African leaders must respect the rules of electoral contest - President Masisi of Botswana

President Masisi during the chat with Wale Adebanwi

President Masisi (right) during the chat with Wale Adebanwi. Photo by Eddy Marenco

On Monday, March 20, 2023, the President of Botswana, Mokgweetsi Masisi, gave a lecture at the University of Pennsylvania, USA, entitled “Good Governance, Democracy and the Management of Natural Resources in Botswana, Lessons for other Resource Rich Countries in the World.” The Lecture was hosted by the Center for Africana Studies, UPenn. After the lecture, President Masisi sat down for a conversation with Wale Adebanwi, Presidential Penn Compact Professor of Africana Studies at UPenn. Excerpts:

Wale Adebanwi: Thank you very much Mr. President for that wonderful talk. I would like to stay in the spirit of ‘botho’. Did I get that right?

President Masisi: Yes. The spirit of humility.

President Masisi, Adebanwi and the audience (Photo by Eddy Marenco)

WA: You have laid out the factors that are responsible for the comparative success of Botswana. When you look at the situation across the continent, particularly resource-rich countries, Botswana’s experience has been unique. Now, some are resource rich, some have no significant natural resources. Some of these countries have elements of what you have laid out in your lecture. Yet, they have not been the kind of success story that Botswana is. I am wondering what is the single most important factor that is responsible for Botswana’s unique success in the management of natural resources, in good governance, and in the sustenance of democracy?

PM: Of the ingredients, I have laid out, a critical differentiator is peace. Peace, peace, peace. Because with peace, you are able to resolve whatever challenges you have. With peace, you are able to attract investment. With peace, you are able to reproduce human capital. With peace, you are able to grow. Therefore, the absence of peace is a huge setback. And, we in Botswana live peace, dream peace, and have no known enemies.

WA: In 2019, the High Court in Botswana decriminalized homosexuality and you fully supported the decision. But your Attorney General initially decided that he was going to appeal the decision. I am wondering why the attorney general said so and why you took a strong position in support of decriminalization. What is the state of affairs now? Perhaps the Attorney General has been convinced otherwise. But I would like to understand why you were strongly in support of the decision thereby joining about 20 other countries in Africa that have decriminalized homosexuality.

PM: What might seem like a paradox for Botswana is normal. I am not the Attorney General. I am not a lawyer. But let me give you the context and give you the full picture of Botswana. Botswana is made up of a people who firmly believe in the realization of their rights and one of those is the right for their opinion to be heard. The Botswana people come from a conservative past with respect to their beliefs and the expression of sexuality. Therefore, it is honest on my part to say that many in Botswana do not support the toleration of homosexuality. But the Attorney General rightfully challenged the decision of the High Court, because, as I said earlier, what might seem a paradox is not. For us, it is normal that the Attorney [General] needed to seek finality, and we, being a country with deep-rooted respect for the rule of law, needed this question settled. The only settlement is to take it to the highest-level court, which he did. As per the oath of office, that I took, I am the protector of the rights of every citizen and the ultimate defender and protector of the decisions of our courts. Therefore, when our highest court spoke, my job is to comply. So, I called the national leadership of our gay and lesbian groups, and I told them that I will support them, and they will be defended. I said that because I knew many would be upset. It is very interesting. When we had a constitutional review – the constitutional process going on around the country – many spoke very strongly against the decision of the High Court. The Appeals Court ruling remains. If the constitution were to be changed, it would be another matter. But for now, every gay person in Botswana is protected by this president.

L-R; Wale Adebanwi, President Masisi, another guest and Prof. Camille Charles. Phpto Credit: Eddy Marenco

WA: What has been the reaction in some parts of Africa where you have had this debate? There has been a lot of pressure coming from even outside of the continent. The American evangelical community has been very influential in East Africa and the rest of the continent. What has been your experience in terms of the reactions, especially from external forces which have been promoting anti-gay laws in Africa? Have you faced any kind of blowback, particularly from these very powerful forces, particularly in the United States?

PM: We face a raft of influences both in support of the freedom of the gay community and those who are anti-gay. Some even approach our community of gay and lesbian persons receiving financial support to entrench themselves and support themselves. We live in a global community; a global world. Therefore, with our freedoms in Botswana, we tend to tolerate such expressions. But all said and done, it will be we who decide what we want and the values that we want to protect. We put laws in place, while being fully mindful of the international standards, particularly with respect to human rights.

WA: Illegal poaching in Africa poses a serious threat to biodiversity and it has led to a decline in Africa of elephants with them almost a third wiped out between 2007 and 2014. Botswana is home to the world’s largest elephant population and your country is a popular tourist destination for most people, partly because of the concentration of wildlife. Most people agree that the shoot-to-kill anti-poaching policy put in place by your predecessor was quite extreme. Yet many people wonder why you decided to remove the limitations that were placed on the hunting of elephants. Would you explain why this decision was taken?

