Contrarian, arrogant, and a loner—Botswana’s Khama is finally thrust into the spotlight. It could get uncomfortable

As new SADC chair, he would be forgiven for blinking furiously as he tries to adjust—he has never played any major role internationally.

AS epochs go, Botswana’s Ian Khama would be the perfect leader of the Southern African Development Community, known as SADC, coming in at a time when the 15-member bloc is torn between asserting its “Africanness”, which would dearly love to reject all that is Western, but is still alive to the impossibility of operating outside an increasingly interconnected global system.

On the one side are the countries that proudly, if a tad naively, assert their African identity almost to the point of destruction, the poster-child being Zimbabwe, and its cousins who are more realistic and include Tanzania, Swaziland and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

On the other side are the pro-Westerns, with members including Namibia, Seychelles and Mauritius, countries who are doing quite well economically.

And in the middle are the “undecideds”—countries such as South Africa which has been going flat out to be seen as African, following a chastening lesson that begun in 1996 with the attempt to isolate Nigeria following the execution of activist Ken Saro-Wiwa and which came to a head with the xenophobic attacks earlier this year. Coalescing around it is its near-dependent ecosystem, which follows Pretoria’s signal almost to a fault—Zambia, Malawi and Lesotho.

Then you have the loners—Angola and Madagascar. In this complex mix of identities, SADC, which has nearly 300 million citizens, is unique—few other regional blocs are as ideologically diverse, not even the Francophone-Anglophone melting pot that is the 16-member Economic Community of West African States. (ECOWAS).

Mugabe flop

By many accounts, Robert Mugabe’s year-long tenure at the SADC was an unmitigated disaster, in much the same way his concurrent stewardship of the mother African Union has turned out to be, despite coming to its helm to much fanfare. 

Just this month he hit out at African leaders—both at AU and SADC level- who had refused to recognise his leadership, blaming French and British influence. Privately, many admit the generational gap with many continental leaders is also a hindrance.

Read: Ivory Coast refused him entry and the Nigerians took away his security; Mugabe’s star falls to the ground

Mugabe in August 2014 took the SADC post in his usual bombastic style, calling for a reduction in its external funding, as donors currently foot 60% of the bloc’s programme bill. But his suggestion was sharp cut-backs, rather than growing its internal revenue position. (In a final act of humiliation for Mugabe, news out of Zimbabwe is that during his tenure his country failed to pay its SADC dues).

But despite being frequently airborne, South Africa largely managed the regional crises for him, with continuing intervention in Lesotho, while it smartly reclaimed the moral ground on the xenophobic attacks that Mugabe could only apologise for given that hundreds of thousands of his countrymen are resident south. 

Even his much-vaunted economic programme at the bloc was a product of its technocrats, including the review of its strategic development programme and the push on an industrialisation strategy, which Mugabe’s handlers have sought to claim as a success.

Frosty relations

And even before his empty cup of tea had cooled into his new term, Khama, 62, was soon poking holes into Mugabe’s tenure. “The people of southern Africa would not judge us by the adoption of key strategic documents, but rather by the outcomes achieved following implementation, ” he said at the summit’s close.   

He also reached out to SADC donors, urging them to “continue to support us as we move towards regional integration”, although he did give a concession to Mugabe, saying it was necessary the bloc found “innovative ways of financing the regional agenda”.

Khama has had a frosty relationship with Mugabe, and it was no surprise Zimbabwe’s mouthpiece The Herald in a commentary tore into Khama, whom it accused of having exhibited an “obtrusive contemptuous identity of a lone dissenter when it comes to regional issues”.

Khama should instead look to reinforce the economic trajectory set by Mugabe, the paper said. “But if his agenda would be solely to soil Zimbabwe’s international standing, then sadly his reign would end up being the most inconsequential given the immediate pertinent issues that he has to grapple with. Lesotho, Madagascar and the DRC beckon for his immediate attention. Surely, his knee-jerk diplomatic manoeuvres are to be tested and judged.”

