During the Food and Agriculture Conference in Rome several months ago, what anyone would pick out when Robert Mugabe was robotically excoriating Britain and the United States for being the cause of Zimbabwe’s problems was the reaction of delegates. It ranged from barely disguised uninterest and unease to repressed distaste.
The old man had made a piteous effigy of himself. Even before the onset of current global economic slowdown, Mugabe had turned Zimbabwe into an economic charnel, and to hear him witter on about what others had done to his country was, at best, nauseous and, at worst, an incitement to senicide. The ‘food conference’ had only given the man an opportunity to show himself up for the crooked tyrant that he is. And the Nero-like display Mugabe had put on in Rome and what was happening in his country during his absence could easily have reinforced assumptions about Africa as a spiky, hopeless place where dictators strut like antiquated gods - and in the case of Mugabe a strut that has assumed a doddery, hoofy gaucheness.
In a country neighbouring Zimbabwe the story is different. It is understandable why Zimbabwe might be more newsworthy than Botswana, but I imagine it may come as a surprise for a few that Botswana, a landlocked country like Zimbabwe, is a stable, economically-sound democracy.
A number of foreign reporters and writers have described Botswana as 'unique' in mainland Africa. Alongside the island of Mauritius, Botswana has the highest per capita income on the continent, both countries have recently been upgraded to upper-middle-income status by IMF. Although the word 'unique' might not go down well with a lot of people and might indeed come across as invidious, even jaundiced, there is no denying the fact that Botswana has one of the fastest growing economies in Africa. Undergirded by a sturdy balance of payments, the country’s credit rating tops that of every other country in Africa. Botswana has one of the lowest foreign debts in Africa, the government having mainly leveraged itself on a prudent, self-sufficing fiscal discipline.
The country began to lay the groundwork for autarky when most countries in Africa were grappling with the brakeless contagion of autarchy (please pardon the pun). At independence Botswana was so poor that one of its leaders had half-joked that "there was no point being corrupt," there was nothing to steal. But even now that there is a fair amount, the current leaders of Botswana still see no point in being corrupt. As more and more veins and troves of diamond and other minerals are discovered the country's leaders see less and less point in cakewalking onto the path of corruption. Botswana is now world's biggest producer of diamonds, and unlike other African states, apropos of which diamonds and other natural resources have inspired the coinage of the term 'resource curse,' the country has made sensible capital of its own wealth.
Botswana has enjoyed political stability since it became independent in 1966. There has never been a military coup. To the extent that its politicians are true in their words and actions, the new president, Seretse Khama Ian Khama, assumed power on April 1 after the previous president, Festus Mogae, stepped down voluntarily, in fulfilment of a promise he made several years before.
Mogae, who assumed office in April 1 1998, was a remarkable leader. He was modest to a fault, he often drove himself to downtown Gaborone to purchase stuff he needed from supermarkets. The French president Nicholas Sarkozy awarded Mogae the Grand Cross Legion d'honneur in March of this year in recognition of his 'exemplary leadership and in making Botswana a model of democracy and good governance.'
During Mogae's term, in 1994, Botswana was voted the least corrupt nation in Africa. He was again rewarded with the multi-million dollar Mo Ibrahim Prize for Achievement in Leadership in Africa. How our own consummate kakistocrat and boodleman, Olusegun Obasanjo, was able to make the shortlist is still a mystery. The older man was nothing but a foil for Mogae. Of course this had introduced a bad-apple taint to the shortlist. Actually, so far as I am concerned, the prize, though well-meant, is a rather paternalistic - not patronizing as some say - gesture. If our leaders in Africa need a fairy-godfather to gift them sweets for good behaviour, then the continent is further painting itself into a ludicrous corner within the graph of global historiography. Anyway, it’s indeed a relief that the prize went to the more upstanding Botswanan, a win for Obasanjo would have completely made a fudge of the project. And Mogae aside, since independence Botswana has been blessed, mostly, with right-thinking, relatively incorrupt, leaders.
