Accountability and Transparency: Country Studies — Botswana

Botswana Country Study

Rankings in Freedom in the World 2016: Status: Free. Freedom Ranking: 2.5; Political Rights: 3; Civil Liberties: 2.



Botswana is Africa's longest continuous multiparty democracy, holding uninterrupted free elections since gaining independence in 1966. While the political system has been dominated by one party during this time, the Botswana Democratic Party (BDP), opposition parties function relatively freely. The elections in 2014 were the most competitive in the country’s history and the opposition has gained a strong minority position in parliament. The country's political, legal, and economic institutions and policies have generally been open and seen as positive examples for the continent. Freedom House’s Survey of Freedom reports that there is growing concern over centralization of power and increased cases of government abuse, however Botswana has a well-regarded record in terms of respect for human rights, the rule of law, and government accountability. Trade union rights are also generally respected, although with some restrictions on the right to strike and bargain collectively in the public sector. Transparency International (TI) has consistently ranked Botswana as the least corrupt country in Africa (and among the least corrupt in the world). (In 2016, it was 35th out of 176 countries in the annual Corruption Perceptions Index.) Although recent acquittals of high officials in corruption cases raised questions about government intimidation of the judiciary, the World Justice Report’s 2015 Index on Rule of Law also places Botswana at the top among African countries.

Botswana is a landlocked country located directly north of South Africa. It is moderate in size (ranked 45th in the world at 600,370 square kilometers) but is among the world’s least densely populated countries (with just 2 million people). Botswanans were extremely poor and largely uneducated at independence in 1966, however today the country boasts among the highest rates in Africa in education and per capita income. The literacy rate was 84.5 percent of the population over age 15 in 2011. With a small economy of $15 billion in total output (119th in the world), the nominal GDP per capita for 2015 was ranked much higher, at 83rd in the world, at $6,100 per annum, the 5th highest in Africa (behind several island nations) according to the International Monetary Fund. The World Bank’s ranking for Botswana is higher at 74th. And measured by PPP (Purchasing Power Parity), which takes into account inflation and currency fluctuation, the IMF’s ranking is 71st (at $17,050 per annum). But income inequality remains significant and Botswana’s unemployment rate is consistently around 17.5 percent. 


Origins and Development 

Botswana's original inhabitants lived on its general territory from approximately 17,000 BC to AD 1650. During the earliest period, groups subsisted through hunting and gathering, and turned toward animal herding only during the last few centuries BC. The original language group was Khoisian, spoken by both Khoe and San ethnic groups. In the last centuries BC, Bantu-speaking groups migrated from north to the southern part of the continent, bringing with them the farming of grain crops. In the 13th and 14th centuries, ethnic Tswana, Bantu speakers living in Botswana and South Africa, established an increasingly powerful dynasty. Over time, the Tswana divided. Those living in South Africa were known as Tswana, and those in Botswana were known as Batswana, although both groups retained the common language of Setswana. The term "Batswanan" was also used to refer to all people living in Botswana regardless of ethnicity. 

Conflict with the Boer and British Colonial Rule

The famous British explorers and missionaries Robert Moffat and David Livingstone established religious settlements among the Batswana in the 1820s in order to convert the local communities to Christianity and today approximately 70 percent of Botswana's citizens are Christian. Also in the 1820s, the Batswana and other ethnic groups started to come into conflict with both the Boer “tribe” (white Dutch settlers escaping British administration of the Cape Colony) as well as the Zulu and Ndebele nations, who were expanding their territory (see Country Study of South Africa).'s reputation for accountability and transparency has been formalized through mechanisms such as the constitution and legislation requiring open government, accountability, and transparency.

In 1876, under threat of resumed hostilities with the Boer, Chief Khama III, the leader of the dominant Tswana community within Batswana, appealed to the British government to take their lands under British protection. In agreement with Khama III and the other chiefs, the northern territory was proclaimed a British protectorate in 1885 under the name Bechuanaland, while the southern territory was absorbed into the Cape Colony. In general, the British colonial period was less harsh for Bechuanaland since it fell under indirect administration, meaning that local law and customs were applied in most matters. 