Plain speaking

The view that Khama does things his own way is not without merit. Plain spoken and often arrogant, he tends to take positions that cause angst and consternation on the continent.

The Botswana leader called for a rerun of Zimbabwe’s contested 2008 elections, a call that Harare termed “extreme provocation and unstatesman-like”.

Khama also denounced the SADC’s endorsement of Mugabe’s 2013 re-election, calling instead for an independent audit of the poll. At a time when Africa has closed ranks behind Sudan’s Omar al-Bashir, Khama has continued to call for his arrest on the strength of a warrant issued by the International Criminal Court, most recently when the strongman showed up on South Africa’s doorstep, waving an AU pass.

The country also rubbed Kenya the wrong way up, calling for president Uhuru Kenyatta in comments by foreign minister Phundu Skelemani to attend an International Criminal  Court (ICC) hearing on charges that were eventually suspended last year. The minister later apologised.

And as African countries struggled to mediate in the Libyan crisis that led to Muammar Gaddafi’s ouster, Botswana in February 2011 cut diplomatic ties.

Khama has also never attended an AU meeting (nor a UN one), and since he took office in 2008, this SADC role will be his first major regional assignment. As such, despite being a relative lightweight in the region due to its look-inward policy, how he handles it will be of keen interest to observers.

Criticised for being haughty and authoritarian to the extent of hubris, he was already out of the blocks in his new role, blasting African leaders who clung to power. “In my opinion, he [Burundi president Pierre Nkurunziza] has served two terms”, Khama, whose country has term limits and who is serving his own second and last, said at a traditional SADC press conference, referring to the Central African leader’s controversial re-election. Khama has never addressed the domestic media during his time in office.

Mugabe, Zimbabwe’s only leader since independence in 1980, had instead argued for  doing away with term limits during the recent AU summit in Johannesburg, in reference to the troublesome Burundi question.

But if it was by dint of introducing himself that he, like his nemesis Mugabe, may find himself held back by the SADC’s powerful Troika system, which calls for consensus, negating possibilities of a sudden radical shift in direction. Interestingly, by this organ he has to consult both his deputy—and his predecessor, Mugabe on key organisation matters.

In addition to political challenges in Lesotho and Madagascar, Khama will also have to tackle the consequences of a series of disasters—a prolonged dry spell, heat waves and floods  having hit southern Africa, with 27.4 million needing food aid this year, according to the SADC’s figures.

High moral ground

The disruption to farming will remind Khama that for all his focus on industrialisation, many scholars continue to argue that Africa is yet to vault the first step of attaining an agricultural revolution in its path towards social development.

But he certainly comes in with the moral ground. Botswana’s economy, despite cutting its 2015 growth forecast by half as demand for its mainstay diamonds shrink, has consistently been one of the best managed in Africa. Indeed even its central bank is contrarian—as other regulators across Africa tightened monetary policy in a desperate battle to keep plunging currencies afloat, Botswana this month for the second time cut its benchmark rate, having created enough room for itself to do so. 

Its two million citizens are theoretically Africa’s third richest when oil is controlled for, while data from the World Economic Forum showed it is among the top five most prudent countries in government spending.

It also consistently ranks top of most governance indices, and has a long unbroken democratic tradition, and even if Khama did attempt to groom his brother to succeed him, the bid was batted back by the country’s courts.

In a way, Botswana’s term at the SADC (for which it hosts the headquarters) might have come at a time when Africa is experiencing  a crisis in confidence. The robust growth in tightly-run economies such as Ethiopia and Rwanda has raised the question whether the region should focus on collective growth, or look nationally first.

Also, these countries give short shrift to conventional democracy—Rwanda is looking to give president Paul Kagame a bite a third term, one of a clutch of countries where term limit revisions in other fast growing economies such as the DRC are underway.

Interestingly, Khama, a retired army general, gets a lot of stick for being authoritarian and closing down the space for opposing views, but still delivers on economic growth. The argument for what some call “western-style” democracy could find itself seriously tested in Africa.


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