Botswana: The end of a success story?

Botswana and its regions. Source: Carole Stern, Flickr CC

Botswana and its regions. Source: Carole Stern, Flickr CC

Botswana is often praised for its political and economic stability, the multi-party democracy and good human rights records. This reputation is widely shared, by organisations like Freedom House and Transparency International, and even by foreign governments and international financial institutions. But events during last year’s election showed a gap between reputation and reality. The country is the world’s largest producer of diamonds but with this resource running out, the country is facing a hard future. Recent events have shown that the fight over political power and media control has just begun. Additionally, high rates of HIV/AIDS infection, high unemployment and desertification limit future possibilities for Botswana’s citizens.

The Republic of Botswana is a landlocked country of around 2 million people located in Southern Africa. It became independent in 1966 and started a success story of political and economic stability. For more than three decades, Botswana had the highest per-capita growth rate in the world. The reason behind it is surely diamonds, which were discovered in the early 1970s. Functioning economic and political institutions and the government’s smart concept to direct diamond revenue into social development guaranteed growth and stability.

As a consequence, Botswana has ranked high in statistics and indices. It is the continent’s longest continuous multi-party democracy with a good human rights record and relatively free of corruption. It is thirty-first out of 175 countries on the 2014 Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index which is the highest ranking for an African nation. Furthermore, Botswana gets good grades in the categories civil liberties, political rights and freedom rating in the Freedom House Index.

Botswana's president Ian Khama speaking at the opening of the Assembly of States Parties in New York. Source: Flickr CC

Botswana’s president Ian Khama speaking at the opening of the Assembly of States Parties in New York. Source: Flickr CC

Events in the 2014 elections challenge the positive view on the nation. It all started with the suspicious death of an opposition politician in late July. The opposition reported more cases in which members were either threatened or even kidnapped and they suspected both government and intelligence agents behind the attacks. Furthermore, media harassment and abuse of state resources became more blatant and showed that the long-ruling Botswana Democratic Party (BDP) feared of losing control over the state and was in turn willing to gamble with the nation’s credit and reputation. In the end, the BDP could retain a majority in the parliament, but for the first time since 1966 they won less than 50% of the votes. This can be seen as a reflection of the growing dissatisfaction with the ruling party.

Fears for the future tarnish Botswana as it is expected that the diamonds will run out some time between 2029 and 2050 and the economist Roman Grynberg, who is based in the capital Gaborone, estimates that the GDP per person will be cut in half by then. Even recently discovered iron ore and coal plus a well running tourism sector will not be enough to compensate for the loss of diamond resources and politicians seem desperate to find new economic opportunities. As most of the country’s area is pretty much arid, new forms of agriculture are not an option.

The Kalahari desert in southwest Botswana symbolises the arid portion of the country. Source: Winfried Bruenken, Flickr CC

The Kalahari desert in southwest Botswana symbolises the arid portion of the country. Source: Winfried Bruenken, Flickr CC

An obstacle for future planning is certainly the high rate of HIV/AIDS infections. The UN estimates that more than 300,000 people in the country are living with HIV. Programs against what is one of the world’s most common infections are in place now and anti-retroviral drugs are readily available. Furthermore, the country suffers from drought, desertification and water shortage. Especially the capital was hit hard last year when its key dam reached a dangerously low water level. A case study, which focuses on the environmental issues of desertification and drought in Botswana, has highlighted that problems will continue as land use conflicts arise and water scarcity persists.

A chance for Botswana may lie in their relations with the United States, which sees the African nation as an excellent partner and praises it as a model for stability in Africa. The country needs to develop new economic strategies to rely less on imported goods from South Africa and to tackle the erosion in competitiveness. The BDP won the majority in the parliament and now has a few years to find a number of important and forward-looking measures to employ its citizens, to maintain a political stability and, last but not least, protect the country’s good reputation.

DANIEL THONI