Botswana at 50: There are reasons to question the country’s fragility

On the eve of Botswana’s independence celebrations, Botswana has much reason for festivity and pride. But it also has a few structural challenges to contemplate if it is going to continue and deepen its role as source of inspiration for the region.

Citizens, community leaders, civil society practitioners – even politicians – have all been reluctant to discuss matters of development and politics.

Botswana has been an inspiration for those aspiring to non-racialism, good governance and development for decades. It served as the living proof of apartheid’s folly and fallacy until Namibia and South Africa’s transition to democracy in the 1990’s. But on the eve of its 50 years of independence celebrations on 30 September caution is warranted, for its achievements appear fragile.

In Gaborone, preparations are in full swing for the celebrations. The national flag with its blue, white and black flies high on masts along its main arteries. Workers have been repainting the national colours on ornaments on traffic circles.

The military has been practicing incessantly for what will surely be an impressive parade on the 30th, of big cannons, aircraft and new combat machinery. The army seems to have come far from its non-existence in 1976 to where it is today.

Botswana has done well for a large land-locked nation of few – 2.6 million people – who live in a semi-desert.

Since independence from British colonial rule in 1966, it has served as an inspiration first as the antithesis-in-the-flesh of apartheid, showing the world that southern-Africa, or rather Africa at large, need not nor should not be ruled by white supremacists or colonial masters.

It has made great strides in building a more diverse economy, away from subsistence farming, ranching and small scale mining in the 1960’s. Rolling out an impressive education and health system accessible to many. Its economic growth figures, though decreasing, have been impressive and have impacted many lives.

However, weaknesses remain. Twenty percent of its economy remains dependent on diamond mining, a finite resource, which its government is acutely aware of. Mineral resource extraction is per definition a finite contribution to an economy.

Government has however done well to renegotiate its deal with its diamond mining sector and in particular de Beers, ensuring larger financial contributions to the country where profits would otherwise find their way to London, and in a lesser degree, to other capitals of the world.

It is in fact, a model other African nations which see extractive industry profits flowing abroad, mostly to erstwhile coloniser Great Britain, should aspire to and work towards. This will allow for a larger proportion of profits to remain in the country and benefit development.

De Beers’ Botswana operations are 50% owned by the state through its parastatal Debswana and through the Diamond Trading Company Botswana.

Botswana’s economic future lies in services, according to government. The financial services industry has grown impressively over the last decade.

But more can be done to diversify the economy and sustain development.

Worryingly, government has not yet resolved its increasingly severe water crisis, threatening urban and economic development in its capital Gaborone. The capital frequently experiences water and electricity ‘shedding’.

Its North-South Carrier water scheme has as not yet been connected to the Zambezi and, with the effects of climate change ever more obvious, water security is paramount for economic growth and stability.

Years of growth and development may come undone if water shortages persist, in particular in Gaborone and continue to affect economic production.

The country’s dependence on electricity from South Africa, a country that has struggled to supply sufficient power to its own grid over the past years is another cause for concern.

With the manner in which the South African government is handling its own energy production expansion, Botswana would be well advised to strive for energy independence.

A nonsensical and unaffordable investment by its larger neighbour in nuclear power production will see electricity prices skyrocket in future, and with its 50-70% dependence on SA power, Botswana can ill-afford to maintain this reliance.

Though the country has vast coal reserves that are largely untapped, building coal-fired power plants requires equally massive investment and decades worth of building, as the recent experiences in South Africa with the Kusile and Medupi power plants shows.

From an economic point of view, investing in fossil fuels no longer makes sense. Return on investment is questionable compared to quicker-and-cheaper-to-develop renewables.

More importantly – and here lies the crux for its economic diversification project – Botswana has made too little effort to invest in renewable energy at any large scale – it is one of the countries with the most sunshine globally – whilst contemplating forays into the dirty business of ‘fracking’ to grow its own energy independence.

The global drop in oil prices may have forced the Botswana government to shelve those plans for now, and have hopefully put them on the trajectory of renewables and a green economy, a direction the country seems ideally suited for.

In fact, it constitutes a serious growth potential sector for the economy, strengthening diversification and a move away from fossil fuels – its continued global use so clearly hurting the country and away from over-reliance on the extractive industry.

With the sunshine Botswana receives per annum, its vast territory and its central location, Botswana should strive to become an exporter of green energy.

Better yet, it offers Botswana an opportunity to continue its path of inspiration – a path taken by its founding father Sir Seretse Khama and continued by several Presidents since – and a strengthening of its developmental and progressive identity and strategic position.

President Ian Khama is after all green-minded and an inspirational conservationist who not too long ago made headlines after introducing a nation-wide hunting ban and dedicating army capacity to the protection of endangered species.

Herein lies a problem, however, exemplifying Botswana’s main challenge.

The hunting ban has brought the plight of the San people – or Bushmen – back to the foreground, highlighting again problems with the rule of law and treatment of minorities.

Pockets of San, who still live traditionally and survive by hunting and gathering, are no longer allowed to shoot animals for their survival. Miilitary-style conservation has led to allegations of excessive force and the trampling of human rights.