The Evolution to Independence

Local demand for government services led to the creation in 1920 of two advisory councils, one for Africans and one for Europeans, a system giving Bechuanaland's chiefs more direct access to the British administration. In 1934, British authorities also regularized tribal powers and rule. Unlike a number of British colonies, Botswana had a more peaceful path to independence (see, by contrast, Country Studies of Malaysia and Kenya). In 1951, the British initiated the process of self-determination by establishing a joint African-European advisory council. In 1959, a constitutional committee was established, followed by the election of a legislative council in 1961 and finally adoption of a national constitution in 1965. Independence was declared on September 30, 1966, with the country’s capital in Gaborone. 

Democracy With One-Party Dominance 

The main political force in the country, both before and since independence, has been the Botswana Democratic Party (BDP). Botswana’s independence leader, Seretse Khama, led the BDP to its first election victory in 1966 and in two subsequent victories (in 1971 and 1976). The National Assembly, which selects the president, chose Khama three times until he resigned before the end of his last term in 1980. He was succeeded by his vice president, Quett Ketumile Masire, who was also elected three times and resigned before the end of his final term in 1998. Festus Mogae, the vice president, served out Masire’s term and was elected by the National Assembly in 1999 and again in 2004. 

In 2008, Mogae continued the practice of resigning before completing his term and was succeeded by Vice President Seretse KhamaIan Khama, the son of Botswana’s independence leader. While the practice was initiated by Seretse Khama to ensure a peaceful transfer of power, unusual in Africa, Mogae’s resignation gave rise to criticisms from a growing opposition that the ruling party was manipulating the electoral system to prevent real competition. Still, as in previous elections, the BDP maintained a decisive edge in 2009, winning 53.3 percent of the vote and 45 of the 57 elected seats in the National Assembly. Predictably, parliament confirmed Ian Khama for a full presidential term.

The main opposition party after 1969 was the left-leaning Botswana National Front (BNF), which had a social democratic platform. In the 2009 elections, it won six seats, down from 12 in 2004, while a splinter party, the Botswana Congress Party (BCP), took four seats. Two newer parties captured one seat each. Predictably, parliament confirmed Khama for a full presidential term. International observers deemed the elections free and fair. In the latest two elections, the opposition has become more competitive (see Current Issues). 

Accountability and Transparency 

Botswana has the longest period of uninterrupted free elections and democratic parliamentary rule in Africa, generally respects human rights and the rule of law, and has among the most accountable and transparent legislative systems and government on the continent. At the same time, the long-term dominance of the political system by the Botswana Democratic Party has led to the concentration of political power, increasing government abuse and corruption, and attempts to limit free media. As a result, opposition parties have gained strength in the last two elections. 

A Parliamentary Democracy Based on Consensus Building's laws also establish civilian supervision over the police and an ombudsman to whom civilians may lodge complaints. . . .

The National Assembly has dominant legislative powers in a bi-cameral parliament. Fifty-seven seats are elected by district in a British-style “first past the post” system. Four seats are nominated by the president but must be approved by the elected members of the National Assembly. The president, who has authority over military and security industries and is head of state, and either the attorney general or vice president fill the two remaining seats as ex-officio members. Botswana’s second chamber of parliament is an advisory body called the House of Chiefs, having 35 members. This body includes representatives of the country's eight major Setswana-speaking groups, making up nearly 80 percent of the population, as well as several representatives of smaller ethnic groups. The House of Chiefs and the overall political process tends to favor the majority Setswana-speaking groups and marginalize smaller ethnic groups, especially the San, the territory’s indigenous inhabitants who make up 3 percent of the population.

The BDP's overall support in both houses of parliament is based on consensual agreement among the eight major Setswana-speaking groups, whose traditions include limiting the power of traditional leaders and holding local consultative assemblies, thus offering a foundation for consensus and accountability within the party. Initially, Botswana's presidents incorporated this tradition into their style of leadership, insisting on government accountability mechanisms (see below) and limiting corruption within the government and party. The current president, however, has exhibited a more authoritarian style and there are several recent cases of high-level corruption (see Current Issues). 

