Straight shooter finally bows out

OBITUARY

Mompati Merafhe (1936 – 2015)

Botswana’s former vice-president ­Lieutenant General Mompati ­Merafhe was a no-nonsense straight shooter who graduated from the military to civilian politics.

Merafhe, who died last week aged 78, first came to prominence in 1977 after a reluctant president Seretse Khama acceded to the idea of setting up a defence force that Merafhe, originally a policeman, would oversee.

Merafhe’s first real challenge came a year later when 15 inexperienced Botswana Defence Force soldiers were killed in a border clash with Rhodesian troops in Lesoma in the northwest district of Botswana.

By 1989, when he took the leap into politics, he had overseen the creation of a credible force that spearheaded an anti-poaching drive and took part in peacekeeping missions in Africa and further afield.

His first government post, under president Ketumile Masire, was as minister of presidential affairs and public administration.

But it was as foreign minister after 1994 that he would emerge as Botswana’s best-known, and sometimes controversial, diplomat.

Controversial figure
He was embroiled in a high-profile public spat with the human rights organisation Survival International, which called for a world boycott of Botswana’s diamonds in response to the forced removal of Bushmen from the central Kgalagadi Game Reserve.

He claimed in an interview in Pretoria that Botswana was the only government in the world that was being taken to task for “trying to improve the lot of its people … and getting [them] into the mainstream of our society”.

In 1998, following an army mutiny in Lesotho, Merafhe raised eyebrows by threatening to bomb the strife-torn country as part of the stabilisation effort of the Southern African Development Community (SADC). Botswana later sent troops to support Operation Boleas, which put down the mutiny and restored the elected government.

“If you think you are secure on that mountain, you are fooling yourselves,” he said at a meeting of regional leaders, including South Africa’s then deputy president, Thabo Mbeki. “We will bomb you out of there, and we shall not stop bombing until the mountain is flattened out.
You think these are the days of Moshoeshoe [former Lesotho king] of old?”

In her newly published auto-biography, the former speaker of Botswana’s National Assembly, Margaret Nasha, recalls that Merafhe’s threat was followed by “complete silence in the hall”.

Influencing global leaders
As foreign minister he played a prominent role in the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting when it dealt with former Nigerian dictator Sani Abacha over the execution of writer and Ogoni activist Ken Saro-Wiwa in 1995. Nigeria was suspended from the Commonwealth for three years because of the issue.

In 2007 he launched a typically frank attack on Western concerns about the growing Chinese role in Africa, dismissing it as paranoia and saying that it reflected a tendency to treat Africans like “a group of children”.

After leading of the election observer team to Zimbabwe in 2013, he publicly described the poll as “a circus”.

Merafhe was an influential figure in the region, serving as a member of SADC’s Organ on Politics, Defence and Security Co-operation.

But his role in the ruling Botswana Democratic Party (BDP) was contentious. A long-standing MP for Mahalapye West, he was blamed by some for causing a deep rift in the party by trying to unseat its chairperson, Peter Mmusi, in 1992.

His rise to the vice-presidency in 2008 was opposed by a powerful faction of the BDP, led by veteran parliamentarian Daniel Kwelagobe, who believed the position should go to him. Many in this faction would later break away to form the opposition Botswana Movement for Democracy.

Merafhe will be accorded a state funeral. He will be buried at his home village, Serowe, on Saturday. 

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The M&G Centre for Investigative Journalism (amaBhungane) produced this story. All views are ours. See www.amabhungane.co.za for our stories, activities and funding sources.

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