Botswana: beyond the ‘miracle’

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In this blog, our Co-editor SJ Cooper-Knock emphasises the need to start realistically assessing the political status quo is Botswana. Since the 1990s, the country’s political economy has been far from ‘miraculous’ – in fact, its been increasingly worrying. With allegations of political violence growing and optimistic experts estimating that the country’s diamond supplies will only last another 30 years, its time we took a harder look at Africa’s ‘democratic darling’.

Since the controversies surrounding elections at the end of October this year, some commentators have been starting to question whether the country’s reputation as a shining example of democracy in Africa is deserved. Arguably, what’s surprising is not that Botswana’s democracy is flawed; it’s that so few commentators were willing to highlight those flaws in the past.

Distracted by Botswana’s long record of ‘free and fair’ elections and the relatively sound management of its diamond reserves, many have overlooked the centralisation of power in the country, until its repercussions have become all too apparent.

Ahead of the elections on 24th October, politics in Botswana was marred by accusations of violence and intimidation. Gomolemo Motswaledi, president of Botswana Movement for Democracy and the deputy president of the Umbrella for Democratic Change (an alliance of three opposition parties) was killed in a car accident that his comrades deemed to be ‘highly suspicious’.

A month later, Sunday Standard editor Outsa Mokone was arrested and charged with ‘seditious intent’. Mokone had provoked government ire in the past having published stories on corruption allegations. The trigger for his arrest appeared to be a story reporting that the president had crashed his car and bought a replacement Jeep for the victim. Mokone’s arrest marked the first time a journalist had been charged with breaking sedition laws.

These incidents were just a few of the alleged abuses that the government committed ahead of the elections.


Botswana has long been considered with ‘an African miracle’ with a stable democracy, ‘rapid economic growth’, and relatively low levels of corruption. Recently ranking second on the Ibrahim Index of African Governance, its reputation as an ‘African success story’ continues.


The political and economic achievements of the country should not be underrated. But in reality, Botswana’s substantive democracy has been increasingly challenged since the 1990s. Positive and negative reputations are notoriously difficult to shake in the international sphere and Botswana, it seems, is still benefitting from the reputation it garnered in the 1970s and 1980s when (despite its flaws) it stood out from its neighbours in terms of democratic and economic performance.


As Kenneth Good, one of the few persistently critical voices on Botswana argued back in 2009, political shifts in the late 1990s were crucial in setting the stage for today in which power is centralised in the hands of the executive. As the government’s fear of loosing its grip on power has grown, so too has its willingness to utilise that power in a more authoritarian fashion.


Two decades ago, battles over presidential succession compounded by the government’s fear that its popularity was waning drove changes in the political rules of the game in Botswana. Crucially, these shifts limited the term of presidents to ten years, and allowed vice presidents to succeed automatically, should a president vacate their post between elections.


When President Masire resigned in 1998, these rulings were put into practice for the first time, bringing Festus Mogae to power. The timing of Mogae’s entrance into office has meant that this mode of automatic, unelected succession has become the norm in Botswana, allowing presidents to choose their replacement.

It was on these terms that Ian Khama entered office in 2008. Khama had a great deal of political capital as a traditional leader and the son of Botswana’s first president. However, under his rule, factions within the party have increased and Khama, in turn, relied increasingly ‘institutionalised intolerance’ to keep his opponents at bay. When a rival faction under Gomolemo Motswaledi began to trounce his own, for example, he suspended Motswaledi from the BDP: a decision that was upheld in court.


Precedents such as these have confirmed and consolidated the centralisation of power in Botswana. Even before the reforms in the 1990s, the president’s power was considerable. Seretse Khama’s capacity to appoint four MPs outside the electoral process, for example, allowed him to secure his own power base within legislature by short-circuiting the voting population (although Botswana’s executive are far from alone in this regard). It was this capability that allowed Seretse to keep his successor, Quett Masire, in parliament when the latter lost his constituency in the 1969 elections.


Arguably, this centralisation of power has been enabled by two key factors. Firstly, the long-term dominance of the BDP: Remaining substantively democratic was always going to be difficult in what Sebudubudu and Osei-Hwedie have called a ‘de facto one party dominant system within a multiparty framework’. Even without active intimidation, the opposition face an up-hill struggle in Botswana: registration may be easy enough, but parties must then contend with a lack of public campaign support, unfavourable constituency boundaries, a first-past-the-post system, and a powerful incumbent. With the exception of the Umbrella for Democratic Change, cooperation between opposition parties has been limited, and their political vision has often been underwhelming. Without a meaningful electoral challenge, the BDP has lacked any effective checks and balances, allowing them to further consolidate their own power: a classic vicious spiral. Secondly, Botswana has benefitted from the presence of diamonds, which have thus far been a key driver of Botswana’s economic. The fact that these natural resources have been far better managed in Botswana than elsewhere has solidified the BDP’s rule.


By tracing political shifts back in time it becomes clear that the troubling behaviour of government of late is not down to a shift in the countries democratic architecture but simply the extent to which the BDP feared a change in power, and the willingness of its leader – Ian Khama – to utilise the powers he has been afforded to prevent it.


Already, in 2004, forty eight per cent of voters in the country supported the two leading opposition parties – a figure that, as Kenneth Good argued, was far higher than the respective figures for opposition support in South Africa. In recent years, the fear of losing a general election has only grown, with splinter parties breaking off from the BDP; alliances forming in the opposition; fluctuations in diamond prices creating shakier growth; the provision of basic utilities like water and electricity becoming unreliable; and opposition from organised labour growing. In this latest round of elections, the BDP managed to hold on to power by winning 37 of 57 seats but it only secured 46 per cent of the vote, in comparison to the Umbrella for Democratic Change’s 30 per cent, and its hold in urban centres was particularly weak.


The years ahead will be crucial in shaping Botswana’s political future. That future is hindered, not helped, by a romanticised depiction of the democratic status quo.

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