It wouldn’t be the first time that the Government of Botswana and its outgoing President Ian Khama pressed for change in a neighboring African country.
Khama provoked Robert Mugabe, the ossified former leader of Zimbabwe, on more than one occasion by publicly calling on him to step down and accused Mugabe in 2016 of holding back all of southern Africa’s development with his refusal to do so.
So it’s no surprise that Botswana has again formally spoken out against a fellow Southern African Development Community (SADC) member state – this time, Democratic Republic of Congo, in a message Monday from the foreign ministry. It expresses dismay over the alarming trend among African leaders who refuse to leave power, as Khama himself is preparing to do at the end of March.
As Khama visits some 57 Botswana communities on a farewell tour, it’s a recurring theme in speeches that have alluded to DR Congo before while affirming Botswana’s commitment to rule of law and his confidence in the abilities of his successors. Yet there’s nothing oblique about this new statement directed at President Joseph Kabila.
“These leaders have now resorted to measures such as delaying holding of elections, or amending their national constitutions to effectively extend their term of Office. It is clear that such leaders are driven by self-interest, instead of those of the people they govern,” the unsigned Botswana government statement said.
“The Democratic Republic of Congo is a case in point. We continue to witness a worsening humanitarian situation in that country mainly because its leader has persistently delayed the holding of elections, and has lost control over the security of his country.”
Botswana concluded with an appeal for the international community – presumably SADC and African Union leaders, as well as other governments and bodies – to pressure Kabila into relinquishing power.
Criticizing Africa’s ‘presidency for life’ trend
It’s a call to action that Khama, with his admirers and detractors to be sure, has never shied away from himself. He wrote an open letter to Mugabe last November, at the height of a Zimbabwe political crisis that led to the elevation of President Emmerson Mnangagwa, and urged the former president to resign.
“The people of Zimbabwe have for a long time been subjected to untold suffering as a result of poor governance under your leadership,” Khama’s letter said. “It is therefore my conviction that by vacating the Presidency, this will usher in a new political dispensation that will pave the way for the much needed socioeconomic recovery in Zimbabwe.” Similar language about that new dispensation was used in the DR Congo message on Monday.
What’s compelling about Botswana’s stance is something Khama readily admitted at the opening of his personally signed Mugabe letter: It’s not the normal method of communication between leaders. Maybe it should be, as African leaders continue to pursue “presidency for life” at an alarming rate. If it were merely the old guard – President Teodoro Obiang in a corrupt Equatorial Guinea or President Paul Biya in a draconian Cameroon – one might hope for cultural change based on attrition.
Yet that’s not the case for Kabila, who at 46 is a comparatively young leader intent on protecting well-documented assets in a breathtakingly resource-rich country that’s nonetheless left the Congolese broken, bleeding and betrayed. His refusal to hold elections beyond his constitutionally appointed term limits, or to honor the December 2016 agreement to do so, fuels the suffering in Kinshasa or in the Kasais.
In Burundi, it is 54-year-old President Pierre Nkurunziza whose disastrous demand for constitutional changes and another term in office led to political and ethnically inspired violence, and a withdrawal from international cooperation on human rights. The authoritarian President Paul Kagame, at 60, leads a Rwanda that removed constitutional term limits and elected him again last year in a disputed contest.
In Egypt – although for different reasons – it’s been President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, a year younger than Khama, who is defying a democratic election process. In Mauritania, opposition politicians are watching President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz for signs that he wants to stay put beyond term limits; Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, 73, no longer needs to worry about his age. They’re a few among many.
Leading as he leaves
Khama is often criticized for breaking the cultural and diplomatic rules among African leaders with his public critique. He’s direct about the fact that “we are presidents, not monarchs,” as he told Mugabe. With few exceptions, that’s the case across a continent where far too many of these presidents are refusing to step down and – as China most recently demonstrated with its own consideration of term limit removals – it’s by no means a problem unique to Africans. It’s just that Khama is rare in his willingness to speak up.
There’s perhaps some truth in the assessment that Khama, as the vocal critic from a stable nation known for good governance, fails to show deference to neighboring African leaders and respect for the sovereignty of their nations. Yet that sovereignty is invoked far too often as a defense for South Africa’s corruption or Ethiopia’s human rights violations, and the complicity of high-level African leaders and organizations stems from their silence. To Khama’s credit, and that of Botswana, he has spoken up when it mattered.
It matters again now.
Image: Government of Botswana