Mozambique's uncertainty: Implications for Botswana's place in the region

BDF members PIC: MORERI SEJAKGOMO.
BDF members PIC: MORERI SEJAKGOMO.

The growing insurgency in Mozambique continues to worry its neighbouring states as well as the collective leadership of the Southern African Development Community (SADC).

This conflict-driven development and prospect of instability in the region challenges Botswana’s interests.

President Mokgweetsi Masisi’s persistent adamance on immediate intervention is almost a revival of former president Sir Ketumile Masire’s doctrine under which, together with South Africa, they sent troops into the Kingdom of Lesotho in 1998. The glaring difference is that the late Masire’s intervention was not sanctioned by SADC. His presidency was the ‘golden era’ of military deployments of the BDF to peacekeeping missions in Somalia, Sudan and Rwanda. Twenty-three years later, Masisi’s foreign policy as a key player in the SADC bloc is under similar pressure to rally SADC troops to intervene in the rising terrorist insurgency in the Cabo Delgado province.

Botswana has been relatively secure and stable, driven by its interest to engage the world, trade freely, and work with other countries on common concerns. This again, explains Masisi’s strong conviction that despite Botswana’s and the world’s economic difficulties courtesy of COVID-19, action must still be taken. Instability in the region, if left unabated will continue to shape the world Botswana engages with and demand hardline policy responses. The President is fully aware of how engagement must be crafted and aligned with the SADC defence pact. His narrative of “An injury on one is an injury on another” is consistent with the SADC defence pact Article 6(1) which states that “an armed attack against a State Party shall be considered a threat to regional peace and security and such attack shall be met with immediate collective action.”


There has been a subtle but strong conviction in the international relations scholarly community that petrostates make for bad allies. This is particularly evident in their shaky commitment when it comes to building effective coalitions to root out terrorist groups within and outside their territories. Oil‐rich states during Obama’s administration, for example, particularly his alliance with the Saudis, left him in a compromising position, rendering his efforts to defeat ISIS difficult. It has been observed that the reliance of petrostates on oil and gas revenues distorts both foreign policy decisions and their implementation. They at times have weak foreign policy and defence institutions, producing a policy that is of poor quality and strongly driven by personalities. In addition, the vast flow of oil and gas income enables the states to deploy nonstate actors in conflicts. Mozambique’s prolonged reluctance to seek out SADC’s intervention and their deployment of private security contractors in a way validates this observation.

But on the other hand, SADC itself has been a reluctant community of states. There has been a history of violent conflicts in the region between 1995 and 2003. These included the civil war in Angola that ended with the death of Jonas Savimbi; the DRC conflict; election disputes, a mutiny in Lesotho in 1998; a failed secessionist bid in Namibia in 1998-1999; election disputes in Malawi in 1999; a constitutional crisis in Zambia in 2001; election disputes on the Zanzibar island of Tanzania in 2001; and, continuously from early 2000, state repression and violence in Zimbabwe. The regional bloc has struggled to successfully maintain peace. In most of the intra-state conflicts, it has hesitated to make comment and provide leadership to broker solutions. On the contrary, it is also understandable given that the member states do not take well to comments or actions that violate their sovereignty. SADC members have also worked hard to avoid any confrontation that might jeopardise trade and substantive cooperation. There’s also a reluctance to throw stones given that most if not all of the SADC countries are still governed by liberation movements with questionable governance and democratic track records.

And so, there’s an unwritten, comradery notion to maintain a posture of unity, solidarity and avoid public criticism of each other. Mozambique’s security threat makes President Masisi uneasy, and he seemingly does not hesitate to speak with authority on the matter to the effect of providing leadership. His foreign policy positions are therefore premised on the belief that our region is more interconnected and interdependent than at any other time in history. The same regional connectedness increases risk and volatility in the region, hence the imperative to support Mozambique’s return to peace and stability. This is validated by his soundbites and occasional chirps at press conferences, and he believes that the debate on committing resources for external engagement versus domestic economic development in a time of crises, is a non-starter. Although it isn’t as black and white, the debate deserves at least some sort of engagement from the presidency.

Several factors explain his view. The first is that the President is not ahistorical and is aware of the geopolitical context he leads in. M.E.K. taps into the historical sentiment of cooperation and friendship when colonial and apartheid forces were at war with liberation movements, to inform his urgency for intervention. Secondly, he correctly recognises the potential for ‘mutually assured destruction’ in the case of inaction, saying “it would be reprehensible to not respond” and that “tomorrow it could be us”. But I’m drawn to disagree fundamentally with the President’s notion that there’s nothing to learn from uprisings and insurgencies that are at their core, borne by economic, social and political discontent, as it is partially the case with Mozambique. I think the President, as a political figurehead must acknowledge this possibility and not shy away from intellectually engaging on the merits of the fact that there is, a correlation.

While Botswana remains relatively one of the safest countries in the world, we nonetheless face a diverse range of risks that will threaten the country’s security,  values, institutions and economic progress. Masisi’s engagement with SADC is an acknowledgement that Botswana must take responsibility for its own security while recognising strength in sharing the burden of leadership with trusted partners and friends in the region.

If the BDF joins SADC’s standby force or any technical deployment, it would revive a ‘Masire-esque’ doctrine of foreign policy with minor differences. Botswana has used military diplomacy as a foreign policy tool to promote peace and security in the region as well as the African continent. A peaceful and stable Mozambique means much for the interests of Botswana.

The matter also has national security implications and should compel a review and preparation of our national security and foreign policy strategies. But unlike Sir Ketumile Masire, President Masisi leads in a very different world with different expectations for accountability. When the time is right, Masisi will have to decide if he’s prepared to consistently lead and defend regional and continental struggles for peace and democracy.

*Bakang Ntshingane is a political economist with interests in foreign policy, politics and economic development.

Editor's Comment
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