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These Are The Top Foreign Policy Challenges For Botswana In 2017, And After Ian Khama

Buffeted by shifting winds in South Africa, Zimbabwe, and further abroad, President Ian Khama's legacy has never been more tenuous.

23/01/2017 04:57 SAST | Updated 23/01/2017 04:57 SAST
SIPHIWE SIBEKO / Reuters
Botswana's President Ian Khama is flanked by Namibia's President Hifikepunye Pohamba ( L) and Malawi's former president, Bakili Muluzi (R, with glasses) during the ANC's centenary celebration in Bloemfontein January 8, 2012.

Botswana's foreign policy has tone, one of speaking out when normally a state of its size would be expected to keep quiet. This seems to be a defining feature of Botswana's choice of diplomatic instruments under President Ian Khama. He wasn't necessarily the best chief diplomat Botswana has had. He presided over two terms of hazy foreign policy decision making, which at times were ineffective.

While past administrations have employed a 'wait and see' approach, preferring back-channel diplomatic routes to deal with regional matters that were considered sensitive, Khama went for an outspoken approach that drew both heavy criticism and applause for speaking truth to power. Sort of.

Leadership from Africa's biggest economies notably dropped in 2016. Khama's pragmatic and tough approach seemed to fill up that void in speaking out for victims of human rights violations, fraudulent governments and despotic leaders.

As he prepares to step down in April 2018, consensus on Khama's legacy will be highly contested. The obvious blot in his ambitious 'activist'/ethical foreign policy is how it wasn't well thought out and executed; instead it ended up painting Botswana as having a paternalistic attitude towards Africa. In his two terms as President, Ian Khama has skipped out on African Union or United Nations platforms for heads of states choosing to delegate the roles to his vice president and cabinet. His notable international engagements have been conservation international meetings and bilateral state visits to a select few countries.

In the region, he has been more active only when compelled to assume the rotational role of chairperson for the regional customs union (SACU) or the development community (SADC).

The Five Ds also created a clutter of overlapping words that made it difficult to determine what the country's core values that inform our national interests are. Is it the Five Ds or the Eight Tenets outlined by Botswana's first president, Sir Seretse Khama in 1970?

The next President will need to get to work immediately to maneuver Botswana around in a new reality of a post-Khama presidency. Here are the top foreign policy challenges and priorities that will most likely need to be dealt with:

1. What is it that we stand for and how do we pursue it?

Gaborone still struggles to get a firm grasp on what the country's core national interests are and how, in achieving them, the country ought to behave in all aspects of international diplomacy.

Khama's foreign policy still maintained continuities from past administrations. The country continued to adhere to its foundational tenets with some added caveats such as his "Five Ds" of democracy, dignity, discipline, development and delivery. These served as a de-facto strategic policy guideline for his administration and even seemed to spill over into foreign policy. However, the Five Ds also created a clutter of overlapping words that made it difficult and confusing to really determine what the country's core values that inform our national interests are. Is it the Five Ds or the Eight Tenets outlined by Botswana's first president, Sir Seretse Khama in 1970?

A key challenge for the next Presidency will be working within such a blurry foreign policy development environment to harmonize all institutions involved and create a clear strategy.

2. Botswana's Place in the world

Botswana's relationship with most of its African allies isn't complicated yet, but it's heading there. This stems from Khama's very visible absence from AU meetings for heads of state and his apparent labeling of the continental body as a 'talk shop'. While bilateral forms of engagement with other African states have continued, Botswana's handling of Africa and the issues it faces has translated into a simplistic view of how to relate with the rest of the continent and how to solve some of the outstanding problems we have.

Under his Presidency, Botswana has also been the most vocal supporter of the embattled International Criminal Court which has been accused of being a 'neocolonial instrument of the West intended to target African leaders.' Botswana has gone further to publicly express its disappointment over South Africa's announcement of it's intention to leave the ICC. In addition, Botswana has been vocal about impunity and human rights violations across the continent to the rancor of many.

The narrative of Botswana as a country that escaped the 'resource curse' and came up from nothing to become a fascinating success story as an 'economic and development success' is slowly fading away.

