Botswana has displayed boldness as well as a lack of foresight and confidence when it needed to in its international affairs.
The coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has tested the country’s domestic resilience, as well as its ambitions for the role it desires to play in the emerging post-pandemic world. Like his predecessors, President Mokgweetsi Masisi is actively shaping Botswana’s foreign policy through a combination of his personal global outlook and the country’s long-standing values.
Any useful verdict on President Masisi’s performance on domestic matters is easy to deduce. But it has taken time and it has been complex to fully grasp his aspirations and strategic leanings on foreign policy, especially his appetite to translate dialogue into action. From the onset, it was obvious that the President had a global outlook that influenced how he sees the world and the tools he uses to drive Botswana’s ambitions in an uncertain world. The recent spate of regional trips to Namibia (twice in three weeks), Malawi, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), South Africa and Tanzania reignite questions of what the end goal may be. There are varied possibilities worth exploring, primarily circling Masisi’s keen appetite to engage with the region during a tough pandemic.
At a time when global leaders have been careful about where and how they deploy their face-to-face diplomatic capital, Masisi’s choices can be seen through a dual lens. The first is his obligation to engage the region as the chairperson of the SADC Organ on Politics, Defence and Security. His term as chair of the organ coincides with his flagship regional diplomacy agenda. And so, OK1’s adventures are killing two birds with one stone. The second ‘bird’ is the President’s long-standing ambition to pursue Botswana’s interests as he has repeatedly defined them in different platforms. Amongst those are ramping up bilateral cooperation and trade in the region and supporting Batswana professionals to take up executive roles in regional and international bodies.
In the short to medium term, President Masisi hopes to re-energise Botswana’s bilateral relations. His main priorities do not radically deviate from the country’s historical foreign policy interests. In the long term, it is clear that Botswana aspires to be a considerable power player in the region. The region’s power dynamics have been dominated by South Africa, naturally because of its economic, social and military makeup. Botswana has occasionally played a diverse range of roles in the region, amongst them: the goodwill ambassador and voice of moral reason, the ‘shining example’ of economic and democratic progress and a respected ally and good neighbour. I contend that through time and as Botswana has itself changed, our role and aspirations are yet to be made clear in the context of the transitioning global order. This brings us back to why the President is traversing the region and going all out to lobby for one of his top bureaucrats to take up the position of Executive Secretary at SADC.
There are several strategic possibilities worth exploring for the latter. SADC is an important body for all its member countries, even with its glaring imperfections. To advance a Motswana to the top job stands to garner significant domestic political capital for Masisi in the short run, as well as make inroads for his Presidential footprint in the region. If played right, Elias Magosi also stands to influence the direction of SADC’s strategic priorities for the next four years. SADC has often been critiqued as too bureaucratic and takes the long-winding route to make impactful decisions. It will be interesting to see how the campaign positions Magosi, who (arguably) is also a bureaucrat, and currently leading a civil service whose efficiency is highly contested.
This is therefore one of the most consequential litmus tests of Masisi’s diplomatic, political and strategic acumen as CEO of Botswana Inc. Although Botswana was the first to publicly announce its intention to field a candidate, Magosi’s path to victory won’t be easy. The DRC has nominated a visibly competitive candidate, Faustin Luanga Mukela who is a seasoned Geneva insider with enviable accolades.
Botswana has the advantage of starting earlier and has assembled a well-oiled campaign vehicle proactively backed by the Head of State. It has also been engaging key players in the region, who will likely push for a ‘wait and see’ approach to see how the campaign unfolds. Gaborone also has the advantage of housing the headquarters of SADC and is fielding a candidate with SADC, civil service and development experience.
The race will be determined by a complex mix of factors. The candidates’ qualifications and experiences will play a big role, coupled with whether they have a compelling vision and appropriate priorities for leading SADC. Judging from President Ramaphosa’s body language and tone last week, South Africa is the big brother that will likely consider all its options first before picking a side. We must also consider the symbolism of the Botswana government’s working relationship with Afriforum, which may or may not bode well for Pretoria’s political elite. In addition, the diversity of SADC states (Francophone, Anglophone and Lusophone countries, as well as geographic, make up) makes it difficult to predict how they will vote.
Other issues that shape the President’s regional travels are perhaps attached to the bigger questions of Botswana’s standing and interests in the region and in Africa as a whole. But his regional interests seem to be more focused towards Namibia. Windhoek might be the centerpiece to an idealistic and ambitious plan to build alternative trade routes. This will require boosting trade links in the region and exploring other non-traditional partnerships to connect to the rest of Africa. Namibia makes more sense for this hypothetical.
The two countries have been close allies and somewhat share in their ambition to grow their partnership beyond trade to include cross-border infrastructure, water, climate change and environmental cooperation and of course resolve the shared crises of poaching. South African trade routes presented significant difficulties at the early incidence of COVID-19 when the flow of goods was disrupted. There’s been an interest to redirect trade traffic through Botswana’s dry port in Walvis Bay to improve the flow of goods and open up productive trade routes to the West and the rest of Africa.
In essence, Namibia may be a strategic partner in the long term, but Botswana still needs to keep its options open and cannot afford to alienate South Africa. And so, the President’s task is to tread carefully, craft and execute a distinct image of Botswana that does not hesitate to pursue its interests but is bold enough to quietly leave the shadow of South Africa.
*Bakang Ntshingane is a political economist with keen interests in politics, foreign policy and economic development