The decision earlier this week by three Botswanan opposition parties to boycott Malawi’s President, Bingu wa Mutharika’s three-day state visit on the grounds of Mutharika’s increasingly authoritarian tendencies at home undoubtedly caught him and, one would believe, his host, Ian Khama unawares.
Nehemiah Modubule of the opposition, Botswana Movement for Democracy argued:
“Mutharika is an autocrat who recently called upon the youth of his political party, the Democratic Progressive Party, to assault members of the opposition who criticize him… My appearance on the same podium with him would amount to complicity in the harassment of opposition activists in Malawi.”
Mutharika has recently come under heavy criticism from local NGOs, civil society and some influential donor countries including Germany and the United States for his intolerance to criticism, disrespect to human rights and implementation of restrictive media laws.
Despite calls for his administration to behave democratically, Mutharika has been unrepentant. He is a proud man and he will wear a brave face on his way back home, but make no mistake; he has learned a lesson. The region – if not the world – is closely following events in Malawi. More importantly, people elsewhere are ready to stand up in solidarity alongside their Malawian counterparts in fighting for democratic freedom.
What hurts even more is that the opposition in Botswana, whose president has a reputation for denouncing undemocratic regimes in Africa, never expected Khama’s government to invite Mutharika on the grounds that he is a dictator. As Dumelang Saleshando of the Botswana Congress Party expressed:
“We are disappointed that the Botswana government, which in some instances adopts a hard-line approach towards undemocratic regimes, has decided to honor Mutharika with a state visit whilst his country slides towards repression of human rights.”
The snub of Mutharika was always going to make headlines, yet this should not overshadow the maturity of Botswana’s democracy. There are few, if any countries in Africa whose oppositions are granted an audience with a visiting head of state. This is proper democracy and Botswana has set a benchmark that all African countries must aspire to achieve. By granting such responsibility to the opposition, Botswana sends a clear message that the opposition is a part of leadership. The snub is not only a verdict on Mutharika’s authoritarianism, it also questions President Khama’s decision making. Surely, Khama will think twice in extending future invitations.