Diplomat-in-chief: How has COVID-19 shaped Masisi


The coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, unprecedented in its health, economic and social impacts, turned everything upside down.

The world has since never been the same. The advent of the global health crisis coincided with President Mokgweetsi Masisi’s ascension to the presidency immediately after the 2019 elections. A year later, what defined Masisi’s foreign policy agenda and his fabric as a diplomat after the elections is not radically different from what defines it now.

But as the diplomat in chief, the pandemic has forced a shift to his modus operandi. Masisi emerged from the vice presidency as a jet-setting head of state who lived for the face-to-face interactions at global fora. He took over when Botswana’s diplomatic engagements at the head of state level had experienced a decade-long sabbatical.

The agenda was simple, to re-engage with the world and take up our seat at the table while drawing on our age-long international credibility and goodwill to win back the hearts and minds of investors. The President’s outlook and appetite for economic diplomacy were visible. His choices of international diplomatic engagements were interesting and peculiar, but not out of the ordinary for a modern President (from speeches at the revered Davos WEF to sit-downs at the world-renowned Council on Foreign Relations). The globalist crusade invoked a nostalgia of the Mogae era when Botswana was still considered the darling of the world.

The COVID-19 pandemic has not only mildly changed President Masisi’s foreign policy agenda, but has also changed the international relations landscape. The leadership challenge became clear for Masisi: how do you lead your country and domestic economy out of the worst crisis of the century, while navigating a complex world redefined by the geopolitics of different strands of nationalism and deglobalisation?

The world has never before confronted a crisis quite like COVID-19, one that has simultaneously tested both the limits of public health systems everywhere and the ability of countries to work together on a shared challenge. Botswana has thrived as a big proponent of global cooperation because its economy depended on a world that has the appetite to buy our diamonds and come to our shores as tourists to see our vibrant natural environment.

Naturally, the pandemic has had every nation in the world scrambling to address the current threat and reconsider its future priorities. President Masisi is no exception to this scramble. The pandemic has changed the complexion of international affairs in fundamental ways. The world became a less interconnected place in a matter of months.  International trade, air travel and transportation plummeted. Along with it, the global economy contracted and went into recession.

Countries imposed travel bans. Overall, the vibrantly connected world to which we have become so accustomed became instantly less global and more balkanised.

Diplomatic relations have been affected due to indifferences and subtle movements around trade and transport of medicines, diagnostic tests and hospital equipment.

The current context is what defines the environment in which President Masisi is operating. During the pandemic, he reshuffled his Cabinet and replaced Unity Dow with Lemogang Kwape as Minister of foreign affairs. The inclination amongst us observers was to assume that since international relations and cooperation are currently defined by health diplomacy, then minister Kwape may have been the right candidate to help the country navigate this complex scene of PPEs and vaccine nationalism. The verdict is yet to come out on the rationale for his choice.

On the other hand, COVID-19 has forced President Masisi to focus more on engagements characterised by rapid decision making with immediate to short term outputs (vaccine negotiations, procurement, engagements with regional neighbours on border trade). Although it has always been within Botswana’s core values to build international alliances, the focus has been on health issues and economic recovery.

Even though the President has not been travelling ‘that’ much, he continues to engage proactively. Notable amongst these engagements are the consistent interactions with Chinese diplomats, the UN75 virtual assembly, the visits and partnerships with European diplomats on domestic health and youth programming and the recent visit by World Bank executive director of the Africa Group 1 Constituency, Taufila Nyamadzabo who also happens to be an esteemed Motswana professional.

As chair of the SADC organ on politics, defence and security, Masisi has the chance to wear a different hat and provide strategic leadership in this capacity. I also think the job comes at a time when the region is bordering on volatility as a result of the pandemic, the Zimbabwe crisis and the emerging pockets of terrorism in Northern Mozambique. I hope the President uses this chance to cut his teeth on dealing with regional security issues that may seem straightforward but are more complex.

Due to the gift of the reset that COVID -19 gives countries, I think President Masisi’s ambition of fielding more Batswana candidates to international organisations is well-founded, but it also takes more than ambition to make this a reality. The presidency has announced that Elias Magosi will be lobbying for the position of SADC executive secretary, with the President launching an early campaign in the region. As far as I know, no other country has announced a candidate for the position. The implications are far-reaching. Firstly, the President has an opportunity to learn from the unsuccessful bid for African Union chair by former president Khama and former minister Pelonomi Venson-Moitoi. Secondly, the presidency must tap into the regional expertise of Batswana (Sheila Tlou, Joy Phumaphi etc) that have already achieved prominent status in leading international organisations to build an advisory group that can put together a comprehensive campaign that goes beyond Magosi’s qualifications and experience for the job.

The COVID-19 pandemic has certainly reshaped the presidency and will shape a collective understanding of present and future crises and how to address them effectively. It is now clearer than ever that the response and recovery from the pandemic need to be defined by a proactive head of state who needs to make the right decisions at the right time. This will require deploying a mix of different foreign policy mechanisms to lead us out of the toughest crisis of the 21st century. I contend that chief amongst all the factors I have listed above, the President’s recent ‘inclinations’ and hard pivot to play ‘desert geopolitics’ in Windhoek, signals the emergence of what we will consider one of the most consequential moments in Botswana’s modern foreign policy. I discuss this in my next article.

*Bakang Ntshingane is a political economist working at the nexus of think tanks, research and international development. He writes on politics, foreign policy and economic development

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