PM: You nearly had me a little confused because you started by saying illegal poaching…. I’ve never known of legal poaching, but I do get the question. Botswana is one of the most water-deprived countries on the African continent. I think second to Namibia, right? But curiously, we are home to the largest herd of wildlife in the world. Can you imagine why that would be? It is a simple expression of the success of our conservation policies. The elephants are very smart. They vote with their feet, and they go where there is peace. But nature, as you would have it, has limits in its carrying capacity. Thus, when we – unlike many countries in the world, and I dare you to show me a better example – have reserved close to 40% of our country for conservation…. 40%! That’s a big giveaway, right? Over and above that, the range in which elephants forage has gone way in excess of that 40% and invariably comes into place human-wildlife conflict. We are a burgeoning economy. We are a developing country. We are sparsely populated, and we have limited resources. Many of our people are poor and so when they work out a living plowing their fields and herding their livestock, they sadly, at times, come face to face with the largest living mammal on earth (the elephant). You don’t need to be a rocket scientist to know who wins that conflict. It pains me as it is, as the defender of my people, when they get mauled by such creatures, in the process of providing living for their families in land allocated to them legitimately. What do you do? And those who scream at rooftops do not even have an elephant. I have offered to give away at no cost just 20 elephants for them to go and keep them in their way, as they preach to us to keep them and see what happens. How do you earn your living in Philadelphia? You go to your office, and you drive, or you commute. What happened if you came across an elephant on your way to work? What do the community say here? And so, we have a number of choices. The hunting ban, as it was, was not helpful. It was detrimental. It was decimating our people; it was decimating the rangeland and water resources and infrastructure. An elephant had to be put down in the capital city of Gaborone a few years ago. They went that far and so we had to put in place a controlled hunting policy while trying very hard to manage these elephants. We had to resuscitate and ask for further assistance as I do now for our transnational conservation area. You know that range between Botswana, Namibia, Angola, Zambia, and Zimbabwe, the KAZA (Kavango Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area, KAZA TFCA). It is one of the largest in the world if not the largest. It is to open up new territory for these elephants, as magnificent as they are, to roam freely. But I keep saying it, elephants vote with their feet. Sadly, in some parts of Angola, they are still trying to find money to demine the area. Again, the question of peace. Where elephants experience the hardships of an animal exploding, they don’t come back. You know the recent history of Namibia. They had to wage an armed struggle for their independence and Zimbabwe also engaged in armed struggle. Most of the elephants, particularly the matriarchs, won’t steer their herd into those places but stick to poor, dry Botswana. We are also pretty positive about it. We can develop tourism policies and we invite you to come and visit and see these elephants. So, the more you give us money when you come visit, the more we are able to spend on compensation for alternative livelihoods for those people that live in this place. Otherwise, the wisdom you give me will be most welcome.

WA: Could I ask what was the response of the people you offered to give 20 elephants to?

PM: I’m still waiting. Recently the British parliament, I mean it is the last week or so…. They passed a bill banning the acceptance of trophies into the UK. Let us accept that there will always be people who are pro-hunting and there will be those who are anti-hunting. Put yourself in the position of Botswana and the enormity of wildlife species that we have kept for the world. Should we not share it with the world? We behave responsibly with the resources, the proceeds that come from that. So, you know, we really do need a break.

WA: After the 1989 re-democratization process in Africa when many African countries became democratic or introduced plural democracy, the rest of the world was happy that things were improving in Africa. But in the last decade, there had been a return to the phenomenon of military coups in West Africa, and presidents for life in different disguises in some parts of the continent. I have two questions: What would you suggest as an antidote to the phenomenon of what has been described as hybrid democracy or authoritarian democracy in Africa? Second, what is your projection about the future of democracy in Africa in the context of the recent experience?

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PM: Well, we remain deeply concerned about the backsliding of democratic practice in Africa. So, we partnered with institutions like the National Democratic Institute to seek to grow and deepen a coalition of like-minded leaders across Africa to deliberately interrogate this very question; interrogating it to promote the values that we think work best for the people. We in Botswana remain steadfast. We are deeply committed to term limit. We are deeply committed to constitutional order. We are deeply committed to democratic practice and that is what we preach as what works. Part of the reason why you had these conflicts, in our view, is precisely because of a lack of respect for the very constitutions by which some of those leaders came into power. Therefore, we need to find more partners to help us make these values more of ubiquity in Africa. But it is not in Africa alone, as you would have learned. We have realized that some of those that we looked up to seem to face similar challenges. So, when we cast the net and look at everything, we must be deeply and unapologetically objective. A backslide in democratic dispensation is a backslide. It doesn’t matter where it takes place. And it is concerning, speaking from the privilege of being a president. I, honestly, have never understood why anybody wants to be president for so long. This thing really alters your life completely and if you long to get your life back, you want to get out of that; do your bit and get out. I need to get into the minds of these other colleagues of mine who, for lack of a better term, do crazy things.

