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Why does Botswana work and richer South Sudan struggles?

Edited by Admin
Why does Botswana work and richer South Sudan struggles?

Photo: Botswana Parliament Building in Gaborone



When Botswana President Mokgweetsi Keabetswe Masisi was asked in a recent interview why his country had managed to do what other Africa countries had failed to do, he replied: “I cannot speak for other countries, but for us in Botswana it is rather quite simple. Proper governance in place, and adherence to the same over time.” 


This answer was a perfect precis of remarks he had made in March this year when he spoke at the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, USA. Kristen de Groot, a writer for Penn Today, the university’s newspaper, reported that Masisi told his audience: “It is critical to point out that Botswana’s democratic ideals and economic transformation are underpinned by principles of democracy, development, unity, self-reliance, and ‘botho,’ a Botswana concept of community.” 


The president added that Botswana’s practice of ‘kgotla’ (baraza, orukiiko, community gathering) was also key to how the country functioned, with the village a central point where everybody had a say and there was respect for everyone’s rights. “The ‘kgotla’ system promotes tolerance across inclusion, freedom of assembly, and speech,” Masisi said. “It also promotes human rights as well as collective decision making.”


When asked the single most important factor that accounted for Botswana’s success in the areas of good governance and management of natural resources, Masisi replied: “The critical ingredient is peace. With peace, you can resolve whatever challenges you have. The absence of peace is a huge setback.”


Penn Today reported that an audience member from Uganda noted that his nation had had a single president for more than 30 years (in fact almost 38 years), and mentioned a saying in Africa that being president was like riding on the back of a lion: “You don’t let go because if you do, you’ll most likely get eaten, the reason why many leaders cling to power.”  The Ugandan asked how Africa was prepared to manage presidents who did not leave their posts.


Masisi responded that it came down to embracing democratic ideals, and one of the most important was that “even before you get into an electoral contest, you must begin by respecting the rules, and part of the rules is that, if you are the loser, respect the loss, accept and embrace loss.”  Masisi added that he supported the idea of sanctions for those who even threatened not to respect election results or term limits.


These words were not the usual hot air that we have come to expect from pseudo democratic autocrats and dictators that have captured many African states. These were words of a man who is the fifth democratically elected president of Botswana since independence in 1966. Masisi, who became president in 2018, is now preparing to face a potentially tough election in 2024. His human and political imperfections, including allegations that he displays authoritarian streaks, and that his family has profited from government funded projects, will be put to the test in an election that may well end his leadership of Botswana.


Some Botswana political observers are betting on an upset that may send the Botswana Democratic Party (BDP), which has led the country since independence, into the opposition benches for the first time. That this is a possibility, which Masisi must have already prepared for, is at the core of Botswana’s stability, and its right to its seat among the progressive democratic nations. 


Sir Seretse Khama, Botswana’s first leader (1966-1980), set his country on a path that would turn Botswana, the third poorest country in the world in 1966, into a high middle-income country and one of the richest in Africa today. His successors – Quett Masire (1980-98), Festus Mogae (1998-2008), and Ian Khama (2008-2018) - continued the country’s leadership relay, without ever considering themselves indispensable, or sole visionaries in the land. Botswana’s presidents have, so far, not been rulers, but managers of the national enterprise for finite contract periods. 


It is this history that gives us the confidence that whatever the outcome of next year’s election, Botswana will remain politically stable as it marches towards the realization of its founding president’s dream. Indeed, the defeat of the long-ruling BDP, would likely usher in the era of a stronger multiparty dispensation, and more efficient and accountable governance.


One of the unique attributes of Botswana is the transparency with which its national wealth and public resources have been managed. An African friend, who is a frequent visitor to Botswana, sent me a note from Gaborone last week to inform me that “the current discussion in this country is about how to make best use of the diamond windfall. It is a national discussion and not a secret held by 3 senior people.” 


What a contrast to the situation in many African countries, where citizens are clueless about their oil and other mineral wealth! Worse still, citizens of those countries have no clue what path the presidential succession will follow when their rulers die or are incapacitated in office. Many vice-presidents are cosmetic placeholders, as clueless about the real successors of their bosses as are the most peripheral subjects in their captured states. 


For example, we have received news that the health of South Sudan’s President Salva Kiir Mayardit, who is said to be in the United Arab Emirates, for medical attention, has deteriorated to a disabling extent.  True or not, the mere mention of the president’s health has thrown his government and some citizens into panic. The absence of a clear, automatic, and inviolable succession plan is a dangerous situation that puts the lives and livelihoods of millions of citizens at risk. There is no guarantee that Vice President Riek Machar will succeed Salva Kiir. With South Sudan’s history of violent contests for power, the citizens’ have very good reason to fear the unknown.


We have seen this movie before. When Togo’s Etienne Gnassingbe Eyadema died in 2005, aboard an aircraft that was attempting to evacuate him to Paris for medical attention, a bloody succession struggle followed, ultimately won by his son Faure Gnassingbe, with the support of his father’s army. An estimated 1,000 people died in the violence that followed.


In Zimbabwe, Grace Ntombizodwa Mugabe’s attempt to succeed her husband was thwarted by the military, making a mockery of the country’s claims to civilian rule. In a couple of other countries, sons await their fathers’ deaths or incapacitation to inherit what they genuinely believe to be hereditary thrones. They will take power, alright, but their countries will be thrown into paralyzing instability, and keep them on the edge for decades. Gabon has recently shown us this reality. 


Botswana’s simple formula for success - proper governance in place, and adherence to the same over time – has a lot to recommend it. Why, it is what most successful, peaceful countries that we call the First World have followed. It is worth trying.


© Muniini K. Mulera


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