.
Two medium-sized jets, one bearing the Zimbabwean emblem and the other the Namibian colours were parked in strategic places around the Kasane International Airport.
President Masire’s presidential aircraft was also there. Whispers among the contingent of journalists as we trooped to the meeting place, Safari Chobe Lodge, were that the three presidents from Botswana, Namibia and Zimbabwe had already arrived.
It was a do-or-die moment where there was complete absence of pomp and ceremony, as the three leaders must have walked straight into the hotel room and sat facing each other. The hotel lobby was already teeming with reporters from the international media when we walked in. I identified one from the British Broadcasting Corporation. We sat side by side in a speedboat that transported journalists as the dignitaries were taken on a tour of the island on a ferry.
The forest on the bank of the river on the Botswana side was choc-a-bloc with weapons of war. Camouflaged soldiers lurked menacingly in the lush vegetation that bejewelled the riverbanks. Armed to the teeth! We were told the other side had equally mobilised heavily and were also just waiting for the word to start shooting, should the presidents fail to agree on the way forward.
Fortunately, at the end of the day, sanity prevailed. When we boarded the plane back to Gaborone, each of us had been issued with the Kasane Communiqué that the two countries had signed.
The three leaders had earlier held a press conference where they shook hands and pledged everlasting peace between the two countries. The matter was left to experts and the courts to decide.
Botswana eventually triumphed in 1999 at the International Court of Justice when the country was given the right to keep the island.
Botswana heavily assisted in the liberation of Mugabe’s country and fellow Southern African countries that were embroiled in liberation wars. The country’s citizens suffered the wrath of the racist regimes who regularly made incursions into Botswana in pursuit of guerrillas from those countries.
These included the 15 Botswana soldiers who were ambushed and killed by Rhodesian soldiers hunting ZIPRA and ZANLA freedom fighters.
Mugabe was right to say, “Thank you Botswana.”