Fiscal Accountability and Anticorruption Powers 

Botswana's constitution and legislation require open government, accountability, and transparency. The constitution specifies the responsibilities of the Office of the Auditor General, who is required to conduct an annual audit of all public accounts, including expenditures of office-holders, the courts, and partially owned government entities known as parastatals. The auditor general must submit audits to the minister of finance, who in turn must present them to the National Assembly. The auditor general may also report directly to the Assembly’s Speaker. The auditor general is appointed by the president with a fixed term and cannot be removed. 

Botswana's Finance and Audit Act specifies that the auditor general must ensure that the collection and custody of public funds is safeguarded and that funds are disbursed with proper legislative authorization and according to intent. In addition, the law requires that all fiscal officers remain responsive to the public. This function is particularly important since Botswana’s economy relies largely on diamond mining and the government has established the practice of building high foreign reserves to safeguard the budget in the event of the commodity price for diamonds falling (the case in recent years) as well as to prepare for the period of declining production (diamond reserves are expected to be exhausted by the year 2050). 

In addition to extensive public accounting and transparency, the government passed a bill in 1994 that set up an anticorruption body with the powers to conduct investigations and make arrests. There have been regular arrests and convictions of government officials for corruption. The acquittal of some high-level ministers, however, has given rise to fears of government interference in the traditionally independent judiciary (see below). Botswana's laws establish civilian supervision over the police and an ombudsman who acts on civilians’ complaints regarding police abuse or other human rights violations. Despite these mechanisms for public accountability, however, there is no freedom of information law. Government critics assert that this lack allows the government to maintain excessive secrecy and limit the scope and effectiveness of the office of ombudsman. 

Human and Minority Rights 

As noted in the Essential Principles section, accountability of government necessarily entails respect for human and minority rights in order to ensure that citizens and minority groups have the ability to monitor, be informed about, publicize, and respond to government policies and actions. 

The constitution of Botswana guarantees freedom of expression and the country has a free and vigorous press, with independent private broadcast networks (one television channel and two radio stations) and several independent newspapers and magazines. While the government generally respects media freedom, there are notable exceptions. In one case, two Zimbabwean journalists were expelled for their coverage of the government’s conflict with the San ethnic group (see below). In 2008, the National Assembly passed the Media Practitioners Act, which established a media regulatory body and mandated the registration of all media workers and outlets. The high court upheld the law’s constitutionality in 2010 in a lawsuit by media and civil society groups. Under the Act, the government has censored coverage it deems inappropriate and prosecuted individuals for insulting the president. While self-censorship is practiced among some journalists on the major state network, strong critiques of the government appear in the press and on both government-owned and private broadcast networks. There is also access to South African broadcast and print media, which provides another flow of independent. 

Freedom of association and assembly are generally respected, but not without difficulty. In a landmark ruling in November 2014, the Botswana High Court ruled that the government could not deny registration to LGBT organizations and ordered the registration of an organization previously denied it by several government ministries, the Lesbians, Gays and Bisexuals of Botswana (known as LEGABIBO). In respect to trade unions, however, the government deregistered the Botswana Federation of Public Sector Unions and in 2011 responded harshly to an eight-week public sector strike involving 100,000 workers that closed down schools, health centers, and other public facilities. A contract settlement was imposed with a minimal wage increase and 2,600 health care workers were summarily dismissed. The Court of Appeals upheld the government’s decision, but the High Court ordered the reinstatement of many of the workers. A complaint filed in 2012 with the International Labor Organization regarding the 2009 deregistration and other restrictions on worker rights is pending. 

The main minority rights issue in Botswana concerns the indigenous population called San, numbering about 50,000 people. Since 1985, 5,000 San have been removed from their homes on the Central Kalahari Game Reserve, where most San live, to other settlements with fewer services. Most others living on the reserve left after water resources were cut off. The government claimed it was too expensive to maintain the San's traditional hunter-gatherer subsistence culture on its historic territory and that it wanted to offer greater educational and economic opportunities to the group. Critics of the government suspected that it wanted to exploit diamond deposits on the Reserve following a decline in diamond production. More than two hundred San petitioned the courts to return to their homes. In 2006, after a three-year-long court battle, the High Court ruled in favor of the San, ordering the government to allow those evicted to return to their ancestral lands. Another favorable court ruling in 2011 allowed San access to subsurface water sources and a larger number of San began to return to the Central Kalahari Game Reserve. 

