Former US president Barack Obama's signature diplomatic achievement, the 2015 Iran Nuclear Deal, was as a result of back-channelling through secret talks. In 2013, Obama sent two senior State Department officials, William J. Burns and Jake Sullivan, to begin dialogue in Oman.
In 2018, CIA director Mike Pompeo made a clandestine trip to Pyongyang to meet with Kim Jong-Un. Historically, and closer to home, ‘quiet’ backchannel diplomacy by international and regional actors were crucial in the transition of South Africa from apartheid to democratic rule. I’m confident that in the early years of the Botswana Republic as well, many backchannel negotiations were conducted to draw us to where we are today.
Secret diplomacy is a well-known and well-practised method of conducting international negotiations and diplomatic processes away from public scrutiny and attention. President Mokgweetsi Masisi and his Namibian counterpart, President Geingob are faced with a difficult task of presiding over an emotionally charged disagreement.
Although the two countries are far from being at war, President Masisi is losing the PR battle in Namibia with well-meaning critiques levelled at him and the Botswana Defence Force (BDF). The matter of the BDF’s shooting of three Namibian citizens and one Zambian citizen in the last year, and the shooting of many more for alleged poaching, requires an overwhelming amount of sensitivity.
But it also presents a kind of paradox. At the core of this issue, is the need to safeguard Botswana’s territorial integrity and send a clear message that our military will not back down in its pursuit of dangerous syndicates. On the other side is the matter of finding a reasonable position to meet the interests of the Namibians. It is a far more complicated issue than we can comprehend as ordinary citizens on both sides of the aisle, hence the need to conceal the negotiations and investigations into the matter until the outcome and public engagement stage.
Many public revelations, including those of intelligence and counterintelligence operations, leaks of classified and sensitive government documents, demonstrate that secrecy is a fundamental yet overlooked aspect of international relations. Of course, it is equally saturated with elements of distrust.
It has the ‘dirty hand’ problem of generating unwarranted suspicion and distrust between nations, or it can undermine domestic affairs and interests by undercutting public confidence in political leaders. It can also make negotiators overestimate what they can implement amidst the huge amount of domestic disgruntlement, especially on the Namibian side. This isn’t to argue for absolute secrecy, but to protect the integrity of both the investigations and the subsequent negotiations for a compromise, a backchannel solution must take priority in the meantime.
Secret diplomacy has always had its critics. It will come with a layer of deception that undermines the transparency and accountability on which both nations’ democracies are founded on. Yet the history and benefits of secret diplomacy speak for themselves. The most important diplomatic breakthrough of the Cold War, the opening to China, began with secret negotiations between then-president Richard Nixon’s national security adviser Henry Kissinger and Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai. Kissinger’s top-secret trip to Beijing in 1971 laid the groundwork for Nixon’s historic visit the following year.
But the history of diplomacy has shown that secrecy often is essential for success as it creates a conducive environment for constructive talks by insulating foreign policymakers against grandstanding and by granting them a minimum level of security, informality and autonomy. It also offers parties the much-needed space to get to a solution. Kissinger claimed, for instance, that the secret, not the public channel of negotiations, was instrumental in advancing the peace talks between the United States and North Vietnam in the early 1970s. The argument for attaining a satisfying outcome is fairly appealing, especially from a practitioner point of view.
At the point where both Presidents are, it seems the benefits of going the open route are far less appealing than the backchannel route with less public scrutiny.
It is admirable that honesty and transparency were adopted to publicly announce the shooting incident, and it is a practice worth conserving for the long-term integrity of the BDF and its operations as a public institution accountable to taxpayers. In practice, diplomacy is often difficult when exposed to public scrutiny, especially when the issues are highly charged.
Two options present themselves in the conduct of backchannel diplomacy. States have the option to conceal the process and knowledge of the diplomatic activities, or, conceal the outcome of the negotiations. In the practice of ‘old diplomacy’, nations often concealed both, only to declassify the issues years later after the fact. With the evolution of modern democratic expectations for accountability and transparency, this is now an unthinkable option. The BDF and the Botswana government have been sincere and transparent from the beginning about what happened, and have subsequently opened channels of dialogue with Namibia. So in essence, the process and knowledge have been open to reasonable amounts of public scrutiny, except for the finer details of closed-room discussions and court proceedings.
The two nations are now faced with very limited options as it stands. Reasonably so, the BDF and the Botswana government must account and give whatever form of justice to the families of the deceased without getting caught up in the possible ego trip of military and territorial sovereignty and discretion. The intricate details of the process of getting to a solution must transition to absolute secrecy with competent minds on both sides assigned to safeguard the integrity of the investigations. Only then, should the outcome be made public.
Ideally, a mutually beneficial outcome is difficult to imagine. Botswana probably wants to continue to send a clear message to poacher syndicates that it will unflinchingly protect its territory. Namibia wants justice for the deceased and their families. President Masisi has the benefit of President Geingob’s goodwill and cooperation, a resource that makes this matter less lethal and grave than the other examples of secret diplomacy I gave above. But the intersection of political and diplomatic interests that both Presidents face presents a challenge of early-stage public scrutiny that may affect a reasonable outcome. But perhaps even deeper within the Namibia problem, is an international ‘image problem’ that the diplomat in chief must confront: the notion that we have a trigger happy military gunning down civilians. This is where he must tap into history and employ a similar strategy to Festus Mogae’s global crusade when our diamonds were thought to be blood diamonds.
*Bakang Ntshingane is a political economist working at the nexus of think tanks, research and international development