Thursday, July 18, 2024

Botswana neither a democratic nor economic success story

“Highly elitist and authoritarian democracy” is not how Botswana is typically described but that is because there is nothing typical about the country’s depiction in “Botswana at 50: Democratic Deficit, Elite Corruption and Poverty in the Midst of Plenty” published in the latest edition of the Journal of Contemporary African Studies.

As clear from the title, the authors, Professors Monageng Mogalakwe of the University of Botswana and Francis Nyamjoh of the University of Cape Town, deconstruct much of what is globally known about Botswana. This meeting of minds has a literal dimension because Nyamjoh has taught at UB where he would have interacted with Mogalakwe. Whereas the world knows Botswana as a “shining example of democracy”, the authors present a counterfactual dimension, one of a highly elitist and authoritarian democracy that concentrates a disproportionate amount of power in the presidency.

“Section 92 of the Constitution empowers the president to dissolve a democratically elected parliament, even though the president himself is not democratically or popularly elected,” they write.

Three months ago, the Court of Appeal president, Justice Ian Kirby, pointed out that the principle of separation of powers operates as a myth in Botswana because the executive and the legislature are one and the same thing. Kirby was merely restating what Mogalakwe had stated in 2008 and is reiterated in the paper: “The Botswana parliament is not really the proverbial watchdog of the executive but rather functions more like a department in the Office of the President, which is controlled not by the Speaker, but by the Vice President, who is referred to as the Leader of the House.”

Having cut his teeth in a necessarily undemocratic institution, President Lieutenant General Ian Khama, is too often associated with Botswana’s presidential autocracy that Mogalakwe and Nyamjoh write about. The reality though is that the former Botswana Defence Force commander is merely continuing a tradition that precedes him. The current order was introduced at independence under his father and founding president, Sir Seretse Khama, and enthusiastically embraced by Sir Ketumile Masire and Festus Mogae. The paper notes that both Masire and Mogae never gave presidential assent to a parliamentary motion that requested the government to detach parliament from OP. With only a year left in his 10-year term, Khama has likewise ignored that motion. The paper says that Seretse Khama introduced these excessive powers “to neutralise the powers of the traditional leaders as alternative centres of political power in the newly founded republic.”

The super-concentration of power in the presidency has also taken the form of the Department of Information Services being controlled from OP. The authors note that while the government has followed overtly liberal economic policies with other sectors of the economy, it has made an exception with regard to the media. The elaboration of the latter point is that the government is overtly hostile to the private media and seeks to put it out of business through the Botswana Daily News which gets a lion’s share of government advertising in a country where the latter is the largest provider of services and products.

The second myth about Botswana’s exceptionalism is that it is an economic success. To be sure, the country has experienced fastest economic growths in the world but not enough Batswana have benefitted. Mogalakwe and Nyamjoh write that while at independence Botswana was one of the 10 poorest countries in the world, it is now one of the 10 most unequal countries in the world, with high levels of extreme poverty: “Out of these 10 most unequal countries in the world, Botswana is third, with a Gini-coefficient of 60.5, and 50 percent of the national income confined to the richest 10 percent of the population, while the poorest 10 percent have to make do with about 1 percent of the national income.”

Diamonds have been the mainstay of the economy but with deposits being fast depleted, there is desperate need to diversify the revenue stream. Tourism should offer an excellent alternative but there is a really big problem with it. While the country claims proprietary rights over the most lucrative tourist asset in the country, the Okavango Delta, which is hugely popular with Hollywood A-listers and moneyed royalty from all over the world, it makes very little money from it.

“Despite the lauded success of Botswana’s tourism industry, many local communities have yet to see real benefits from an industry which could be said to be built upon their land and natural resources. Ironically, Botswana’s multibillion pula elite tourism industry, with its internationally recognised World Heritage Sites (the other being nearby Tsodilo Hills), is largely located in what is still one of the country’s most poverty-stricken areas, Ngamiland West,” the papers says.

Generally, Botswana’s tourism industry “is mainly foreign controlled, with senior management positions generally in the hands of white expatriates.” The paper doesn’t say this but some politicians have complained about the Okavango Delta being a whites-only fiefdom and about the exploitation of black safari workers. Mogalakwe and Nyamjoh assert that the government itself is not being helpful in the management of this industry because its more recent ecotourism policies “focus more on the environment than on local people and their cultural and heritage resources, which alienates local communities and contributes to the erosion of local cultural knowledge and practices.” Additionally, tourism and conservation developments reflect the state’s top-down approach to land ownership and resource management. Such approach is characterised by a lack of engagement with local stakeholders and a reluctance to devolve power because “it would mean leaving highly lucrative industry in the hands of the local people.”

The question is, if Botswana has those many blemishes, why has it garnered as much international praise as it has over decades? The paper provides three reasons. Firstly, Botswana had a very impressive macroeconomic performance at a time when most African economies were performing dismally. Secondly, at a time when one-party rule, military dictatorships or a combination of both and suspending of elections were the norm in Africa, Botswana held regular elections every five years. Thirdly, “except in very few cases of critical scholarship, the bulk of the literature on Botswana tends to be celebratory, based largely on quantitative and economic analysis, and missing social and political dynamics taking place in the country.”


Read this week's paper