EDITORIAL COMMENT: Zimbabwe, Botswana must stay the course

The Chronicle

President Mnangagwa will on Thursday host his Botswana counterpart, Mokgweetsi Eric Masisi during the first Zimbabwe-Botswana Bi-National Commission (BNC).

This will be President Masisi’s second visit to Zimbabwe since he took office on April 1 last year. Eight days after he succeeded Ian Khama, President Masisi flew to Harare on a visit whose main thrust was for him to introduce to himself to President Mnangagwa. Two months earlier, President Mnangagwa had visited Botswana on a mission to introduce himself to that country, then under President Khama. Some three months earlier, President Khama witnessed President Mnangagwa’s inauguration in Harare.

The high profile interaction between Harare and Gaborone came after many years of frosty relations between the two countries. From time to time Botswana was openly critical of the political situation in our country and how it impacted on our economy and theirs. The Zimbabwe leadership of that time, keen to count on regional solidarity against persistent Western attacks, was unhappy with the public criticisms from a neighbour. This sullied relations between the two countries.

However, the assumption of office by President Mnangagwa opened a new chapter in the bi-lateral relations of Zimbabwe and Botswana. This has been the case with Harare’s ties with all Sadc countries and others across Africa and the globe as President Mnangagwa’s engagement and re-engagement policy advances.

President Masisi’s visit this week is further testimony of the turnaround in relations which is very welcome. That he and President Mnangagwa agreed in August last year to elevate the countries’ cooperation from a joint commission to a BNC is encouraging. At BNC level, Presidents from both countries, accompanied by their ministers and senior government officials meet every year for high level talks as opposed to a joint commission which involves ministers and officials meeting from time to time.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Trade, in a statement on Saturday, lauded the new level of interaction.

“The Inaugural Session of the Zimbabwe and Botswana Bi-National Commission (BNC) will be held on 28 February 2019 at Meikles Hotel in Harare and will be headed by the two countries’ Heads of State and Government, His Excellency, President E D Mnangagwa, and his Botswana counterpart, HE President Dr Mokgweetsi Eric Keabetswe Masisi,” said the statement.

“The BNC replaced the Joint Permanent Commission on Co-operation between the two countries, which last sat as the 12th Session in Gaborone, Botswana, from 8 to 11 February 2018.

“The BNC is the highest bilateral framework of co-operation between Zimbabwe and Botswana. It will be preceded by a Ministerial Meeting on 27 February 2019, and a Senior Officials meeting on 25 and 26 February 2019.

“Eight Memoranda of Understanding and Agreements covering political and diplomatic, economic, social, and defence and security sectors will be signed during this Session.”

The Zimbabwe-Botswana BNC is important because of many reasons. It demonstrates the cordiality of relations between the two countries. Yes, the meetings are at a political level; presidents meeting in a friendly atmosphere from time to time. However, experience has taught us that positive interaction at that superior level often cascades down to the people on the ground. Zimbabweans who visited Botswana between 2000 and the third quarter of 2017 will bear testimony to the difficulties they faced in that country, starting right at the border right into the hinterland. A few may have been told to “go back home and fix your country” and so on.

Happily, that is now firmly in the past. With the new chapter that was opened in November 2017, we are confident that there is greater respect and friendship on both sides.

The Zimbabwe-Botswana BNC is important too, as with other high level cooperation frameworks, because agreements reached in deliberations led by presidents of both countries stand a good chance of being implemented.

We have seen that happening under the BNC that Zimbabwe has with South Africa, for instance. We have seen that happening under the comprehensive strategic partnership of cooperation that Zimbabwe has had with China since April last year.

Typically, there is a greater push for ministers, government officials and even the private sector to implement agreements signed under BNCs than under lower level co-operation frameworks.

Therefore, the raft of agreements that will be signed on Thursday should not only cement the political relations between the two countries, but also help in developing the economies of both nations and their people.

We feel that trade between Harare and Gaborone should be greater. According to the United Nations Comtrade database on international trade, Botswana’s imports from Zimbabwe was US$19.64 million during 2017. There is no doubt that a figure of $20 million out of Botswana’s US$6 billion import bill is almost negligible. We don’t think there was a big improvement last year.

Over the past 19 years of Zimbabwe’s economic decline, thousands of citizens and some retailers have been importing a range of finished products from Botswana, mainly food, clothing and furniture items.

While this is so, we don’t think that the figures involved are anywhere near the value of trade between Zimbabwe and South Africa or Zimbabwe and Zambia, for instance.

In terms of investment, possibly the biggest investment that has come to Zimbabwe from Botswana is in Choppies supermarkets.

Going forward, the Zimbabwe-Botswana BNC should create conditions for greater trade and investment between the two sister nations while enhancing their political and cultural ties.