When Botswana President Ian Khama asked the West to lift targeted sanctions against Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe and his cronies, he was not the first African leader to do so. But given that Mr. Khama is one of President Mugabe’s fiercest critics, his call for a lift of sanctions took many diplomats and activists by surprise.
In his two-day visit to South Africa midweek, Khama called upon the Western world to withdraw the travel restrictions on Mugabe and his inner circle, a call initiated by South African President Jacob Zuma, saying, "We appeal to those who have placed sanctions to remove them in order to give motivation. There is goodwill expressed by both sides, even if there are concerns. We also have concerns but let's remove them (sanctions) to demonstrate good faith and see where we go from there."
What has made Khama change his tune all of a sudden?
Professor Tinyiko Maluleke, executive director for research at the University of South Africa, said the sudden change could be because Botswana wants more trade with South Africa.
“It was quite interesting indeed for Khama to make such a U-turn, considering that he is a chief critic of Mugabe. I think there are several reasons for his sudden change, with the first one being that he was here on official business to improve trade between his country and South Africa.
“Secondly, it is possible that President Zuma’s government managed to persuade him to change his views on Zimbabwe, or else Khama realized that Mugabe is yesterday’s man, not tomorrow’s,” says Maluleke. “Khama is beginning to look beyond Mugabe.”
“But I don’t believe the EU and US would lift the sanctions on Mugabe and his men just like that,” says Friedman. Far from changing its behavior on free speech and the rule of law, security agencies loyal to Mugabe continue to harass and detain members of Zimbabwe's opposition party, Movement for Democratic Change, that, in theory, continues to share power with Mugabe after the 2008 elections. “There are no political changes or compromises in Zimbabwe’s unity government.”
Instead, Friedman said he hoped to see Botswana pile more pressure on Mugabe and his henchmen to embrace democratic changes to enable free and fair elections.
On Tuesday, Khama said, “I was one of the people who were skeptical in the beginning. But the sanctions as it were are now starting to be a hindrance and we have to call on those imposing them to reconsider their position because the situation is better in Zimbabwe."
In an interview, Botswana government spokesman, Jeffrey Ramsay, denied that President Khama’s government had ever supported sanctions against Zimbabwe.
"The media down there in South Africa is so confused,” Mr. Ramsay said. “Firstly, Botswana never supported any sanctions against Zimbabwe, and has never called on them to be imposed. Yes, our president was a critic of President Mugabe, but that does not mean to say he ever advocated for sanctions against Zimbabwe..."
Human rights lawyer and executive director for Zimbabwe Exiles Forum, Gabriel Shumba, said the sanctions should remain. “Targeted measures (sanctions) remain the only tool effective to send the message that human rights violations will never be tolerated,” he said.
Two years after the signing of Zimbabwe’s Global Political Agreement which gave birth to the unity agreement, Mugabe is yet to fully implement the accord, and has vowed not to do so until sanctions were lifted.
As much as a third of Zimbabwe’s population of 14 million lives abroad as a result of the country’s economic meltdown and Mugabe’s crackdown on the opposition.