AIDS has been a problem, just as it is in neighbouring countries like South Africa and Zimbabwe, but Botswanan leaders have been serious and constructive in tackling the problem. Considering the zeal with which the scourge is being tackled it did not come across as an empty boast when Festus Mogae, the former President, said AIDS will have become a thing of the past in Botswana in 2016. Since early this decade an HIV/AIDS campaign has been properly sustained, free antiretroviral drugs are distributed to AIDS sufferers without the obstacles of red tape. In 2004, Botswana achieved a first in the fight against AIDS when it introduced routine testing to all health facilities.
I was discussing Botswana with a friend recently and he almost dismissed the country's current economic growth on the ground that the population is small at just over a million. For me this is an irrelevance. Sierra Leone has never been not a hugely populated country, yet the leaders had turned the mineral-rich country into a grisly warren of war. And now, after the war, there are reports that the place has become a sinkhole of graft and civil pilferage. Again given the population of Botswana it would have been easy for any of its leaders to reduce the country into a ‘banana’ republic, turn the people into creatures whom he could mistreat as he pleased. I once lived in an African country with roughly the same population as Botswana, the leader who came in by a coup more than a decade ago has now done what I had described above, and more.
While it may not be wise to totemise Botswana's success story, I believe it might be worth putting up as object lesson for someone like Robert Mugabe in neighbouring Zimbabwe. The contrast between these two countries is stark: While Mugabe and his cronies are busy trashing their country, Botswanan leaders have been making every effort to make theirs a better place for their own people.
Perhaps the greatest economic coup Botswana carried out was how the country’s leadership prevailed upon De Beers, world's largest diamond-mining company, to move its diamond-sorting and -valuing outfit from London to Gaborone, Botswana's capital city. De Beers and Botswana have been in partnership - called Debswana - since 1969.
DeBeers had baulked at moving its sorting house to Gaborone for years, certainly discouraged by the reputation of Africa as a place of both economic and political instability. But then for years Botswana had bucked their expectation. It’s all but ironic that the only risk that overcautious macroeconomic watchers could see DeBeers taking if it brought this economic powerhouse to Botswana was that the sorting house would be somewhat close to Mugabe’s Zimbabwe and, sadly, the seamier side of South Africa.
Well, Botswana was good enough for DeBeers and early this year London had yielded the diamond house to Gaborone. The huge chrome-and-glass sorting and valuing house will employ upwards of 3,000 workers who, by mid 2009, will be producing 34 million carats, $6 billion worth, in a year. Perhaps then Botswana may be looking to lifting itself from middle-income status to high.
Apart from diamonds other minerals like copper, gold and oil, have been fruitfully prospected in Botswana and just last year a large quantity of uranium was discovered in a stretch of land and mining will begin in 2010. In spite of all this, Botswanan leaders are still keen on diversifying. They hope to develop their agricultural industry, science and technology, and they have been assiduous in making the country more congenial to foreign investments. This is where the relocation of the DeBeers sorting house will be of advantage. It is a litmus test that Botswanan leaders believe will be successful. Even now the leaders are hoping that the siting of the DeBeers’ key shopfloor in Gaborone would encourage other foreign investors to come to Botswana.
Sometime ago, Botswana was adventitiously celebrated on the BBC with No 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, a film adapted from Alexander McCall Smith’s popular novel. The picture was directed by the late Anthony Minghella. Botswana had made a justifiable gesture of ubuntu by picking up part of the bill for the picture, the country’s Culture Ministry had backed Minghella morally and financially when he was on location in the northern part of the vast country. Botswanans took the film project seriously and were very happy to be involved.
Long before the film was shot, Alexander McCall Smith had been slated for his 'idealised' depiction of Africa in his Ladies’ Detective novels, particularly the Botswana setting. What he writes about Africa is hardly acceptable to those who expect unbroken graphic jeremiads of AIDS, diseases and potheaded child soldiers, a parochial mindset that seems to take no cognizance of the remarkable growth of the Botswana’s economy and an enhanced quality of life.
Director Minghella was faithful to the novels' tenor in making the picture a feast of laughter and joie de vivre, an attitude that chimed with Minghella's latter comment about Botswanans: "The people were marvellous and the landscape, especially in the northern areas of the country, is extraordinary.