Is Botswana the Miracle of Africa? Democracy, the Rule of Law, and Human Rights Versus Economic Development

AuthorAmelia Cook; Jeremy Sarkin
PositionEditor of Publications for the Fares Center for Eastern Mediterranean Studies at Tufts University; Distinguished Visiting Professor of Law, Hofstra University Law School 2008-2009.

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In November 2008, former President of Botswana, Festus Gontebanye Mogae, received the Ibrahim Prize for Achievement in African Leadership. 1The Mo Ibrahim Foundation awards this prize to a democratically-elected Page 454 former African head of state who has served within the limits set by the domestic constitution and has left office in the prior three years. 2 The Foundation assesses Sub-Saharan leaders on their exercise of leadership and their country's performance during their term in office. 3 It is the largest annually-awarded prize in the world and consists of $5 million over ten years and $200,000 annually thereafter for life. 4 The Foundation also considers granting an additional $200,000 per year for ten years to leaders who take on public interest activities and espouse good causes. 5 The citation notes that former President Mogae won the award because, among other things:

[Botswana's] democracy was strong, stable and rooted in the rule of law. Botswana was widely regarded as one of the more effective countries in the world in combating corruption. . . . President Mogae's outstanding leadership has ensured Botswana's continued stability and prosperity in the face of an HIV/AIDS pandemic which threatened the future of his country and people. . . . The Prize Committee believes that good governance requires an environment conducive to peace, security and development, based on the rule of law and respect for human rights. Botswana has had to address the challenge of advancing each in a balanced way. This has been helped by the independence and integrity of its institutions which bodes well for further progress towards spreading wealth and opportunity across all sectors of Botswana society. 6

The awarding of this prize to President Mogae offers a context in which to evaluate whether Botswana deserves the oft-used moniker, "the African Miracle." 7 The international community has long considered Botswana a Page 455 success story on the African continent. 8 Since achieving independence in 1966, it has maintained high economic growth, sound fiscal policies, and regular elections, which have fed this image. 9 However, this label of success has led to inadequate questioning of what occurs beneath the façade in Botswana. Inequality, discrimination, the dominance of a single political party, the government's aversion to criticism, and an array of human rights abuses are among the many problems afflicting Botswana. 10 The country has made especially slow progress toward improving many social and cultural rights. 11

Achievements such as Botswana's noteworthy economic growth, political stability, and regular elections often eclipse issues like human rights, which remain on the periphery of most analyses of Botswana. However, human rights issues present a significant threat to Botswana's positive reputation. One of these issues concerns the long and complicated relationship between a minority ethnic group, the San, 12 and the ruling elite, who mostly come from the Tswana ethnic group. 13 The ethnic division has led to the San's vulnerable position in Batswana 14 society today. 15 No example better demonstrates the limits of democracy in Botswana 16 than the eviction by the Government of Botswana ("GOB") of San bushmen from their homeland in the Central Kalahari Game Reserve, presumably to further the exploration of potential diamond mines. 17 This controversy over land rights between the San and the GOB has led to the longest and most expensive court case in the Page 456 history of the country, known simply as the Central Kalahari Game Reserve ("CKGR") case. 18

The CKGR case serves as a reflection of the GOB's general failure to uphold many of the basic tenets of human rights, especially in regard to indigenous and otherwise marginalized groups. The case has finally begun to draw international attention, however meager, to Botswana issues other than its growth rate and the regularity of its elections. 19 Potentially, it could pave the way for more rigorous assessments of what it means to be a success story in Africa. Although the San won the case, 20 the government has not cooperated in implementing the ruling, 21 raising many questions about the democratic process in Botswana. Furthermore, the "win" has led to very few changes to the San's position in society. 22 This Article is less concerned, however, with the CKGR case than with the question of Botswana's majority group and its promotion and protection of democratic and human rights, especially among minorities.

On the African continent, many argue that the need for economic growth and political stability outweigh, at least in the short term, the need to ensure proper compliance with international human rights law. This is supposedly so because economic and political improvements are often predecessors to advancements in human rights. 23 In many ways, this stance is difficult to refute. Creating a stable and thriving democracy is critically important to the advancement of human rights. 24 Economic growth is also important because it can lead to improved education, 25 which in turn can lead to improved Page 457 livelihoods. 26 When considering the state of affairs in many African countries, such basic improvements in quality of life are invaluable. Yet the question remains, when will it be time to confront longstanding violations of human rights in countries that have already experienced economic growth, political stability, and the establishment of a functioning democracy?

This Article investigates the claim that Botswana is the "Miracle of Africa" in the context of its political, economic, and human rights record. It contextualizes the arguments and findings that scholars make today about Botswana's success in achieving economic prosperity, political stability, and sustained growth. This Article then compares these accounts to Botswana's record in a number of other areas, including its treatment of marginalized groups, especially the Batswana indigenous population. This Article inspects the historical development of Botswana, the political and economic context of the country, and Botswana's marked prosperity.

Part I introduces the general question under review: should modern-day Botswana be regarded as the "African Miracle?" Part II provides a brief overview of the political situation in Botswana, and introduces the idea that some of the country's achievements have come at the expense of fundamental human rights. Part III reviews the economic context of the country. Part IV examines why Botswana has been able to prosper to the extent that it has. Part V, on the other hand, argues that some of Botswana's accomplishments stem from elements of good fortune, including its unique colonial experience, the discovery of diamonds shortly after independence, and the political dominance of a single ethnic group.

Part VI investigates the "Miracle" adage in more depth, noting Botswana's successes while also exposing several problematic practices related to governance and the marginalization of minority groups. It analyzes the role of civil society and the media, as well as the extent to which they can operate freely. Certain economic issues, including economic inequality, are explored to lift the veil on the Botswana "Miracle." This Part reviews Botswana's compliance with its international human rights obligations and the extent to which it has enacted into domestic law the rights enshrined in ratified international treaties. The findings of international human rights treaty bodies on Botswana are also explored in this section. Additionally, the section examines Botswana's stance on the death penalty, the situation in its prisons, its HIV/AIDS epidemic, and the role of its national human rights institutions. While certain elites benefit from Botswana's accomplishments, many citizens have been excluded from and marginalized by them. This Part assesses the cost of success at the expense of some Batswana citizens' human rights. This Article concludes that other African countries can learn many lessons from Botswana. However, Botswana must also diversify its economy, deal with high rates of unemployment, especially among marginalized Page 458 groups, and take steps to address a number of human rights concerns in order to function as an example for the rest of the continent.

I Botswana Today

The goal of this Article is not to diminish Botswana's successes, many of which are highly commendable, but to explore those features of its democracy that threaten Botswana's image and its ability to serve as an example for other African nations. While the international community hails Botswana as a beacon of democracy, 27 several issues-especially those concerning human rights 28-threaten this adage. Since independence, the GOB has pursued a policy of non-racialism with regard to Botswana's indigenous groups. 29 This policy has allowed it to violate the rights of many of the country's indigenous and otherwise marginalized groups, placing them far outside the walls of Botswana's "Miracle" democracy. 30 Not only do these groups have little means of actively participating in the decision-making processes of government, but many of their basic social, cultural, political, and economic rights are violated consistently in pursuit of a non-racial, nationalist policy. 31 In reality, this policy simply supports the political, economic, and cultural status quo as established by the dominant 32 ethnic group, the Tswana. 33...

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