Today The Star publishes the words penned by Professor Kenneth Good, a lecturer at the University of Botswana. "These are words so powerful they upset the government of Botswana," declared Abdul Bemath   of South Africa.


 The lie inside the African Miracle

March 8, 2005

 'Impermanency in high office is a fundamental democratic principle. But in most of Africa, permanency of tenure and the reluctance by most presidents to voluntarily hand over power - even after losing elections - is a striking feature.

 African politics remains an often violent, typically extra-legal contest for political and economic domination between elites of politicians.

 The imperative remains to encourage genuinely-democratic political transitions, but the prospects are bleak. Many look to Botswana as a model.

 Since its independence in 1966, Botswana has been governed without interruption by the Botswana Democratic Party (BDP).

 Its economic growth-rate record has been impressive, though at the expense of diversification, persisting inequalities, and weaknesses in human development.

 From being one of the poorest countries in the world at independence, Botswana is now classified by the World Bank as an Upper Middle Income country, with a per capita GDP at purchasing power parity of almost $8 000.

 Because of its growth rate and the fact that it has been ostensibly operating a stable liberal democracy from the outset, Botswana has been repeatedly dubbed the exemplary "African Miracle".

 But this praise ignores the political dynamics of the country's pre- and post-independence experience. On closer inspection Botswana is not the clearcut model for African democratisation that it first appears to be.

 Its political system is highly elitist, with power centralised in the presidency. Its two presidential transitions, in 1980 and 1998, took place without elections, were determined by a tiny elite, and involved successors who had no popular constituencies whatsoever.

 The state president enjoys a panoply of constitutional and de facto power. He is elected indirectly by a parliament in which the BDP's vote has fallen to 52% while its biased electoral system has still given it 77% of seats.

 The constitution gives him the power to decide without consultation with cabinet or parliament. He can constitute a commission of inquiry into any matter, determine whether it sits in public or in private, and whether its report is made public.

 The flow of opinion is carefully controlled in this democracy. Public servants are forbidden from speaking to the press, there is no freedom of information legislation.

 The National Security Act provides for imprisonment of up to 25 years regardless of public interest in the matter in hand, and its scope is both vague and sweeping, including conventional national security issues, as well as trade union activities and workers' wages, and the subordination of the San/Basarwa/Bushmen.

 Such extensive secrecy preserves the ruling elite and is contrary to democracy. Information helps to empower people, while secrecy weakens them.

 Maintaining this control since independence with no more than modest repression has been an outstanding achievement for the new political-economic elite.

 Commanding both the state and the predominant BDP, all three presidents - Sir Seretse Khama, Sir Ketumile Masire and Festus Mogae - have readily exercised their powers to subordinate the law and the constitution to the political exigencies of the time.

 Parliament was removed from the succession process. In appointing Ian Khama as vice president while he remained paramount chief of the Bamangwato, Mogae violated Masire's earlier constitutional amendment.

 Until the early 1990s the BDP easily won general elections, running on an effective political formula of returns (in goods, services, salaries, etc) to those who made the biggest contributions to the growth in economy.

 Thereafter, as a result of both BDP in-fighting and a series of corruption scandals involving top-ranking government officials, the Botswana National Front (BNF) challenged the predominance of the BDP in the 1994 election.

 With its predominance again threatened by the upcoming 1999 elections, the BDP engaged SA political scientist Lawrence Schlemmer as a consultant to advise it how to retain power.

 Schlemmer identified factionalism as a major problem and recommended that the BDP should obtain a person of "sufficient dynamism" and "untainted" by factional fights to unite the party.

 He called for the retirement of the BDP old guard and an infusion of new talent.

 Essentially these recommendations focused on imagery and led directly to the "celebrated" transition from Masire to Mogae.

 In fact, Masire's handover took place within a context of elitist corruption and party in-fighting, with his denial of responsibility for these failures.

