Should we blame Khama for Venson-Moitoi’s failed AU bid? Analysis

Nchidzi Smarts

There was high expectation that Pelonomi Venson Moitoi would be elected Chairperson of the African Union Commission at the 27th Summit in Kigali, Rwanda. Then, Venson-Moitoi was running against former Ugandan Vice President Specioza Wandira Kazibwe and Equatorial Guinea Foreign Minister Agapito Mba Mokuy.
During the first round, Botswana garnered 16 votes, Equitorial Guinea 12 votes and Uganda’s envoy got 11 votes. In the third and final round, Venson-Moitoi got 23 votes, short of the required two thirds majority because 28 countries abstained from voting.
Botswana had another go at the position at the soon to end 28th Summit in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. This time it was going to be difficult for Venson Moitoi as the field was more contested. In Addis Ababa, Venson Moitoi was eliminated after three rounds of voting having received 10 votes in the first round, then 8 in both round 2 and 3.
Voting for a leader in such institutions is not based solely on the perceived experience of the candidate – national and regional interests play a significant role in the voting behavior of Member States. Following the Kigali Summit it should have been clear to Botswana that the missing piece in Venson Moitoi’s campaign was the president, His Excellency Seretse Khama Ian Khama.
Commentators had expected Botswana to win in Kigali due to its democratic and good governance record in the region making it a good candidate. That wasn’t enough to get her through the elections because regional politics played a bigger role than the personal credentials of the candidate.
A key theme when discussing Botswana’s diplomacy under President Ian Khama is the role of personalities and their background in shaping foreign policy. The national interest, often referred to by the French expression raison d’État (“reason of State”), is a country’s goals and ambitions whether economic, military, or cultural. The concept is an important one in international relations where pursuit of the national interest is the foundation of the realist school.
Although Khama has exhibited a distinct diplomatic posture that breaks from past practice, breaking ranks with Madagascar, and speaking out on Zimbabwe and other contentious issues, his has been greater focus on bilateralism within SADC. Over the years, Botswana’s President, Ian Khama has cut a lone figure when it comes to African issues. On many occasions, the country has distanced itself from issues affecting its regional and continental allies.
Khama’s multilateral engagement in Africa has been limited. He has not personally attended AU Summits since assuming office, sending either the Vice President or Cabinet ministers. The Office of the President has not issued an official statement about these decisions and it remains unknown how his absence affects the country’s foreign policy objectives.
Opinions are divided on whether certain diplomatic approaches and engagements are suitable and strategic for pursuing Botswana’s interests. The reason is that ultimately, foreign policy development, emphasis and modes of diplomacy have been heavily shaped by personalities. Furthermore, the combination of personality, context and parameters has had policy consequences for the way Botswana conceptualises its role in the region and continent. It is also because there is no national consensus in defining Botswana’s national interests and how, in achieving them, the country behaves towards others, politically, socially, economically and militarily.
The rejection of  Venson Moitoi in Kigali shows the fractious relationship we have with the rest of Africa. It was always going to be difficult to represent countries and the continental body he has labelled 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.
Ahead of the elections, Botswana was accused of not being committed to the continent, and not being “Pan-Africanist”. What we have learnt from this election is that at the time when Africans are calling for a more integrated continent, maybe it is time for Botswana to re-examine our position on socio-economic relevance to the African continent.