Skidmore College

A Transition of Power Will Change Little in Botswana by Dylan Quinn @ Skidmore College

Quietly and unsurprisingly, President Ian Khama stepped down from his position as the leader of the Republic of Botswana. The Botswana Democratic Party (BDP) – the dominant force in Botswana politics for the entirety of the country’s independence – grooms and entrenches its projected presidential candidate through a practice of resignation. Former Vice President Mokgweetsi Masisi will enjoy the support of the BDP as he attempts to elevate the economic prospects of a nation that is experiencing a slump in its diamond industry. Yet, it is unclear whether now-President Masisi will continue to consolidate executive power within Botswana (like Khama) or develop a dialogue with the increasingly disgruntled opposing coalition of the Umbrella for Democratic Change (UDC).

For the people of Botswana, Khama’s early departure was not only predictable, but a matter of political practice since the mid-1990s. Historical background is required to fully appreciate the insidious nature of this practice upon democratic norms in a country recognized as Africa’s “beacon of democracy.” In 1994, the BDP’s voter share dropped by 11 points due to issues concerning corruption scandals, labor unrest, and a dip in diamond sales. Threatened by growing opposition support in 1997, the BDP lowered the voting age to 18, established the Directorate on Corruption and Economic Crime (DCEC), and enacted a 10-year term limit for the office of President. This wave of democratic reforms was rightfully praised by Botswanans and media outlets alike; however, these reforms acted as a smokescreen for BDP entrenchment within the executive.

A referendum that would determine whether the presidency would continue to be elected by the National Assembly or through a popular vote was rescinded just prior to the 1998 election cycle. Most importantly, the BDP instituted another constitutional provision that specified “should the presidency become vacant between elections, the vice president would become president without a vote in Parliament.”[1] This provision facilitated the practice of resigning prior to one’s term limit and subsequently the ascension of not only Khama, but also former bank chief Festus Mogae in 1998. Despite the absolute dominance of the BDP throughout Botswana’s post-independence history, the BDP demonstrated a strong aptitude to effective policymaking and economic management that facilitated a celebrated reception of their democratic system by Western media sources.

Considering the BDP’s ability to successfully govern and the success of the DCEC, the Botswanans do not readily condemn the executive aggrandizement of the Khama regime. Just prior to Khama’s presidency, the BDP instituted the Directorate of Intelligence and Security Services (DISS) to ensure public safety and the security of public officials. Under Khama, DISS is more so likened to a secret police force that combats opposition forces within the country. Khama has fostered a political culture of fear-mongering, intimidation, and censorship. Documented cases and transcripts reveal episodes of torture against the opposition (including media) and corruption among state officials. In a 2016 report, officials within the DISS leaked information stating that DISS recruitment favors former members of the BDP, especially in regards to senior positions. Through the suspension of four High Court judges and Secretary General Gomolemo Motswaledi (a leader of the opposition until his mysterious death in 2014), Khama’s actions closely follows Nancy Bermeo’s construction of executive aggrandizement, in which “media freedoms and judicial autonomy” are suppressed and subverted by the executive.[2] With Khama’s resignation, Masisi holds an opportunity to embrace the democratic principles of not only his country’s founding, but also his party’s early beginnings.

Currently, the state of affairs in Botswana can be interpreted as Kim Lane Schuppele’s Frankenstate, “an abusive form of rule, created by combining the bits and pieces of perfectly reasonable democratic institutions in monstrous ways.”[3] DISS continues to oppress Botswana’s vibrant independent media community, but the UDC’s recent absorption of the Botswana Congress Party and determination to run one candidate for each contested seat in the 2019 elections leaves one to be hopeful for the future of Botswana’s democracy. If the UDC can hold a majority in the National Assembly, only then can Botswanans uproot the BDP’s stranglehold over the office of President. According to former Speaker of the National Assembly Matlapeng Molomo, the executive role is integral to determining the agenda of the National Assembly, while a divesting of power from the office would help address the country’s “democratic deficit.”[4] As Khama is showered with gifts from BDP loyalists across the country, the UDC must remain resilient and ready to challenge the dominance of the BDP.

[1] Amy Poteete, “Does Botswana deserve its reputation as a stable democracy?” The Washington Post. October 20, 2014.

[2] Nancy Bermeo, “On Democratic Backsliding.” Journal of Democracy 27, no. 1 (January 2016), 11.

[3] Kim Lane Scheppele, “Not Your Father’s Authoritarianism: The Creation of the “Frankenstate”.” European Politics & Society, Winter 2013, 5.

[4] Emmanuel Botlhale, “Democratic Deficit in the Parliament of Botswana.” African Affairs 113, no. 453 (October 2014), 619.

1 Comment

  1. Willie Wells

    April 27, 2018 at 7:07 pm

    Hello Dylan: Your blog post is quite interesting. I totally agree that Botswana’s regime is more like a Frankenstate than a thriving Democracy. The Constitution of Botswana certainly does give political advantages to the dominant political party in office far more than it does to the subordinate political party that is competing to be elected. That is similar to U.S. politics. As you pointed out, The President of Botswana is elected for a ten-year term and can be re-elected for another ten year term; not necessarily in consecutive order. The process of allowing the Vice President to step into the office of President is not an entirely new concept. The U.S. Constitution makes allowance for that in the event of an unforeseen emergency of the President. The fact that Botswana incorporates this practice when no presidential emergency exists, gives the incumbent political party an opportunity to place the new President in office without having an election. I agree that this practice is totally undemocratic. The presidential elections are scheduled for a year from now, but the new President is already in office without one vote being cast. Do you think this qualifies for a democracy? This method is reminiscent of Fidel Castro and his brother Raul Castro under the Cuban Authoritarian regime. Botswana have two primary political parties. They are the Botswana Democratic Party (BDP), and the Umbrella of Democratic Change (UDC), party. Only the BDP has been in office since Botswana’s democratic inception.
    To Western democracies, Botswana is held up as a shining light to other African nations as a model Democracy. In reality, Botswana’s democracy is a facade. There is no real competition for the vote of the people. It is a foregone conclusion who the next president will be. Until Botswana remove the mechanisms that impedes the opportunity for the two dominant parties to compete on equal footing, its democracy will continue to be less than adequate.

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