I visited Botswana for the first time in 1980, when I worked for Mellemfolkeligt Samvirke, a Danish NGO. MS had Danish development workers (or ‘volunteers’ as they were also called) posted in all corners of the country – nurses, doctors, teachers, carpenters, farmers. At the beginning of 2002, I returned to live in Botswana as UN Resident Coordinator.

Botswana is a unique country in many ways. It is often referred to as the most democratic country on the African continent, and mentioned as an example of diamond money spent wisely to benefit the people, rather than being a curse. It is however also the home of the San People, which has had a very difficult and contentious relationship with the government. The San have lived in this territory for thousands of years, which is why I have used a photo of San-paintings on rocks to illustrate the article.

This article is one of many more in the book “Engaging with democracy globally”, published in December 2016 when I retired from the institute. The entire volume can be downloaded here: Engaging – 2016 – final


meeting the constituency

We had found our way to the bar in the only guesthouse available in this village, far away from Gaborone, the capital of Botswana. After a long, warm and dusty day of celebration, the cold beer felt fantastic.

The occasion was one of the many UN days that we rarely celebrate in Denmark. In a country like Botswana, such days are used to communicate to the citizens.

It is not a forum for dialogue with the leaders of the country, and certainly not an opportunity to criticize the leaders. The occasion is nevertheless important. Citizens are entitled to hear from their leaders what they intend to do to improve people’s lives. In particular areas that challenge the basic cohesion of society, like inflation, the drought, unemployment, hospitals, schools.

The audience had no doubt had a dreadfully long day, sitting unprotected from the sun on the ground, while we were in the shade drinking water. Listening to people in the audience, it was also clear that they were proud of the local dance groups performing, and they were looking forward to the food they would be offered when ministers and diplomats had spoken and left.

“Great day,” the minister said when I asked him. “It is important to meet your constituency and tell them what we are trying to do to solve the problems we know people are worried about. They should know that I am also worried!”

The building blocks of politics and democracy are no different in Botswana from those we use in our own society. It may be a banal conclusion, but we still tend to forget it, when we start developing our support programmes.

politicizing civil servants

Later that evening, we continued our exchange in a more informal setting, just like politicians and diplomats all over the world do. Taking the temperature on the condition of democracy requires a certain informality.

We were not really friends, but we trusted each other enough. I had no problem addressing my concerns more directly to him than I would normally do.

“Your country is always hailed as one of the most democratic in Africa, if not the most democratic. The UN system agrees. But looking into the future, what is the major challenge to democracy in Botswana?”

His answer came immediately, with a clear voice.

“I see the increasing politicization of our top civil servants as a danger. You will not reach the top without showing your allegiance to the ruling party, my own party. If you are publicly seen to be friendly with the opposition, there is no chance you will get to the top.”

I had expected several other responses – the increasing distance between leaders living in the capital and citizens in faraway villages; the fact that well educated young people are turned off by politics; a lower and lower rate of participation in elections; and politics being seen as doing favors to your friends. Diseases Botswana shares with most other countries around the world.

No, the minister saw the cancerous cell eating away at the democratic culture being the recognition that he could no longer be sure to get the objective facts he needed as a minister to serve his people correctly.

“I am elected to chart out the direction of where this country should go, together with my president and my party. How we share our wealth from the diamonds; the balance between what the state does and what the municipalities should do; how progressive our tax system should be. The civil servants must serve me with substantive and evidence-based facts.”

He was not sure if the system would work if civil servants effectively were members of his party. Would his decisions still be balanced? Would there still be a meaningful dialogue in parliament? Would people trust him?

This is not a problem facing democracy in Botswana alone, nor developing countries in particular. The problem is universal. In Denmark we also discuss how party political civil servants should be allowed to be.

a de facto one party system

Early next morning we started our daylong drive back to the capital, through a landscape that hardly changed as the hours passed. We had time to talk.

“What do you think is the most important for us to be aware of, if we want to maintain our position as the most democratic country in Africa?” he asked me.

Diplomats really do not like this type of question. They would prefer to list the many strengths and weaknesses, possibilities and threats, just to be on the safe side. Highlighting one issue in particular, and doing it in an honest manner, could make life difficult for you.

