Botswana is often considered the poster child of post-colonial democratic transition in Sub-Saharan Africa. It has been lauded for maintaining apparently free and fair elections as well as for its generally high levels of economic growth. However, this reputation for democratic success has fallen under criticism in recent years, as outside observers have dug under the veneer of basic democratic indicators and taken a more in depth look at the true political atmosphere that exists in Botswana. Since the ascension of Ian Khama to the presidency in 2008, there has been a general erosion of democracy, which has in turn drawn attention to the inherent flaws in the Botswanan system. While it is true that Khama’s leadership has pushed the country further toward the authoritarian side of the political spectrum, in large part, the authoritarian slide can be seen as a realization of the potential for democratic erosion that has always existed within the framework of the Botswanan constitution.
The Botswanan government consists of a unicameral 63 seat National Assembly, an executive branch led by the president, and an independent judiciary branch. In basic structure, it is not much different from most Western democracies. The key differences that make the Botswanan system inherently fragile lie in the way in which the president is elected as well as in the relationship between the president and the National Assembly. Presidents are elected by a vote in the National Assembly, meaning they are elected indirectly by political elites, with no direct accountability to the people. Once elected, the president has great power over this legislature, including control of the body’s finances and the ability to prolong or dismiss the legislative assembly (Good 281). Furthermore, the National Assembly lacks an ability to impeach the president, meaning that once the president is elected, there is no way of removing him unless he does so himself. This has led to criticism that the legislative branch is hardly the independent guarantor of executive restraint that it should be, and rather functions more like a subsidiary of the executive (Mogalakwe). To this point, there has never been a case of the National Assembly vetoing a direction handed down from the executive (Good 283).
Interestingly, self-removal from the presidency is just what has ended the terms of the last two presidents. In both the case of Quett Masire and Festus Mogae, the president has chosen to resign before the end of his term, thereby allowing the vice-president to take on the role of interim president. This practice has been criticized, particularly in the wake of Ian Khama’s official election in 2008, as a way for presidents to hand pick a successor outside the rules of democratic election. Of course, Khama had to be elected to his position formally after the end of Mogae’s term, but by that point it was evident that Khama had been selected as the heir to the presidency, especially in light of his party’s continued electoral dominance.
Another layer of the Botswanan political atmosphere is the dominance of the BDP in elections. The BDP has never lost an election in Botswana’s 50-year history despite holding regular democratic elections. Such uniform dominance hints at underlying factors that may indicate an electoral process that is not as fair as might be indicated by the consideration of any individual election in isolation. There are a variety of reasons why this is the case, chief among them being the great advantages of incumbency and simple majority system that favors the well established BDP, but the significant element for the purpose of this essay is that single party dominance, when combined with the previously described broad powers of the executive, create a very fragile platform for democracy.
The net effect of the intersection of single party dominance and broad executive power with little oversight is that the position of the president is in constant threat of being abused for a slide toward authoritarianism. With little institutional or electoral limit to the president’s power, any restraint must be based on the internal restraint of the individual who holds the position. For a long time, Botswana has profited from rulers that, at least in relative terms, have been responsible with their broad powers. Unfortunately, this luck seems to have run out with Ian Khama.
Since Khama became president in 2008, there have been a series of indications that Botswana is headed on a regressive political spiral toward authoritarianism. This started with the norm breaking that Khama brought with him on his first day in office. He refused to relinquish his position as a tribal chieftain, going against the law and the example of his forebears. Furthermore, he has retained a high degree of involvement with the Botswanan military and has filled many important government positions with military officers (Good 290). This has contributed to a general feeling among citizens that the government is trending toward military rule, with a president that routinely flies military aircraft, and many important government positions filled by military officers.
Aside from norm breaking, Khama has used the power of the executive to push through legal directives that fulfill his own personal social agenda, notably in regard to alcohol consumption and dress codes for civil servants (Good 291). Under Khama, the negative aspects of the broad powers of the president have finally been realized, and the result has been an erosion of democratic principles.
This is clearly visible in the way that Botswana’s citizens rank their democracy. Since Khama’s election in 2008, the portion of citizens that rank the country as a full democracy has decreased by 16% (Yi Dionne). Even Freedom House, who continue to rate Botswana as “Free” note that critics have accused the Khama administration of “creeping authoritarianism” (Freedom House). These transgressions against democratic norms mark Khama as a leader with authoritarian tendencies, and given the power of his position, this can be turned into serious negative change for the country.
In a way, Botswana has always been on the brink of democratic erosion. The broad powers of the president outlined in the constitution and lack of appropriate checks to presidential power created a political structure that has inherent potential to turn authoritarian.
Within this framework, all it would take to push the country into an authoritarian slide is a president who values personal political gain over democratic values and norms. This finally happened in 2008 with the election of Ian Khama to the presidency. During his time in power, Khama has shown a willingness to bend the powers of the presidency to his personal whims, and there is little that can be done to stop him within the current framework of the law. To a large degree, elections remain free and fair, but the structure of the government is such that elections do not hold particular significance in deciding the way the country is run. The case of Botswana is an important lesson in why more than just the simple measurement of elections is necessary to truly understand the political atmosphere of a country. As things stand now, with an anti-democratic president at the helm of government that has no power to check his authority,
it would seem that Botswana is headed on a negative political trajectory; one that will be continually perpetuated by single party dominance, indirect election of presidents, and a lack of checks on executive power.
“Botswana.” Freedom House, 1 Dec. 2016, freedomhouse.org/report/freedom-world/2015/botswana.
“The Illusion of Democracy in Botswana.” Democratization in Africa: Progress and Retreat, by Kenneth Good, The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010.
Mogalakwe, Monageng. “Botswana at 50: Democratic Deficit, Elite Corruption and Poverty in the Midst of Plenty.” Journal of Contemporary African Studies, vol. 35, no. 1, 14 Mar. 2017.
Yi Dionne, Kim. “How Democratic Is Botswana after 50 Years of Independence?” Washington Post, 30 Sept. 2016.