Democracy Derailed? Botswana’s Fading Halo

by Amy R. Poteete

Botswana earned a reputation for political stability, electoral democracy, and economic growth in the 1970s and 1980s, when much of the African continent appeared to be mired in economic stagnation and authoritarian rule. This reputation has persisted despite contradictory developments. Since the 1990s, many other African countries introduced multiparty elections, and economic performance improved across the continent. Over the same period in Botswana, corruption and mismanagement have become increasingly prevalent while the abuse of governmental authority have drawn attention to the absence of effective checks on executive power.

Many observers – foreign governments, international financial institutions, Freedom House, Transparency International, and academics researchers – tend to downplay these problems. They insist, by and large, that Botswana has remained stable, democratic, and well-governed relative to other African states. The southern African country continues to enjoy “a halo effect”. But the halo has faded. Political tensions are much more serious and deeply rooted than most observers acknowledge. They have now erupted in the run-up to parliamentary elections on October 24th.

Ballot boxes from the 2014 elections. (Photo from the Independent Electoral Commission, Republic of Botswana, 2014.)

Ballot boxes for the 2014 elections. (The Independent Electoral Commission, Republic of Botswana.)

An already tense campaign took a nasty turn at the end of July, when a charismatic opposition politician, Gomolemo Motswaledi, died in a suspicious automobile accident. Individuals who questioned the official account received threatening telephone calls while hostile messages were disseminated on social media. In September another opposition politician was abandoned for dead in a ditch. He survived and claimed he had been kidnapped and tortured by agents of the Directorate of Intelligence and Security Services (DIS). A few weeks later, someone slashed the tires of his campaign car and killed his guard dog. Other opposition politicians and activists complain of threatening phone calls and being trailed. Some have been attacked but escaped while others have gone into hiding to protect themselves. Conflicting intelligence leaks have flooded the media, variously claiming that the government is preparing to steal the elections bysmuggling in fake ballot papers,or bringing in high tech military and intelligence equipment.

Abuse of state resources by the long-ruling Botswana Democratic Party (BDP) has become more blatant. Private radio stations broadcast leaked recordings of politicians discussing the inclusion of ruling party campaign managers in cabinet meetings and the use of fake Facebook accounts to discredit critics. The President and cabinet ministers target tightly contested constituencies for repeated state visits, during which BDP candidates moderate public meetings, leaving opposition incumbents sidelined. The BDP’s campaign team has used military aircraft to travel to campaign events, as revealed in photos that went viral on social media. According to the government, the President has a right to military transportation and may be accompanied by whomever he chooses. The state-run television station has become so biased that when it did broadcast an opposition rally, people assumed – correctly – that international election observers must have arrived in the country.

To rally its base, the BDP engages in fear-mongering and character assassination. Some warn that electoral turnover could mean genocide. If any party has stoked ethnic tensions, it is the BDP. BDP politicians tell citizens that President Ian Khama would be jailed if their party loses. This is, in their view, unthinkable since Khama is also the traditional leader of one of the largest tribes. Two weeks before the elections, Khama and the BDP campaign manager denigrated the character and family life of an opposition candidate who is the traditional leader of another tribe, a move that threatened to inflame ethnic tensions. As recordings of the most virulent attacks were re-broadcast, many citizens reacted with disgust.

The media is caught in the crossfire. A journalist fled and was given political asylum in South Africa, declaring that he feared the government and that his life was in danger. His editor was arrested and charged with sedition while his computer was confiscated. A few weeks later, authorities detained another journalist and impounded his digital media and cell phones. Radio transmitters have been vandalized, disrupting the broadcast of parliamentary debates organized by a private radio station. Private radio stations have experienced recurring interference with transmissions, raising suspicions that their signals have been jammed.

Of course, political violence, intimidation, the abuse of state resources and media repression occur regularly in competitive authoritarian regimes. However, they mark a sharp departure from past political practice in Botswana. Previous presidents favored consultation and cooptation when confronted with strong opposition. Political violence was rare, electoral fraud infrequent, and both politicians and journalists criticized the government without fear of reprisal.[1]

And yet, tensions have been building for some time. The government faces mounting pressures from several directions: increasingly unstable revenues, deepening factional divisions, and growing support for the opposition. These dynamics play out against the backdrop of constitutional and institutional arrangements that vest great discretionary power in the president.

Legally Above the Law

Botswana has a parliamentary system. As in other parliamentary systems, there are few formal checks on the power of the executive. Unlike most parliamentary systems, however, the president is not an elected member of parliament. These constitutional arrangements mean that whoever controls the party in government controls succession to the presidency.

By the late 1980s, factional competition over presidential succession threatened the BDP’s cohesion. Two constitutional amendments in the 1990s sought to defuse these conflicts. One introduced a ten-year limit on presidential tenure. The other specified that, should the presidency become vacant between elections, the vice president would become president without a parliamentary vote. The amendment stipulates that any vice presidential nominee must be an elected member of parliament and would be subject to a vote of confirmation in parliament. Despite these restrictions, the amendments further empowered the president and weakened his dependence on the party.

