On April 1, Botswana inaugurated its fifth president, Mokgweetsi Masisi. The presidency is structurally very strong in Botswana and its past leaders have been giants. Filling the shoes of his predecessors will therefore be a daunting challenge for President Masisi. Botswana’s founding president, Seretse Khama, was extraordinarily influential in shaping the country’s trajectory. His insistence on inclusion, faith in democracy, and the use of national resources for national goods rather than personal gain are all still prominent features of Botswana’s political culture today. Seretse Khama's successor, Quett Masire, oversaw a period of tremendous development and steered Botswana into its place alongside Norway as a counterexample to the “resource curse.” Then came Festus Mogae, a brilliant and compassionate leader whose decisive action helped his country overcome the HIV/AIDS epidemic years before the problem was meaningfully addressed elsewhere. Though extremely powerful, each of these leaders oversaw the development of strong governing institutions, including an independent judiciary, aimed at serving the country long after they left office. Together, they took Botswana from the bottom of nearly every development index at independence in 1966 to the upper middle-income status it enjoys today, peacefully and with integrity.
Botswana’s fourth and most recent president, Ian Khama, may be best remembered for his insistence that the persistent poverty experienced by many Batswana be acknowledged, an important contribution in a country celebrated for its development progress but characterized by significant income inequality. He was also a true champion of the country’s spectacular ecological resources and he fostered some of the most effective anti-poaching policies and practices in the world. Some feared that there was an authoritarian strain in Ian Khama’s leadership style. But the pride with which he observed the county’s strict two-term limit and transferred power to Masisi speaks volumes about the depth and endurance of Botswana’s political values.
Like its neighbor South Africa, Botswana has a multiparty system that is dominated by one political party, the Botswana Democratic Party (BDP). Traditionally, the president of Botswana ends his term a year before national elections, ceding power to a vice president who has been chosen with the express intent that he or she lead the party and country going forward. While Botswana’s fractious opposition parties have made some progress in uniting recently, the BDP will likely still win the 2019 election, beginning Masisi’s first five-year term.
I had the pleasure of working with then-Minister Masisi during President Ian Khama’s administration, and found him thoughtful, decisive, fierce in defending Botswana’s equities, and enthusiastic about getting things done. His inaugural address gave some hints to his priorities going forward, including improving the return Botswana receives on its admirable investment in its human capital. I am eager to see how he moves out on his agenda. Botswana should be of interest to anyone who studies the world and cares about what is possible. It is an imperfect place, like any other, but there is no small-population, landlocked country in the world that has ever accomplished so much in such a short time.