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im­babwe’s Pres­i­dent Robert Mu­gabe is set to step down as chair­per­son of the South­ern African De­vel­op­ment Com­mu­nity (SADC) this week, mark­ing the be­gin­ning of the end of a year of con­ti­nen­tal and in­ter­na­tional promi­nence and jet-set­ting for the 91-year-old ruler. His term as African Union (AU) chair­per­son is set to end in Jan­uary. Mu­gabe will be hand­ing over the SADC lead­er­ship reins to his deputy in the re­gional body, Botswana’s Pres­i­dent Ian Khama, who is one of the only heads of state on the con­ti­nent who has dared to openly crit­i­cise Mu­gabe.

Khama was also the only African pres­i­dent not to en­dorse Zim­babwe’s 2013 elec­tions as free and fair, when Mu­gabe’s Zanu-PF won with a 62% ma­jor­ity. Mu­gabe has been in power for 35 years. Khama’s views on many big con­ti­nen­tal is­sues dif­fer from Mu­gabe’s, and there has been open fric­tion be­tween the two at sum­mits in the past year.

The most re­cent was in April, when Khama was re­ported to have stood by Pres­i­dent Ja­cob Zuma on mi­gra­tion, say­ing that African coun­tries should en­sure that they were well gov­erned so that their cit­i­zens would not be forced to leave for neigh­bour­ing coun­tries. South Africa and Botswana both ex­pe­ri­ence a reg­u­lar in­flux of Zim­bab­weans, who are ei­ther try­ing to es­cape Mu­gabe’s rule or find work.

At the sum­mit in Au­gust last year, where Mu­gabe as­sumed the po­si­tion of SADC chair, he ac­cused South Africa of be­ing an eco­nomic bully in the re­gion. At the same sum­mit, Khama ar­rived late and left early. Jour­nal­ists from Botswana said this was to avoid be­ing in the same group photo as Mu­gabe.

Botswana is also the only coun­try in the AU to openly dif­fer with the con­ti­nen­tal body’s stance on the In­ter­na­tional Crim­i­nal Court. Mu­gabe used his plat­form as AU chair in June to speak out strongly against the court.

In May, Mu­gabe vis­ited Botswana, os­ten­si­bly to pay a visit to the SADC head­quar­ters to see how the ad­min­is­tra­tion worked – the first SADC chair so far to do so – but he also met with Khama in an ap­par­ent at­tempt to patch things up.

“Just now I made a cour­tesy call with my good friend and coun­ter­part, who was kind enough to pro­vide a sump­tu­ous lunch. It’s African hos­pi­tal­ity. There are no quar­rels,” Mu­gabe said af­ter the visit.

Botswana ranks high in de­vel­op­ment in­dices and is re­garded as one of the best gov­erned coun­tries in Africa. It is one of the few coun­tries that has es­caped the “re­source curse”, and prof­its from its large diamond in­dus­try are dis­trib­uted as wel­fare grants.

But Khama’s crit­ics say he has an au­thor­i­tar­ian streak. The re­tired army gen­eral was re-elected for another five-year term last year, but not be­fore jail­ing a jour­nal­ist for pub­lish­ing an ar­ti­cle he said was crim­i­nally in­ac­cu­rate and defam­a­tory.

Eco­nomic Free­dom Fight­ers leader Julius Malema has also been re­fused en­try into the coun­try be­cause of his sup­port for regime change in Botswana. Malema has ac­cused Khama of pan­der­ing to the West.

The heads of the SADC’s 15 mem­ber states are ex­pected to ar­rive in Gaborone to­day, with the ex­cep­tion of Malawi’s Pres­i­dent Peter Mutharika, whose aides said he had to at­tend to an eco­nomic cri­sis and “other press­ing is­sues” at home.

One of the most press­ing is­sues on the agenda will be the se­cu­rity cri­sis in Le­sotho, which was ex­ac­er­bated by the as­sas­si­na­tion of for­mer de­fence force com­man­der Lieu­tenant Gen­eral Maa­parankoe Ma­hao. Deputy Pres­i­dent Cyril Ramaphosa, an SADC-ap­pointed me­di­a­tor in Le­sotho, rec­om­mended an in­de­pen­dent com­mis­sion of in­quiry into his death.

The two-day SADC sum­mit is set to start to­mor­row.

Pres­i­dent Robert Mu­gabe

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