In 1998, about 18 months before the following round of parliamentary elections, Quett Masire resigned as president. By resigning before the end of his term, Masire triggered the new “automatic succession” provision. He also disconnected presidential term limits from the electoral cycle. Unless and until the BDP loses an election, each president will choose his own successor. Masire’s vice president, Festus Mogae, became Botswana’s third president and, in turn, recruited Ian Khama as his vice president. In 2008, when Mogae’s ten years in office expired and, about 18 months before elections in 2009, Khama ascended to the presidency.

Initially, many Batswana enthusiastically welcomed Khama, who entered politics as a respected military officer, traditional leader of one of Botswana’s largest tribes, and son of the first president. Rather than uniting the BDP factions, however, Khama divided and radically transformed the party. He had arrived as an outsider but very quickly became the focal point of factional conflict. A faction opposed to Khama swept internal elections in 2009. Rather than concede gracefully, Khama quickly moved to circumvent the elected central committee. Within a month, he suspended the elected secretary general, Gomolemo Motswaledi, for challenging his authority (the same politician who later died in thecar crash). The dispute came before the courts, which ruled that the Constitution of Botswana grants the president of the country immunity from prosecution for any action taken in his private capacity, including actions taken as president of a political party.

The BDP held together for the elections in October 2009 but split shortly thereafter. Motswaledi and other members of his faction founded the Botswana Movement for Democracy (BMD) in May 2010. The BMD joined two other parties in the Umbrella for Democratic Change (UDC) in 2012. The court decision in 2009 and the BDP scission in 2010 demonstrated that BDP members have no effective means of challenging their own president or reforming their party from within. As long as the BDP forms the government, the Constitution of Botswana reinforces the already considerable authority that the BDP constitution confers on the party president.

From Consultation to Coercion

The composition of the BDP also changed. The old factions still exist but are greatly weakened. A number of Khama’s close associates and family members – including former military colleagues, business associates, close family friends, and his brother and cousin –followed him into politics. After the split, Khama drew more members of this group into decision-making roles, either as cabinet ministers or in party structures. The rupture also stimulated a wave of new members united in their professed loyalty to Khama. Critics depict these newcomers as “tenderpreneurs,” suggesting that they have entered politics with the hope of securing material gains. A new sycophancy took root in which even senior politicians refer to themselves as “bootlickers.”

Previous presidents often relied on consultation and cooptation to manage internal conflicts. Khama, by contrast, regularly uses coercion and his discretionary powers – disciplinary action and the power of appointment, government tenders, and various forms of blackmail – to quell dissent. In political circles, it was widely believed that the president had instructed the Directorate of Intelligence and Security Services to spy on internal critics as well as opposition politicians. Even former President Festus Mogae, speaking at the 2014 African Leadership Forum in Tanzania, has acknowledged that “the present regime does not respect the rule of law.”

Victims of corruption, intimidation, and repression have little recourse because the president, in the view of the courts, is above the law as long as he remains in office. Botswana’s highly centralized constitution provides few institutionalized means for checking presidential power. Neither the legislature nor the BDP nor the courts has the authority to hold the president to account. The only way to achieve reforms opposed by an incumbent President is to remove that President from power.

Responses to challenges depend on the personality of the president. When the opposition began to threaten the BDP in the 1990s, previous presidents coopted elements of the opposition’s agenda and attempted to revive their party by promoting younger politicians. Khama has adopted a much more confrontational style. Unlike previous presidents, he has mobilized all resources at his disposal to undermine his opponents and repeatedly pushes the boundaries of his powers. Time and again, the courts have confirmed his legal immunity while he is in office. In essence, they have determined that the president is legally beyond the law until he leaves office.

Economic Turbulence

If overt repression has been rare in Botswana until recently, it is not only a reflection of the constitutionally entrenched power of the presidency or the personalities of earlier presidents. Incumbency advantages were so strong that there was little need for repression. Diamond mining spurred an extended period of economic growth that filled government coffers, financing the expansion of infrastructure, services, and public sector employment.

Since the 1990s, when De Beers lost its control of world diamond prices, price volatility has increased. Botswana experienced a boom, more than doubling its export earnings from diamonds over the course of a decade. But then, in 2008, the global financial crisis triggered a sharp drop in diamond earnings and GDP contracted by 7.8% in 2009. After rebounding to 8.6% in 2010, rates of GDP growth have fallen in each subsequent year.

The effects of changes in the diamond industry are still working their through the economy. They subject the government to unfamiliar budgetary pressures and contribute to social and political tensions, including conflictual labor relations. The unstable economy also reduces the BDP’s resource advantage and limits possibilities for cooptation. The president regularly makes public displays of charity, but is regarded as aloof and insensitive when responding to conflicts. Critics charge that he uses his extensive powers to benefit himself and his associates rather than to tackle the serious structural challenges needed in the economy.

