American audiences recently asked pointed questions about the Zimbabwe crisis of Botswana’s President, Festus Mogae, during the southern African leaders’ visit to the United States. Zimbabwe’s economy is in chaos, with the country enduring the highest inflation rate in the world, food shortages, mass unemployment and political repression. The situation has resulted in thousands of Zimbabweans leaving their homeland in favor of neighboring countries, including Botswana. The United States, European Union and Australia have placed sanctions on members of Zimbabwe’s ruling party, including travel bans, and are considering further punitive measures. The powers also want African leaders to put more pressure on President Robert Mugabe to negotiate with his political opponents to end their deadlock. In the final part of our series on Botswana, VOA’s Darren Taylor reports on the country's response to one of southern Africa’s greatest challenges thus far.
President Mogae was faced with the specter of Zimbabwe wherever he went in the US. Audience members demanded to know what he was doing about the situation.
Mr. Mogae repeatedly stated: “Zimbabwe is difficult…. We have done our best to talk to our neighbors.”
Following President Mugabe’s seizure of farms owned by white people, Zimbabwe’s economy has dissolved. The government blames its hardships on Britain and the US, who Mr. Mugabe maintains are trying to destroy his ZANU-PF administration.
The President has repeatedly cracked down on his political opponents, arresting, jailing and beating them, in an effort to maintain his grip on power.
Hundreds of thousands of Zimbabweans continue to flee into neighboring Botswana and South Africa.
Britain and the US have often harshly condemned Mr. Mugabe’s administration, with London recently announcing that it would propose that the European Union extend a travel ban on members of the Zimbabwean government. British Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, also said he’d boycott a summit of European and African leaders in December if Mr. Mugabe attended, and that he’d consider new sanctions against Harare.
At the recent meeting of the United Nations General Assembly in New York, US President George W. Bush again accused President Mugabe of leading a “tyrannical regime” that represented an “assault” on the people of Zimbabwe.
In his public addresses in America, Mr. Mogae repeatedly implied that, unlike the US and Europe, his government, and the entire southern African region, did not possess the luxury of being able to breathe fire at President Mugabe, as the Zimbabwe crisis was on their doorsteps.
“Your government, and some of you, you say that we don’t seem to be applying pressure on them (the Zimbabwean authorities),” Mr. Mogae told an audience in Washington.
“If we made hostile statements against them, they would only become more hostile. And what purpose would it serve? What useful purpose would it serve?” he asked.
“So we continue to say to them: We think that something must give, and that it takes two to tango; they cannot run; they are not the only Zimbabweans – the opposition are Zimbabweans; the newspapers are Zimbabweans, and all the other people who have fled the country – four million of them – are Zimbabweans, and ought to be accommodated. But we haven’t succeeded,” President Mogae acknowledged.
Although he obviously didn’t enjoy being put on spot all the time about Zimbabwe, at no time did Mr. Mogae appear irritated by the questions, and at no point did he seek to avoid the controversy. But the president maintained that, other than continuing to plead with the opposing forces in Zimbabwe to talk with one another, there was not much that Gaborone could do.
“We as a small nation, sandwiched as we are between Zimbabwe and South Africa, we can only lead by precept and example. We can only endeavor to persuade. But we have failed to persuade our colleagues in Zimbabwe to talk to each other, to accommodate one another. They (the ruling ZANU-PF government) believe that all their problems are directly caused by the seizure of white (owned) land, and therefore the imposition of restrictions on their travel by Western Europe and North America,” President Mogae explained.
He said he’d recently spoken with the representatives of the German and Austrian governments, who’d asked him: “How can travel restrictions in Western Europe and North America on 150 leaders in Zimbabwe – a nation of 60 million – how can that cause 5,000 per cent inflation?”
Mr. Mogae said when he’d reported this to President Mugabe’s government, it had refused to consider anything else other than the limited sanctions upon them as reasons for the economic chaos in Zimbabwe.
“They take the view and the position that if you are not with them, you are against them; period. And therefore it’s very difficult to persuade them,” he lamented.
President Mogae, though, acknowledged that southern African countries were responsible to a degree for the ongoing crisis in Zimbabwe.
“There has been no consensus among SADC (Southern African Development Community) members as to what should be done. As a result of that, we found that if each group insisted upon its approach, then SADC would be divided. We choose not to be divided. It’s better that SADC continues as a united regional grouping, with Zimbabwe as it is, rather than be divided into two groups: one pro-Zimbabwe as it is, one for change in Zimbabwe. That is our dilemma.”
Stephen Morrison, the head of the Africa Program at the Center for Strategic Studies in Washington, said the humanitarian tragedy in Zimbabwe was set to worsen “rapidly” and that Botswana would be on the “frontlines.”
He told President Mogae: “Your government has been extremely generous and strategic in the approach that’s been taken. I would expect that the United States government, which is already very invested in its food relief within the region, including Zimbabwe, will be generous and forward-leaning in working with your government and others to try to deal with this human tragedy that is unfolding, and the stresses that it’s going to put on Zimbabwe’s neighboring states.”
Morrison said 3,000 people were illegally crossing from Zimbabwe into neighboring countries every week, and there were indications that this figure would increase.
This would undoubtedly result in grave challenges for Botswana, Mr. Mogae said.
“We would need assistance. After all, we are in a drought situation ourselves…. Our current problems – both the unemployment problem and the crime situation – (are) exacerbated by the inflow of illegal immigrants. And we’re having a lot of rising resentment by locals, blaming illegals for almost everything, even when the illegals are not to blame.”