Although Botswana's 'megaphone diplomacy' has projected an image of a Botswana that is a stickler for principles, the next president will inherit a reality of a Botswana given all sorts of labels for its principles. This will be a challenge to Botswana's hopes to lead the campaign against a mass withdrawal of African states from the ICC and initiating reforms within the African Union.

3. The End of 'Botswana Exceptionalism'

The special character and narrative of Botswana as a country that escaped the 'resource curse' and came up from nothing to become a fascinating success story as an 'economic and development success' is slowly fading away. As the face and tone of politics changed around the world, Botswana's largely conservative roots remained stuck in some aspects of its foundation, such as the constitution, which repeatedly causes controversy over how it weakens parliament and gives the president too much power. The key relationship between government and trade unions, government and the private media are inarguably at their worst in history and have been eroded by a President who avoids confrontation at all costs.

Jung Yeon-Je / AFP / AFP / Getty Images
South Korean President Park Geun-Hye (R) shakes hands with her Botswana counterpart Ian Khama (L) during their summit at the presidential Blue House in Seoul on October 23, 2015.

Khama has never sat down for an interview with any private media house in the country, and has avoided direct dialogue with multiple stakeholders crucial in governance. Like many other countries, Botswana has challenges of income inequality, corruption and ineffective, unaccountable institutions. The next president will inherit an epoch where the tagline 'when Botswana speaks the world listens' is untrue. The values that were envisioned by Sir Seretse Khama for a young Botswana five decades ago are no longer as strongly reflected in governance which will make it hard to try and promote them abroad.

The values Botswana has historically promoted on an international platform are facing tough challenges back home. We will not have the same clout and moral standing to speak against human rights violations when we have the same violations occurring in our own backyard. This will eventually prove difficult as Botswana will be overshadowed by other more progressive and liberal countries such as Rwanda and Kenya.

4. A new global order and the rise of populism

In 2016 the global risk environment became increasingly volatile. We are now in the most unpredictable, volatile geopolitical environment since the Cold war. There are more global spheres of power and influence as globalisation will not be as synonymous with Americanisation anymore. Botswana under Khama hasn't been that quick to move with the ongoing shifting gears in international relations. Now in an era where Brexit has actually happened, the reality of Botswana's diamonds and beef is very much different.

In addition, the ascension of Donald Trump to the White House, which has coincided with the rising wave of populism and nationalism may seem like a distant occurrence to us, but it holds some significance. Russia will be more emboldened to play a larger, more aggressive role in pursuing and protecting its interests. China now holds more clout as the next global economic powerhouse with President Xi Jinping continuing to assert China's willingness to play a bigger role in the world. Botswana's next President will need to be a strategic thinker in positioning Botswana to succeed in the most volatile geopolitical environment in the postwar period.

5. South Africa

South Africa is the most important regional hegemon in Africa. But its political environment presents both an opportunity and a challenge for Botswana. Pretoria has now become more inward-looking, economically pragmatic and less principled.With the many protests going on across the country over free education, the ANC power succession tussle will most likely dominate the agenda for the next few months. The fight for land, labour and state enterprise reforms, and an imminent end to corruption will continue strongly while President Jacob Zuma wraps up his controversy-ridden two terms, putting the South African economy at greater risk. The region and its stability will be affected.

South Africa's political infighting will undermine the country's traditional role as a force for regional security. The opportunity for Botswana, which by its repeated attempts to project the role of 'democracy and human rights vanguard' on the continent, will be wide open to play a more constructive role in the region and maybe even on the continent. But it will face a tough challenge of convincing the region to speak as a united front.

A clear leadership vacuum will begin to show with Zimbabwe's elections lined up for 2018 and the current instability in the DRC. The challenge that sticks out is how landlocked Botswana's economy is directly still tied to South Africa's economy and sea ports. The two countries have been trading partners for decades and instability for the Rand would mean instability for the Pula, which Botswana does not want. Botswana's Central Bank has had to keep on adjusting the Pula's exchange against the Rand by a "crawling peg".

The next Presidency of the Republic of Botswana will need to understand diplomacy or have close senior advisors who do. Africa can't certainly claim the 21st century, but the 22nd century will be the African century. Botswana might not have suffered a huge African backlash from the Ian Khama presidency, but it will need to be on the right side of history as the rising wave of populism and nationalism will force Africa to be more united than ever.