WA: Do you sometimes ask them, when you meet them?

PM: I haven’t met the crazy ones yet. (Laughter) I mean the ones who would be crazy. But, speaking seriously, it really, really disturbs me that some countries have attempted a raft of things. If they attempted to put in place incentives, to incentivize somebody to leave office, I find that…unacceptable. If you have a pension scheme, or you have a scheme by which you can get some comfort beyond your service, that really ought to be enough. Because the first thing we must recognize is that we come into this job as an elected official and, therefore, it means you can be unelected. Being unelected means you are out of a job, at least the job you thought you had. So, go home!

At the Dinner in honor of President Masisi (Photo by Eddy Marenco)

WA: We will now open it up to the audience for a few questions.

Audience member 1: Good evening, Mr President. My question is around the African Union. My country has the largest deposit of iron ore, and we are the second largest Bauxite exporter. I think that the Botswana model would be beneficial for Guinea. For instance, what do you think about knowledge-sharing within the African Union?

Audience member 2: I have had the joy of visiting your country which is the most beautiful in Africa that I have explored. And one of those beautiful places I went to was the area where the hunter-gatherers who we sometimes, in the West, call the bushmen and San – and who called themselves … I can’t really pronounce it because of all the click sounds. I was wondering how they fit into your vision for development. In order to become a highly developed country economically, it requires these people to settle in one place, to become farmers, to move to the city. Or is there a place in your vision for them to continue, if they wish to move around nomadically and pursue hunting and gathering as they have for thousands of years?

PM: Thank you for the first question- knowledge-sharing. Botswana is an open encyclopedia and reference laboratory. I go to the African Union assembly, as I did this year, and we gather in the coffee room with our colleagues and we have our ambassador who is there with the other ambassadors. One of the things that I am well known for, and I say this publicly again, is that we are willing, we are desirous of sharing whatever people want to get out of Botswana in terms of our developmental experience. We have even put in place programs with countries that have specifically come to us to find out how we did it through government-to-government interactions. We are more than happy to do that. Not only are we willing to do that, we have tertiary institutions. When you finish here (UPenn), you can come over to the University of Botswana. Come over to our universities and carry out research. With digital technology, you can still do it from here and you will find us welcoming and open. Some of the things that I laid out in the lecture I gave speak for themselves. You know the prerequisites in terms of the governance structure and even the licensing of the engagement of various mining companies and what you do with the proceeds. All these need to be tackled. So, you can come to study it. Governments can come and engage with us, and they can come talk to companies that we have. Our legislation is digitized. We are more than willing to share our experiences but it is not only with developing countries in Africa. We are willing to share with the developed world and even development partners. And so, you are welcome anytime. You and your country and everybody else.
Regarding the second question. In terms of how the so-called bushmen fit into our plans. They are citizens, bearing all the rights that I do. Therefore, they can choose where they want to live. You can choose to live in a settled space where that is permitted, they can choose to gather and be nomadic. But they cannot choose certain things. If you have a game reserve, for instance, they are going to live by the dictates of what is allowed and what is not allowed in the game reserve. And, typically, we would not allow permanent structures in the game reserve. But we also are mindful of their way of life, for them to thrive and experience good health…the opportunities that all of us enjoy. To do that they would need to forgo some of the things that they practice and part of it is education. Where does the right of a parent to take a child out of school and wander the dangerous terrain, uneducated, with insufficient health provision, where do those rights end and where do the rights of the child begin? And so, the state, like any state, would have to intervene to protect the potentials that the child has and the child’s rights. Therefore, they enjoy the rights that we all do. However, we are a little concerned when it sometimes happens when those who claim to speak on their behalf but do not practice their lifestyle give them an almost prehistoric existence and they become nothing but exotic tourism objects – that to which I say no.

Audience member 3: I am extremely lucky to be traveling to your country next week. I will be living there for three months and I’ll be working alongside your nurses at the Princess Marina hospital. This is an extension of the BUP program through the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia to build a nurse partnership over there. Botswana has already done a wonderful job building a doctor partnership. I wanted to know this: What are your hopes for your healthcare system – given your goal to be a high-income country by the year 2030?