 By standing down a year before parliamentary elections, he automatically transferred power to his vice president, Festus Mogae, thus presenting parliament with a fait accompli and creating - because of the 10-year term limit on the president - what even the BDP refers to as "automatic succession".

 Despite these changes, Botswana's October 2004 national elections glaringly revealed the severe limitations of the country's elite democracy. The polls were, as usual, free, in the sense of being open.

 But the BDP were, as ever, best resourced, particularly as regards corporate and other donor funding. They also enjoyed favoured access to state resources, like the electronic media and communications.

 Conversely, since the government steadfastly opposes all proposals for public funding for political parties, the opposition parties were badly underfunded.

 The Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) has an autonomy that its predecessor did not enjoy before 1997, but which remains restricted by the characteristic power of the president to appoint the IEC's chief executive officer.

 Nonetheless voters protested firmly against the dominant order and 48% of them supported opposition parties. Under the prevailing simple-majority system, this substantial vote was translated into only 23% of the total seats. The BDP's 52% of the vote translated into 77% of the seats.

 Ian Khama's appointment as vice president holds the greatest significance.

 Constitutionally this will be Mogae's second and last term, and under the law the vice president automatically inherits the presidency when Mogae steps down a year before parliamentary elections - creating another "automatic succession".

 There is a widespread sentiment, not without foundation, that Ian Khama possesses decidedly authoritarian tendencies, values allegiance over merit, and not only lacks political experience but gives very little weight to politics.

 Some prominent party officials and the media now openly call for direct election of the president.

 "There is need for a debate on the wisdom of automatic succession of the vice president to the presidency. The current practice ... shuts out everyone else - including the elected representatives, the MPs - from the process of choosing the country's head of state," the leading newspaper Mmegi editorialised on November 3 2004 just after the elections.

 The rising opposition to Khama automatically becoming the next president is partly fuelled by the fact that President Mogae has been irrationally, privately and secretively, accommodating of Khama.

 This began with his appointment to the vice-presidency, extended to his almost immediate sabbatical, and seemingly goes on.

 But there are other reasons, including the fact that the government's decision to move Khama from the military into politics was "widely perceived as a survival tactic for the BDP", as Mpho Molomo said in 2001.

 There is a difference between that and the good of the nation.

 And on November 26 last year Mmegi wrote that Mogae had chosen Khama not only because he was Seretse Khama's son but also because he was paramount chief of the powerful Bangwato tribe.

 It added that Mogae "the Oxford [post-]graduate, learned economist, champion of western values and product of the Bretton Woods Institutes, has all along been manipulating primordial tribal loyalties to control the ruling party and the country!"

 Khama also has no ministerial job and his education credentials are seemingly a secret. Furthermore, he has made no secret of his intense dislike of the compromises of politics or his contempt for politicians.

 Indeed, he has previously attacked members of his own party as "unprincipled, intolerant, selfish vultures and monkeys". This is the person who is about to take over the "African Miracle".

 Despite all these survival tactics by the BDP, the long-term voting trend is against them.

 The independent media are active and more critical, and if the BNF (Botswana National Front) and BCP (Botswana Congress Party) unify, the dominance of the BDP's Great Lion might, just might, be terminated.

 Near the end of his State of the Nation address in November 2004, Mogae described automatic succession as constituting "the smooth transfer of executive authority", as being "now entrenched", and as "a hallmark of our democratic stability".

 Orderliness has characterised presidential change on the two previous occasions in Botswana, distinguishing the country from many others in Africa.

 But order and control have been achieved precisely because the decisions have been made by a very few "responsible men", with the historic exclusion of the people.

 Competition occurs entirely within the ruling elite. Democracy is absent in this transfer of power, and as intra-elite competition intensifies in 2005, stability too becomes questionable.

 Basic reforms toward real democracy will take sustained effort and may bring strong reactions from Ian Khama and his security force supporters.
 Botswana offers no models for democracy yet. The real miracle is still to come."
  ©2005 The Star & Independent Online (Pty) Ltd. All rights reserved.