Labor relations have become a serious political problem for the BDP. Public sector workers gained the right to unionize and engage in collective bargaining in 2005. As labor flexed its muscles, the global financial crisis sent government revenues plummeting, generating strong pressures to reducethe public sector wage bill. The standoff culminated in Botswana’s first public sector strike in 2011. In a controversial decision, the government declared the strike illegal and fired thousands of workers. After eight weeks, financially exhausted and worried that escalating violence would erode public support, union leaders ended the strike with nothing to show for it. They vowed to take their struggle to the ballot box andmobilized their members to defeat several cabinet ministers during primary elections. Although union membership cuts across party lines, the BDP considers the union leadership to be allied to the opposition. Indeed, some union leaders have appeared at opposition campaign events or have become opposition candidates themselves.

Pervasive mismanagement and corruption interferes with service delivery, contributing to a general malaise and weakening support for the BDP. Examples are legion. Cabinet ministers and senior civil servants have been implicated in rampant corruption in peri-urban land allocations. Corruption and mismanagement by the Botswana Development Corporation contributed to the collapse of a glass manufacturing project. While several cabinet members have been investigated for corruption, many cases are not pursued. Often, those charged are acquitted on technicalities.

Khama has used state power to privatize previously public resources and bolster his business interests and those of his associates. He charged the Department of Water Affairs with locating all boreholes belonging to his father’s family and instructed the Ngwato Land Board to transfer all of the boreholes so identified to himself despite noted ambiguities in their ownership status. Under Khama, the pro-business Botswana Tourism Organisation (BTO) has largely displaced the community-based approach to natural resources that had been in place since the 1990s. A land grab of the most valuable tourism areas is currently underway. Communities have been reduced to becoming by-standers while rival claims to these territories have been ignored. Many in the affected communities suspect that the main beneficiaries will be tourism operations linked to Khama and his cronies. Not surprisingly, tourism and land policy have become flash points in the campaign.

According to recent allegations, state resources have been diverted for political ends as well. A leaked docket for a stalled case, for example, revealed evidence of dubious cash transfers between the DIS and organizations associated with the president’s political activities and the agency’s director.

 Electoral Uncertainty

These disturbing developments have set the stage for Botswana’s 2014 elections. The long dominant BDP faces numerous challenges: economic trends that reduce its revenue advantages, unreliable utilities that hamper economic growth and contribute to a general malaise, a demoralized and hostile public sector, and a fractious party organization that is increasingly difficult to hold together. Ian Khama and his party are vulnerable. According to Afrobarometer, support for the BDP has plummeted from 69% in 2008, a few months after Khama ascended to the presidency, to 52% in June-July 2014. Considering that the campaign kicked into high gear in August, and previous Afrobarometer surveys have consistently over-estimated support for the BDP while under-estimating support for the opposition, the actual support for the BDP is almost certainly lower.

The divided opposition, however, is not well-positioned to take advantage of the situation. Neither of the opposition parties could plausibly win a legislative majority. BDP may win a slight legislative majority with less than 50% of the vote, but a hung parliament cannot be ruled out. Based on their behavior, Khama and his supporters take the possibility of an electoral loss quite seriously. They may fear a narrow legislative majority as much as an outright loss, since they would then be vulnerable to post-electoral splits or defections.

Khama and his associates have responded to electoral uncertainty with more overt mobilization of state resources for political ends, intimidation, media repression, and deception. Such a climate breeds suspicion and undermines trust. Although the 2014 Afrobarometer survey was conducted before some of the most disturbing events and revelations associated with the current election campaign, it recorded substantial declines in trust in the BDP and government institutions. Any time anything untoward happens to an opposition politician, such as Motswaledi’s death in an automobile accident, suspicions of political foul play immediately follow. The police report that several police officers happened to be surrounding Motswaledi’s car at the time of the accident. This and the surge of intimidation fuelled further doubts. The proliferation of intelligence leaks about alleged conspiracies leads some to dismiss opposition warnings as fear-mongering. And yet … there are documented cases of torture and undisputed transcripts and recordings in which officials acknowledge highly dubious behavior by state and party officials.

Whatever the outcome of the elections on October 24th, the political horizon appears stormy. If the BDP wins a narrow legislative victory, it will be vulnerable to future factional splits and even individual defections. If there is a hung parliament, the newly elected MPs must choose a new president by secret ballot. Whoever wins will lack a partisan majority in the legislature. Whether it is Ian Khama or somebody else, the president will have to devote more resources than ever to coalition maintenance. Such a situation could empower the legislature and enhance accountability, but it would also create powerful incentives to reinforce presidential powers that could preclude needed institutional reforms even if the opposition wins power. A preoccupation with coalition maintenance would also divert attention from the serious economic challenges confronting Botswana.

Amy Poteete is an Associate Professor of Political Science at Concordia University in Montreal.


1 The media also suffered intimidation and threats of violence during the 2011 public sector strike.

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