PM: The question on my hopes for the health delivery system. I am really glad you asked that question because earlier on I had a discussion with the leadership of UPenn who have had a remarkable partnership with us for more than two decades and it’s growing. I am really glad that you are part of it. You here at UPenn, you have the privilege of experiencing a high-end tertiary healthcare system. You have the benefit of long-lasting and well-established health capacitation or training system. You here at UPenn have the privilege of being an Ivy League. You attract the best and you have the best, you have the privilege of being a wealthy first-world country. We in Botswana have the privilege of having wonderful diplomatic ties with the United States and the people of the United States and you know, with friends what you can do together is beyond measure. Therefore, this partnership is built on those foundations. We share values, we like each other. We are committed to partnering so that we can have a symbiotic relationship. We exchange and share. Botswana presents to UPenn a dynamic environment which you don’t have here in the US and even the opportunities for research. Sadly, at one time, we were the highest burdened country in the world with HIV-AIDS. For any curious scientist, you want to jump right into that, in terms of academic pursuits. So, we present that. We also present a safe environment for Americans to go out and broaden their knowledge not just for students, but also for academic leaders.
My hope is that this relationship is made more dynamic and that it is deepened. We do our part that requires us to have frank engagements. What can we do to make us successful in the delivery of the healthcare systems in terms of skills, tools, technology, techniques, systems of management and governance. But also you should have in mind that we are a developing country. And so, the unit cost of provision of health, for instance, should not be structured the same way as you have it here. Because we are more about the inclusion rather than the provision of tertiary exclusive care to a very limited few. We have got a lot more to achieve. So, thanks. I commend you for being part of this partnership. Please, call on us when you visit. We will make your life happy in Botswana. We encourage others to come. You can also present an opportunity for our students to come and learn here; for our faculty to come and learn here, including engaging in co-investigation and publications. My hope is that this partnership really broadens and deepens and goes beyond health. There are other sectors, other areas of investigation, because UPenn is renowned for its capacity to do things.

Audience member 4: I am from Uganda, that country where we have had a single president for 37 years. There is a saying that goes around in Africa that being president is like riding on the back of a lion. You don’t let go, because, if you let it go, it will most likely eat you up. That is one of the reasons that presidents don’t retire. I agree with you that more and more presidents are retiring now but my question is how is Africa prepared or African countries prepared to manage former presidents retiring within the same country?

PM: Regarding those who have been in power for a long time, I would only take note of the 30-something years in power that you made mention and then proceed to the various engagements that I spoke to earlier. Such as through our partnership and work with the National Democratic Institute in interrogating these questions. How do you make it beneficial for a former head of state to remain committed to the constitutional provisions of one term limit? Or even the limitation of term caused by an election? Respect for an election requires making sure that, through engagement, people embrace democratic ideals. One of the most important is that, even before you get tuned into an electoral contest, you must begin by respecting the rules. And part of the rules is that if you are the loser, respect the loss. Accept and embrace loss. If you have been given an opportunity through any total system, accept that it is not forever. If there is termination [of your time in office], embrace termination, embrace the ideal that others other than yourself should also occupy this space you occupied. It is extremely important. I don’t like pushing the rewards mechanism; you get paid so much, you can give this and that. Why should people be bribed? Why should people be rewarded, given pecuniary rewards for – yeah that’s a better word – pecuniary rewards? Why should they be given rewards for doing what they are supposed to do? More than anything else, why should their rights override the rights of so many people? It is just disrespectful for people to serve beyond their term. It is disrespectful for people not to accept that others have beaten them. It is just disrespectful. That is why, we, perhaps, ought to provide, in various constitutions, sanctions for persons who dare even come close to threatening those provisions. And they must sign up for that sentencing to be included before they even get into a contest.

Audience member 5: It seems like Botswana is the only country in southern Africa that still maintains the death penalty. I am just curious as to why that is so. What is your thought process on maintaining the death penalty in your country?

PM: For us, it is not a competitive issue. It is a fact. We do have the death penalty in Botswana because it is in the law. But the death penalty in Botswana must not be perceived to be frivolously undertaken. There is, first of all, due process within that law. And let me just let you know how it actually is for Botswana. First, there has got to be an indisputable determination of the existence of a predetermined, premeditated murder, which is not very easy to prove. Outside that threshold, nobody would be put to death. When every avenue has been exhausted and there has been complete proof that the murder by the accused may have occasioned was predetermined, planned and executed successfully, and no extenuating circumstance; only then would you [the person] be sentenced to death. To every person accused of murder, the crime carrying capital punishment, the state ensures you have legal representation. Nobody gets taken through a judicial process on the accusation of murder without representation – unless, of course, they reject such representation – and the state would pay. And persons accused and sentenced by a lower court have every right to carry their appeal as a right to the highest level with representation, including appealing to the president for clemency. And the provision in the law is such that there is a committee of clemency. It is never determined by a president alone. So, there is rigor in it, and that is why you will find the number of persons who are actually put to death to be fairly low. But even having said that, this is a value that got put in law which we also were taught by none other than the Brits and we so embraced it. But it is negotiable because we are a democratic country. We just had a constitution review. If Botswana decided to reject the death penalty, it would be so rejected because of our commitment to democratic practice.

• Credit for transcription: Kelly Harris.

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