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Botswana’s President Ian Khama is known for being a straight-talking military man. In a region where it’s considered impolite to mention the word “democracy” in the company of autocrats in case it offends them, he stands out.
In 2008, he refused to recognise Robert Mugabe as Zimbabwe’s president because of the highly questionable manner of his election. Mugabe had lost the first round of the presidential election to Morgan Tsvangirai and then Tsvangirai pulled out of the second round because his supporters were being killed by Mugabe’s Zanu-PF thugs.
Last week Khama had some more direct words to say about Zimbabwe and Syria in the presence of President Jacob Zuma who was on a state visit to Botswana.
In their joint communiqué after the visit the two leaders merely “urged the political parties in Zimbabwe to set and adhere to the timelines for the adoption of the new constitution, holding of the referendum and elections”.
But in his remarks at a state luncheon for Zuma, who is the Zimbabwe mediator for the Southern African Development Community (SADC), Khama said: “Nothing other than free and fair elections should be acceptable to the people of Zimbabwe or the rest of us in the international community.”
The SADC, he said, “must ensure the run-up to the polls and not only the elections themselves are transparent for all to witness and devoid of attempts at manipulation by one party or the other”.
“Therefore SADC monitors and those from the wider international community should participate in observing the process before, during and maybe even after the elections.”
This was clearly directed at Zanu-PF which certainly doesn’t want the “wider international community” snooping in on the elections.
On Syria, the two leaders in their joint communiqué merely “expressed hope that the new UN-Arab League Special Envoy to Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, would succeed in his assignment to end the political crisis in that country”.
But in his after-lunch remarks Khama was again much stronger.
He said Botswana was “deeply concerned about the deteriorating political situation in Syria, which to date has resulted in the loss of many innocent lives at the hands of Bashar al-Assad’s murderous regime. Equally, we are disturbed by the continuous staunch stand of some permanent members of the UN Security Council, specifically Russia and China, which frustrates the efforts of the international community to find a lasting solution to the Syrian conflict”.
China and Russia were “duty bound to search for international peace and security and not allow their historic differences to cloud their responsibility as council members”, he said.
There seemed to be some indirect advice to Zuma on Zimbabwe in Khama’s speech. And perhaps more than mere advice in his blunt criticism of Syria’s Assad and of Russia and China.
SA has taken a studiously neutral line on Syria, refusing to single out Assad’s regime for harsher criticism than his rebel enemies. And it has mostly voted with Russia and China on Syria in the security council.
So Khama presumably wanted Zuma to bathe in the reflected ignominy of his attack on SA’s two partners in Brics.
At about the same time, SA’s Deputy Minister of International Relations, Marius Fransman, representing SA at the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) summit in Tehran, was hearing Egypt’s new President Mohammed Mursi saying much the same things about Assad and about Russia and China for protecting him at the UN.
Is Zuma’s government starting to join these dots and draw some conclusions about its Syrian position?
So far it has tended to dismiss such criticism of Assad as an expression of Western interests or Middle East regional rivalries.
At a stretch one could interpret Mursi’s criticism as indicating that he had joined a regional Sunni plot against Assad’s ruling Alawite clique, a Shia sub-sect, and against his major ally Iran, the regional Shia superpower.
Also at a stretch you could dismiss Khama’s harsh words about Assad as further proof of his Western allegiances. That would certainly be the way Julius Malema would see it.
But it’s getting more and more difficult to stretch the cover that far with such conspiracy theories.
Maybe when just about all our African allies are marching in unison against Assad, we might have to acknowledge we’re the one out of step.