IT IS not surprising that Botswana has topped polls as continental
Africa’s best-run country. Since independence in 1966, it has consistently held unfettered multi-party elections. It was blessed with a fine founding president, Sir Seretse Khama, succeeded by
three decent leaders, the present one being his son Ian, who was handsomely re-elected this week (see article). It has an abundance of diamonds and successive governments have husbanded the
country’s resources. Average income has tripled in real terms in two decades, putting Botswana on a par with Mexico.
You can pick holes in the idea of Botswana as a model for Africa. It has been lucky in its mineral wealth, at first shrewdly developed by De Beers, the South African diamond giant. Its population of barely 2m is ethnically pretty homogeneous, whereas most African countries contain a far headier concoction of tribes within boundaries crudely drawn by colonial map-makers. And it has had its troubles, including one of the highest incidences of HIV/AIDS. It has lacked sympathy for its anti-modern Bushmen minority. And now the world slump has clobbered Botswana’s diamond industry, squeezing GDP by a tenth. Above all, its leaders have yet to be challenged by a strong opposition; a single party has ruled since independence. That is one reason why it was Ghana, a recent success in development and democracy, that won the accolade of Barack Obama’s first presidential visit to a sub-Saharan country, after its government graciously let itself be chucked out at the polls.
Ghana is exceptional in letting power change hands after a really close election result. In South Africa, the continent’s most powerful country, where democracy is fairly well established and independent institutions fairly robust, there is no imminent prospect of the African National Congress being voted out. The country’s ultimate democratic test will come when the ANC one day faces the prospect of defeat. As for Botswana, its people merrily vote the same party back into power. Yet they do not feel disenfranchised. Over the years their country has proved a paragon of good governance and an example to its bigger African brothers. Can others follow?
Sinking the roots of democracy in Africa is no easy task. Many African rulers still equate peaceful opposition with treachery. Too often, African bigwigs think it best, after a shabby election,
such as those in Kenya in late 2007 and in Zimbabwe last year, to let bad losers stay on in paralytic governments of national unity, bringing temporary calm by giving the main miscreants a chance
to keep their snouts in the trough.
Voting isn’t everything but it counts for an awful lot
But the habit of democracy is steadily catching on. It was not until 1991, in the modest west African country of Benin, four decades after most African countries had achieved independence, that
any leader in mainland Africa let himself be peacefully ousted at the ballot box. Since then, however, at least nine men have admirably accepted the same fate—a far better record, incidentally,
than in the Arab world.
Democracy is far more than just elections. It requires independent courts, non-party civil servants, robust institutions such as churches and universities; the rule of law and property rights; a free press; constitutional checks and balances; above all a culture of openness and tolerance, especially of minorities. But voters’ ability to throw the rascals out at regular intervals is still the indispensable sine qua non.
Happily, a number of falsehoods long popular in Africa are being exposed. One is that dictatorship and one-party states do better at imposing discipline to spur economic growth. Look at China, some say. A recent paper by two Oxford academics rubbishes that theory (see article), not just in Africa. The same paper rightly lauds another good African trend, to impose term limits on leaders. Another useful democracy-boosting device, which a score of African countries have agreed to adopt, is the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative, whereby governments and big companies with which they do business publish details of their dealings.
There is a long way to go before all the rest of Africa follows Botswana’s example. No recently retired African leader was this week deemed worthy of winning an annual prize for promoting democracy donated by Mo Ibrahim, a Sudanese-born philanthropist. Yet more Africans these days accept that being able genuinely to choose their leaders is the least bad way to freedom and prosperity. Botswana is proof of it.