Current Issues 

There are concerns generally about the concentration of power by the ruling party and its implications for Botswana’s democracy and the accountability and transparency of government. This has been especially so since 2007, when President Festus Mogae created a new Directorate of Intelligence and Security in the president’s office with the power to arrest without warrants. The DIS functions without parliamentary oversight and it has been implicated in several extrajudicial killings in the last few years under President Ian Khama, the most prominent involving members of a family associated with organized crime. 

There are also increasing concerns about corruption, including nepotism and personal enrichment. Two cases were telling. Ramadelka Seretse, the Minister of Justice, Defense, and Security (a single ministry), and the president’s cousin were charged by the Directorate for Public Prosecutions (DPP) with corruption and conflict of interest. Seretse had supervised the awarding of a government police contract to a company he held shares in and that was reportedly controlled by his wife. Seretse resigned his post after being indicted, but was reinstated after being acquitted. Demonstrating its independence, the DPP challenged the verdict in the Court of Appeals, but Seretse’s acquittal was upheld in April 2012. In another case, Kenneth Matambo, the Minister of Finance and Development Planning, was cleared in November 2011 on charges of having a personal interest in a development agency awarded a government contract. While the courts are generally considered independent, these and several other cases have raised questions about government influence over the judiciary. 

In 2009, President Khama suspended his main rival within the BDP, Secretary General Gomolemo Motswaledi and excluded him from parliamentary elections. The next year, Motswaledi and other leaders left the BDP to form a new opposition party, the Botswana Movement for Democracy (BMD), and accused Khama of “violating the party’s constitution by concentrating power in the presidency.” The faction initially had 20 MPs from the BDP, but by the end of 2011 all but seven had returned to the governing party. To contest upcoming parliamentary elections, the BMD then decided to join with the country’s traditional opposition party, the Botswana National Front, and the newer Botswana Peoples Party, to form a coalition called the Umbrella for Democratic Change (UDC). Motswaledi was elected the UDC’s Secretary General, but in June 2014, four months before the elections, he was killed in a car crash. Suspicions about possible DIS involvement in the accident were fueled by President Khama’s veto of a parliamentary inquiry, but an independent investigation by the UDC concluded that no foul play was involved. 

In September 2014, President Ian Khama directed the public prosecutors to arrest Outsa Mokone, the editor of Botswana’s leading independent newspaper, the Weekly Standard. He was charged with violating the sedition law for articles run in the newspaper about a previously undisclosed incident in which the president was involved in a car crash in June while driving above the speed limit. The newspaper also ran a number of articles about corruption within the DIS. Mokone fled to South Africa and was granted temporary asylum. Freedom House reports that the arrest and legal case against Mokone had “a chilling effect” on reporting for parliamentary elections held the next month. 

In the October 2014 elections, the ruling BDP received less than 50 percent of the national vote for the first time since 1966. It still won 37 of the 57 contested seats in the “first past the post” system, but the Umbrella for Democratic Change (UDC) won a sizable 17 seats, largely with the support of younger and urban voter. The center-left Botswana Congress Party (BCP) won the remaining 3 seats. The UDC’s new leader, Duma Boko, a popular Harvard-trained human rights lawyer, has used the opposition’s position to challenge the governing party on a number of issues.

A particularly critical issue for Botswana is the spread of the HIV virus. Botswana is one of the hardest hit African countries, with only Swaziland having a higher incidence of HIV infection. By 2011 more than 27 percent of the adult population aged 15-64 was infected — over 300,000 cases in a population of less than 2 million. The consequences have been severe in the number of HIV-related deaths, the orphaning of children, and health costs. To its credit, Botswana responded to the crisis earlier, and with greater resources, than other African countries (see, by contrast, the Country Study of South Africa). As infection rates rose, the government quickly put in place thoroughgoing education, treatment, and drug programs, including providing access to anti-retroviral medication starting in the early 2000s. Today, more than 80 percent of HIV-infected persons receive anti-retroviral medication, dramatically reducing the rate of deaths due to AIDS. In 2010, the Employment Act was amended to outlaw discrimination in hiring and firing based on HIV status or sexual orientation.