This is damaging for Botswana’s reputation and may impact important sectors of the economy that are sensitive to perception, such as tourism and investment. It also appears wholly unnecessary.

Is the vitality and depth of a democracy not expressed by how a democratic country treats its minorities? And how can it be so difficult to ensure rights and development – for those that want it as some traditional folks may not want anything to do with modernity – for small groups of a population too?

Minority rights do not have to stand in the way of sustained and inclusive development. They do not have to stand in the way of conservation. Several African solutions prove it can be done differently such as the Campfire project pioneered in Zimbabwe.

As to the San and hunting, the Botswana government may be considering a re-evaluation of its blanket ban to accommodate people living traditionally.

Tshekedi Khama, brother of President Ian Khama and Minister of Tourism, showed capacity for executive introspection and leadership by recently stating: “I strongly believe that we should revisit our conservation strategies and put in place some stringent measures while allowing some members of the community in certain areas to kill for the pot.”

Worryingly, what has stood out during several trips to Botswana in recent years is a pervasive sense of fear. A fear of the state.

Citizens, community leaders, civil society practitioners, business leaders – even politicians – have all been reluctant to discuss matters of development and politics.

In addition, reports of repression against dissenting voices and critical thinking in the media, academia and civil society are increasing.

The Media Practitioner’s Act, passed in parliament in 2008, is a case in point. It clearly restricts the freedom of the press. Reports of journalists fleeing the country and detentions are on the rise.

Equally, deporting critical skills and purchasing power might help to serve a narrow nationalist political agenda in the short term, it will not help with new ideas, job creation and capacity for a more diversified economy.

The deportation of septuagenarian Prof Kenneth Good was widely covered by media years ago. Mind you, the decision for deportation was made under former President Festus Mogae’s tenure.

It certainly undermines its founding vision of an open society. And it damages Botswana’s reputation and identity as a welcoming country for foreigners, whether investors, skilled labour or tourists as well as its versatility and ability to address its challenges.

This is deeply troubling. Economic prosperity through a diversification of the economy requires new thinking. It requires different thinking, perhaps not emanating from those at the levers of power.

Those in power are hardly ever the only innovators that provide structural change or lasting solutions. Governors and bureaucrats are seldom change makers for sustained development.

Politicians can be, if infused with fresh blood and thinking regularly. Is this not what a democracy should be?

Politicians or political parties that sit on the levers of power for extended periods of time become complacent and lose their ability for flexible and innovative strategic thinking.

The voices of citizens, civil society, academia and business are the sources of critical and innovative thinking. That is where the solutions to Botswana’s challenges can be found Let people dare to speak up. They need the freedom to do so.

Impeding upon the freedom of critical thought, of innovation, of dialogue and becoming self-centred and introverted as a small land-locked nation, is tantamount to regression and worse, instability.

Former President Festus Mogae has criticised his successor government in recent years about its disrespect for the rule of law and its fostering of introversion. Former President Quett Masire has also criticised the current government for repressing political freedoms.

Africa’s 2015 Ibrahim Index of African Governance has captured a noticeable slide in Botswana’s development with hard data. “Although still performing comparatively well, in recent years Botswana has started to show some weakening of performance in a range of governance measures. It displayed its best ever overall governance score in 2012, and has shown year-on-year deterioration ever since, with the most pronounced fallback seen in the most recent year (-1.7). Since 2011, Botswana has shown an overall governance deterioration of -1.8 points. This places the country within the ten largest fallers of the continent over this time period. Apart from Cabo Verde, Botswana is the highest ranking country to show such a decline. This weakening performance is driven by widespread deterioration in three of the four categories: Safety & Rule of Law, Participation & Human Rights and Sustainable Economic Opportunity.”

Botswana’s slide indicates a larger issue: the gradual shift in political culture away from Ian Khama’s father, Seretse Khama’s vision of an open, inclusive society and robust democracy.

With Ian Khama’s ascent to power as President in 2008, after ten years of serving as Vice-President, and his appointment of friends and family members to government, a new form of political culture has started to take root.

This political culture is not only informed by perceptions of a non-democratic dynasty project centred on the Khama family and nepotism, but perhaps more importantly, it is informed by the military background of the President and of many of his familial appointees.

Military men as governors have, and should have, a short life span. They are not good for sustained democratic nor long-term economic development, as the political environment they often create will in time become unstable and thus threaten economic stability.

Military ethos runs diametrically opposed to democratic culture and democratic leadership. Military culture is elitist and authoritarian. It does not look kindly on dissent, differing opinions and consultative or participatory decision-making.

It is anti-democratic.

Unfortunately, the continent is awash with examples of military men and liberation heroes-cum-political leaders who have implemented important change and spear-headed transition processes only to squander progress and development as a result of their leadership style and the political culture it fostered.

On the eve of Botswana’s independence celebrations, Botswana has much reason for festivity and pride.

But it also has a few structural challenges to contemplate if it is going to continue and deepen its role as source of development and inspiration for the region.