Botswana gained independence from the United Kingdom in 1966 and, since its liberation, has had free and fair elections. It has also averaged an 8.7% annual economic growth rate until 2008 (Mogalakwe). Many believe Botswana is a success story, but once President Ian Khama took office in 2008, the nation’s democracy began eroding, which was inevitable based on the framework of their constitution.
Since independence, the Botswana Democratic Party (BDP) has sustained its dominance in government: The party has never lost an election and has always held a majority of seats in Parliament, hinting that the electoral process may not actually be free and fair. However, with Khama in office, BDP’s number of seats in Parliament decreased, although they maintained a majority. In 2014, their vote share was at a record low, 46.7%, but due to electoral rules they were able to retain 64.9% of the seats (Dionne). This begs the question: If a country does not practice mutual toleration, recognizing opposition as legitimate, or allow for fair opposition, can it truly be a democracy?
In reality, the BDP has an opposition party: The Umbrella for Democratic Change (UDC). In 2014, Secretary of the UDC Gomolemo Motswaledi became the leading opposition candidate against incumbent Khama. However, three months before the National Assembly was to vote for president, Motswaledi died in a suspicious car accident that many believed to be an assassination (Freedom House). Two months later, another candidate from the UDC was kidnapped and tortured. Additionally, other opposition leaders received hostile calls and confrontations (Dionne).
Furthermore, only the unicameral National Assembly, who do not have the power to impeach the president, are permitted to vote – not the masses. The Botswanan constitution states that the vice president becomes president, without a vote in Parliament, if the president resigns during his term – Khama was the second VP to be appointed president this way. He was welcomed into office as he was a military officer, leader of one of the largest tribes, and son of the country’s first president. However, critics “accuse the BDP of subverting democratic institutions by prematurely stepping aside to allow the vice president to assume the presidency without a formal vote” (Freedom House).
Despite being indirectly elected, President Khama holds significant power, which he has increasingly centralized, and as long as the BDP remains in charge, the country’s constitution “reinforces the already considerable authority of the party president” (Poteete). Days into his second term, Khama violated forbearance by forcing parliament to elect a new VP via public vote in order to intimidate the Assembly, as well as by refusing to give up his position as a tribal chieftain (Freedom House). Within the first year of his term, factional campaigns came about for committee positions, and Khama supported one faction. When the other faction won all the elected seats, he suspended its leader, Motswaledi. This went to the courts, who determined that Khama would be immune from prosecution: the “constitution gives the president absolute immunity from criminal and civil proceedings. It states that no proceedings shall be instituted or continued against the president” (Mogalakwe). Additionally, Khama has put his military and business associates as well as his family and friends into positions of power. A military officer putting other military officers into political offices heralds the threat of a democratic transgression to military rule.
Beyond that transgression, the government curtailed the civil liberties of the media. For example, government agents vandalized “radio transmitters [disrupting] broadcasts of parliamentary debates.” Furthermore, in 2016 Khama ordered the media to stop reporting “opposition activities,” and in 2017 journalists investigating a corruption allegation against Khama were detained and threatened by his security (Freedom House). As the BDP has strategically manipulated elections to erode democracy by frightening and harassing opposition politicians and the media, hampering media access, and packing electoral commissions to tilt the electoral playing field in favor of the incumbent, economic development has decelerated.
Botswana’s GDP rates have fallen nine consecutive years and there are few employment opportunities as the state has not invested in diversifying the country’s economy. This has led to a 20% unemployment rate, with 30% of the population seeking work in South Africa (Mogalakwe). In response to public sector strikes, Khama limited the supply of water and electricity to Botswanans (Poteete). Since he took office in 2008, Botswanans are reportedly “less satisfied with their democracy….” by 15% and with “…how free they are to say what they think” by 18% (Dionne). Additionally, minorities, migrants, refugees, and LGBT people, face increased discrimination.
Unfortunately, it does not end there. Not only does the BDP have their own private radio stations discrediting their critics, attacking opposition, and “discussing the inclusion of ruling-party campaign managers,” but also their “abuse of state resources” has resulted in transparency of their questionable practices. This is illustrated in Khama’s use of military aircraft for personal travel, citizens’ claims of his smuggling of military-grade equipment as well as his use of fake ballot papers to steal the 2014 election from the UDC. Those same citizens have become increasingly aware of “overt mobilization of state resources for political ends, intimidation, media repression, fear-mongering, personal attacks, and deception” (Poteete).
Although Botswana is the oldest continuous democracy in Africa, it is reported to be on a “negative governance trajectory” (Dionne) and a victim of stealth authoritarianism. As Botswana’s democracy erodes for reasons such as not having “a real separation between the executive and the legislature” (Mogalakwe), or having one party dominate for over half a century with strong executive powers in a nation that lacks institutional checks on their president, Botswana is backsliding away from its democratic roots, discreetly slipping towards authoritarianism. One can argue that this was always bound to happen, though, based upon the framework of the Constitution, which permits the executive to centralize decision-making, and which precludes the possibility of impeachment of that executive.