analysisBy Kitsepile Nyathi
Harare — Plans by the United States military to set up the proposed Africa Command in Botswana will further polarise the Southern African Development Community (SADC) and delay regional integration because of the West's treatment of the Zimbabwe crisis, analysts have warned.
Zimbabwe, which has become a divisive topic in the 14 nation block, has in the past spoken strongly against Botswana's decision to continue hosting Voice of America (VOA) transmitters. It claims they are being used by the US to transmit anti-Mugabe propaganda.
Botswana has also repeatedly denied accusations by its neighbour that the US has a military base near the capital Gaborone, which might be used to effect regime change in Harare.
After the explosive Lusaka SADC heads President Robert Mugabe reportedly walked out of a closed door session protesting against a frank assessment of the situation in Zimbabwe by his Zambian counterpart, Mr Levy Mwanawasa, the proposed US base has emerged as another poser for regional leaders.
Mr Mugabe reportedly told a shell shocked, Mr Mwanawasa he was aware of meetings the Zambian leader held with Western intelligence about Zimbabwe.
The SADC leadership is bitterly divided over Zimbabwe with leaders who led guerilla movements during liberation wars in the sub-region siding with Mr Mugabe, while the 'new generation' of leaders such as Mr Mwanawasa and President Festus Mogae of Botswana have spoken strongly against Harare's human rights record. Last week, President Mogae was forced to issue a statement on the proposed base to diffuse the storm but critics say he did little to allay fears that his country was collaborating with the West.
"We have not taken a position (on AFRICOM) because we don't know how the animal will look like," he told University of Botswana students during a public lecture. "We are still discussing the issue."
AFRICOM is a new unified combatant command of the US military with the responsibility of covering Africa.
According to the US department of defence, the initial plans are to create a sub command under the supervision of the US European Command and must begin initial operations next month.
The command will be temporarily housed at Kelley Barracks in Stuttgart, Germany until it is fully established in a yet to be determined African country by the end of September next year.
Announcing plans to create the command in February, US president, Mr George W. Bush said it will "coordinate all US military and security interests throughout the continent."
Mr Mogae revealed that Botswana was not the only country approached by the US to host the command saying discussions had also been held with South Africa.
But Dr Themba Nhuka, a political analyst at the National University of Science and Technology (NUST) said the Mugabe government has seized news about the setting up of AFRICOM in Botswana to drive home its claims that some of its neighbours are working with the West to topple it from power.
"Mugabe has a siege mentality," Dr Nhuka said.
"To divert attention from the worsening crisis at home in the past, the government has taken issue with Botswana for hosting VOA radio transmitters that broadcast 'hostile' propaganda aimed at regime change by the Americans and they have now seized this AFRICOM story to their advantage."
He added that "unfortunately most SADC leaders buy into these claims because they regard Mr Mugabe as a liberation icon" and this will further alienate fellow leaders who see the Zimbabwean leader as a stumbling leader to regional integration and economic growth.
In Botswana, Zimbabwe's argument seems to be gaining currency among Mr Mogae's opponents with the official opposition Botswana National Front (BNF) having already petitioned that country's parliament against AFRICOM.
"It is our duty as the BNF and indeed it is the duty of every Botswana citizen who cherishes peace, tranquility and democracy to vigorously prevent President George Bush from using Botswana as a spring board for his military and oil based economic manoeuvres," read the party's petition.
SADC had set a target of next year to reach full regional integration but differences over issues such as immigration and on how to deal with states that refuse to adhere agreed democratic and political principles such as Zimbabwe are seen delaying its success.
Mr Lloyd Nhuka of the University of Botswana says the setting up of AFRICOM in either Botswana or South Africa will further polarise the region as it would fuel suspicion among political leaders.
He said some countries such as Zimbabwe "were challenging US hegemony" while others were seen embracing "the superpower's policies."
Unfortunately SADC will become the battle ground for competing US and Chinese interests to the detriment of regional peace," he said.
Mr Nyathi is a journalist based in Harare, Zimbabwe