September 30 is a day of rejoicing for people in Botswana,” says author and political analyst Ndulamo Anthona Morima who lives and works in the capital Gaborone. He was referring to the day when Botswana announced its independence from Great Britain in 1966.
Unlike other African countries, the southern African nation’s road to independence was peaceful. There was no civil war, no shedding of blood. This peaceful atmosphere has remained until today.
“From the beginning we had free and fair elections in a multi-party democracy. Opposition parties were never forced to hide,” Morima said in an interview with DW. He also praised the country’s independent legal system.
“Several judges have pronounced verdicts against the government in sensitive cases and the government accepted this,” he said.
For years Botswana has occupied a place in the top fifth of Transparency International’s Anti-Corruption Index. It is currently ranked 35th, making it the highest-placed African country by far. In Botswana, a wealth of raw materials – which in other countries breeds corruption – seems to have had a positive effect. The revenue earned from diamond production has been put into improving the health service and diversifying the economy.
In 2008, former President Festus Mogae was awarded the prestigious Ibrahim Prize for Good Governance, an award only for African heads of state and government who hand over power to a successor democratically. This is a rare honor as many African presidents continue to seek to remain in power longer than their constitutions allow.
Speaking up for democracy
When it comes to democracy, Botswana goes against the African trend, something that has brought it critics as well as admirers. In 2013, President Ian Khama called for a rerun of the controversial elections in Zimbabwe. He did this much to the displeasure of Robert Mugabe, now 93 years old and in power for over 30 years. The dinosaur among African leaders is not used to criticism from colleagues. Burundi’s President Pierre Nkurunziza was also admonished when he had himself elected for a third term in 2015 in contravention of the constitution. South Africa was also a target for criticism from Botswana when it allowed Sudanese President Omar al-Bashiir to return home after a state visit although the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague had issued a warrant for his arrest.
“Botswana used to opt for backdoor diplomacy,” said Morima.
But now times have changed. Morima thinks the African Peer Review Mechanism, a voluntary self-monitoring instrument created by the African Union, has failed because heads of state won’t implement it.
“Our presidents have no choice but to condemn heads of state who abuse their power and allow their people to suffer,” he said.
Not without blemish
But there is also room for improvement in Botswana itself. Opposition parties can act relatively freely but have no access to public funds. Critics also complain that the electoral commission is too close to the government. And they say protection for the press is insufficient.
“We need legislation on the freedom of information,” Morima said. At the moment it is often difficult for journalists to obtain information that is in the hands of the government.
Criticism of President Khama increased in 2014 which was an election year. There were reports of attacks on activists. The newspaper, Sunday Standard reported on a car crash in which Khama was said to have played a role. Shortly afterwards, editor-in-chief Outsa Mokone was arrested. Critics of the president also include Martin Adelmann, political scientist at the Arnold-Bergstresser Institute in Freiburg. He believes that the positive image of Botswana has suffered under Khama and his authoritarian style of governing.
Little joy for the San
Another cause of concern for observers is the treatment of the San ethnic group, often referred to as “bushmen,” because of their way of life. They are increasingly being forced to abandon their traditions, said Linda Poppe, coordinator in Germany of the organisation Survival International. Ten years ago, the Supreme Court passed a landmark verdict granting the San the right to live and to hunt on their traditional lands. However, said Poppe, the government persistently ignores this verdict.
“Botswana presents itself as a country which places great importance on nature, partly to attract tourists,” she told DW. “It has imposed a nationwide ban on hunting. The bushmen are seen as a disruptive factor and have been told to leave the area.”