Botswana’s president steps down in smooth succession
By Celean Jacobson
GABORONE, Botswana — Botswana’s president steps down Tuesday, handing over power in the kind of smooth transition for which the country is known — one that contrasts sharply with the political turmoil in neighboring Zimbabwe.
On a continent where leaders are all too often accused of holding on long past their mandate, Festus Mogae, 69, is giving up power before the end of his second term. That allows his vice president, Seretse Ian Khama, a former army commander and the son of Botswana first’s president, to run as an incumbent in elections next year.
"I retire a proud citizen," Mogae said at a farewell rally held by the ruling Botswana Democratic Party on Saturday. "Let me advise those leaders in similar circumstances: Leave when the time for you to leave comes, and you will be embraced with love by your people."
While Mogae may claim to set a standard for democracy in Africa, democracy activists and opposition members here complain about "automatic succession." The Botswana Democratic Party, in power since the former British protectorate gained independence in 1966, virtually anoints the next head of state. The party is expected to continue its dominance in the face of a weak and divided opposition.
"The danger is that it provides for a dynastic succession which has been the trend since Seretse Khama," said Chris Maroleng from the Institute for Strategic Studies in South Africa.
The shortcomings in Botswana’s system though seem trivial in comparison to the allegations against leaders elsewhere in Africa.
In neighboring Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe is accused of marshaling fraud and intimidation to grab a victory in weekend presidential elections. Official election results are trickling out, heightening fears the vote tally would be rigged.
"Botswana does fall short of some Western notions of what a democracy is. But in terms of the rest of the continent it is a democratic state," Maroleng said, adding that elections are held regularly, and parliament and the judiciary are seen as independent.
Mogae, an Oxford-educated economist who came to power in 1998 and was re-elected in 2004, has presided over a decade of economic growth and political stability in Botswana.
The sparsely populated country the size of Texas is the world’s largest producer of diamonds, which has transformed it from one of the world’s poorest countries to one of the wealthiest in the region.
Mogae drove a campaign to ensure Botswana benefits more from its mineral wealth, venturing into cutting and polishing diamonds instead of just exporting uncut stones and leaving most of the profit taking to foreigners.
His tenure has not been without its critics however — Mogae has been dogged by controversy over the removal of the indigenous San communities from the Central Kalahari Game Reserve.
In 2005 Mogae ordered the deportation of Australian professor Kenneth Good, who criticized the president and who had close links with an international group lobbying for San rights.
Mogae is likely to be best remembered for tackling the country’s high HIV/AIDS infection rates, which are among the worst in the world. He has taken an AIDS test publicly and addressed the issue in almost every one of his speeches. Lifesaving anti-retroviral drugs are known locally as "Mogae’s tablets."
"He has been the face of the issue," said Alice Mogwe, director of the Botswana Center for Human Rights.
Today, the number of children being infected with HIV by their mothers has dropped from 40 percent to 4 percent and anti-AIDS drugs reach nearly all those in need.
Sadzani Baile, manager of a Gaborone restaurant, lists the fight against AIDS as one of Mogae’s greatest achievements, along with attracting foreign investment and marketing the countries diamonds.
Mogae "did a lot," Baile said. "He is not a person who abuses his power. He has been fair and honest to the nation."