Since my arrival in Botswana, I had met with a diverse group of people to get a sense of the mood of the country. I had made a preliminary conclusion for myself.

“Your country needs to experience an election, where the ruling party is beaten in a free and fair contest. It is not healthy for your democratic culture that your party has held power since independence in 1966. In a multi-party democracy, the opposition should get a chance to govern. If not, voters will lose faith and respect.”

Not even a high-level UN representative will get a lot of credit for taking the position that a ruling party deserves to lose after having been in power for 40 years. If the election is free and fair, it is the right of the ruling party to rule happily forever. This is also true in our part of the world.

Unfortunately, we know all too well that free and fair elections are the exception rather than the rule in many parts of the world. Ruling parties enjoy flexing muscles when the election campaign starts, intimidating opposition candidates in all kinds of creative ways, and letting the Election Commission know how to conduct its affairs. Ruling parties also have easy access to state owned vehicles; they have ways of controlling state owned media – as well as those daring to run independent media.

The truth is that many multi-party systems function as de facto one-party systems. The control of the state and the electoral system allows the ruling party to control the resources needed to reach the voters. In first past the post systems, the dominance of the ruling party is further strengthened of course.

dialogue among friends

The minister was not at all convinced about my solution to the future of democracy in Botswana, although he admitted that it could be a challenge to the popular understanding of democracy that his party controlled more than 80 percent of the seats of parliament with only slightly more than 50 percent of the popular vote. He concluded in the same way that ruling parties all over tend to conclude and advise the public:

“It would be totally irresponsible to leave the reins of government to parties that have never tried to manage the resources of the state.”

Many countries in Africa face this challenge. The parties that took over at the time of independence are not willing to hand over power voluntarily. Their leaders – as well as the members and supporters – see the power as an entitlement.

Botswana and Tanzania face this challenge, but it is an even more deadly challenge in Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Namibia, Angola and South Africa, where the parties first elected to rule grew out of independence and liberation movements. Their own understanding is that the power to rule and the use of state resources is a historic entitlement.

As partners in development for democratic governance, we cannot avoid responding to such arguments. We have had some success in supporting the establishment of institutions, rules and procedures. We know we have seen less progress with regard to the democratic culture. To be a partner to this, we need to participate in a dialogue that is honest and realistic. We should not be silent because we are afraid of annoying old friends.

rising to the occasion

Before we return to the capital, we have covered a multitude of other challenges facing Botswana right now.

The many Zimbabweans crossing the border into Botswana, to escape poverty and persecution.

The long-term sustainability of a small land-locked country depending on mining and sale of diamonds.

The arrival of Chinese investments on a larger scale than before, and how to deal with this.

The management of natural resources along the Zambezi and other rivers, a shared responsibility of many countries.

The HIV/AIDS epidemic, with rates of infection higher than in any other country in the world.

HIV/AIDS was the nightmare of Botswana. The pandemic was a challenge to the security and financial sustainability of the country. Not to mention the human tragedy of thousands of children growing up without parents.

To begin with, the epidemic was seen as a medical challenge. If we could get the medical logistics in order – testing patients, distributing medicine, ensure monitoring – then we would be able to manage the situation. Now the minister stated:

“Maybe this was really our most serious democratic challenge, because it was a question of the duties of the state versus the rights of the citizens. Should all patients have access to free medicine? Should women have the same rights as men? How should civil society participate in service delivery? What legal rights did employees have if tested positive? The list of questions was endless.”

Former president Festus Mogae and other political leaders in Botswana should be praised for their courage to finally take leadership, after years of hoping that the epidemic would miraculously disappear by itself. They accepted that this was about sexual relationships and traditions, more than about medicine.

In the process of finding the right response, they realized that without the state paying for the cost of medicine for all citizens, the epidemic would be impossible to contain. People needed to know that they could survive on drugs and that they could afford the drugs. If this was the case, they would get tested.

They also understood that the state could not do everything. In some cases other institutions could in fact do it better. The role of government was to establish the governing framework, and within this framework, minority groups, those tested positive, civil society and private companies would find their particular place to contribute.

The most effective progress in democratic governance is often seen when we focus on a particular issue. It can be HIV/AIDS, land use management, girls having access to schooling, etc. This also means that the community working on democratic governance issues is much larger than we normally think.