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On Botswana dictatorship and the Mo Ibrahim Prize for good governance

The constitution of the People’s Republic of China is the only constitution I am aware of that openly embraces dictatorship as a form of government. A phrase “People’s democratic dictatorship” which was coined by Chairman Mao is contained in the constitution. Some countries have openly embraced the concept of benevolent dictatorship, although not explicitly outlined in their constitutions. Botswana is one of the countries that has successfully posed as a democracy when in fact it is authoritarian and repressive.

The world, particularly the west as self-appointed champions of democracy, has chosen to turn a blind eye to and condone benevolent dictatorship as an acceptable form of government. It is only those dictatorships that appear to impose their authority by violent means that have been condemned and their governments isolated and subjected to sanctions in one form or the other. When leaders of the world speak in defence of democracy, they are undeniably unanimous in their condemnation of dictatorship, but they omit to inform us that certain dictatorships are acceptable. How does the US explain its willingness to establish diplomatic ties with North Korea when it abandons its nuclear ambitions? Or how does it explain its recently established diplomatic ties with Libya?

Botswana has been on a gradual path towards dictatorship. The existence of a multi-party democratic system is a smoke screen to the reality that exists within the politics of that country. Former president Quiet Masire ensured a smooth path towards Mao’s democratic dictatorship when he mobilised support to amend the constitution in order to make it automatic for the vice president to become president in the event the president becomes unavailable. Our constitution in South Africa similarly provides for the election of the deputy president as president of the Republic in the event of a vacancy in the office of the president. It makes perfect sense for ensuring smooth transition during the period prior to elections. However, as with everything else that is open to abuse, Botswana has used this constitutional provision to circumvent the need for election of president by its people.

Ian Khama, the president of Botswana, ascended to the presidency through some questionable process, in the same manner that our President Motlanthe did. Former president Festus Mogae who had elected to impose Khama as president on the people of Botswana, threatened to dissolve Parliament if his preferred successor was not endorsed. Fearing losing their cushy parliamentary positions, MPs relented and supported the appointment of Khama as president. Khama is not known to possess acceptable virtues required of a leader of a supposed democratic state. His military background and inclination towards authoritarianism is gradually transforming the government of Botswana into an intolerant military junta.

A member of parliament and publicity secretary of the opposition party, the Botswana Congress Party’s (BCP), Dumelang Saleshando, has accused President Khama of treating the country like one big military camp where he is the commander. According to Saleshando, President Khama is an autocrat who does not consult and imposes unilateral decisions on government. “In his 11 months as president, he has never accounted to the parliament. He is a scared cow, but he can’t continue as a scared cow when he is the president,” Saleshando said.

There are numerous incidents which attest to claims that the conduct of the government of Botswana is dictatorial and intolerant to the prescriptions of a democratic rule. Press freedom in Botswana is a far cry for journalists. The military junta is unapologetic in clamping down and silencing hostile voices; and the pathetically docile populace that has elevated politicians to positions of deity do nothing to change the state of affairs. It is problematic in any democracy when the Minister of Communications, Science and Technology, Boyce Sebeleta, can issue an order to the country’s most read newspaper to stop publishing political columns and to the state radio to refrain from broadcasting press reviews. As with all dictatorships, the minister did not offer an explanation for the move.

A few years ago an Australian political science professor at the University of Botswana, Kenneth Good, received presidential deportation for criticising the government’s pathetic record on democracy. Professor Good had been the most outspoken critic of the government’s ill treatment and continued repression of the Basarwa (the San) communities who were forcibly removed from the Central Kalahari Game Reserve. Sounds more like the forcible removal by the evil apartheid regime. The Botswana government’s record of violation of the rights of the Basarwa is beyond disgusting. The Basarwa communities are second class citizens in their own land. They suffer the same fate of the Aborigines in Australia. To his credit Prime Minister Kevin Rudd offered an unprecedented apology to the Aborigines for the laws and policies that inflicted profound grief, suffering and loss on his fellow Australians.

Botswana is not the only dictatorship in Africa that masquerades as a democracy and continues to enjoy the support of the international community. Uganda, with no party systems, has continued to drown in international aid and assistance from the World Bank and IMF through their destructive structural adjustment programmes.

The self-appointed champions of democracy remain conspicuously silent on the disturbing despotism that has come to characterise the government of Botswana. What is more troubling is when a former Botswana despot, Festus Mogae, is awarded the Mo Ibrahim Prize for African leadership at a time when Africa is challenged to eradicate authoritarianism and embrace democracy to allow the will of the people to shape their own governments.

The tenets of democracy cannot be said to have flourished under Mogae’s rule in the same manner that they continue to be violated by his anointed successor, Ian Khama. That Botswana may have succeeded in confronting economic challenges and in dealing with the scourge of HIV/Aids is no reason to condone and reward despotism. China has attained unprecedented prosperity in its history yet we cannot with any courage of conviction promote it as a model of exemplary governance. Botswana is no different. It is somewhat hypocritical for Botswana to have resorted to theatricals on the question of Zimbabwe. As a member of the African Union, Botswana government has failed to meet the objectives of the charter in promoting democratic principles and institutions.


  • Sentletse Diakanyo

    Sentletse Diakanyo's blogs may contain views on any subject which may upset sensitive readers. Parental guidance is strongly advised.