Botswana | Freedom House

Freedom in the World



Freedom in the World 2007

2007 Scores



Freedom Rating
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Civil Liberties
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Political Rights
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


In 2006, a court case brought by San (Bushmen), whom the government had forced off their ancestral lands in the Central Kgalagadi Game Reserve (CKGR), continued to generate domestic and international controversy. After hearing closing arguments in September, a three-judge panel of the high court in Lobaste ruled 2-to-1 in December that the San were wrongfully evicted and should be allowed to return to the CKGR. Separately, the government in August presented Parliament with a landmark national broadcasting bill aimed at establishing a community broadcasting sector and expanding the reach of private media. In January, the government reintroduced school fees at public secondary schools.

Elected governments, all led by the Botswana Democratic Party (BDP), have ruled the country since it gained independence from Britain in 1966. A referendum on whether the president should be directly elected, rather than chosen by the National Assembly, was withdrawn shortly before a scheduled vote in late 1997. Vice President Festus Mogae, a former central bank chief, rose to the presidency when Ketumile Masire retired in 1998, and was confirmed as the country’s leader in 1999. The ruling BDP won by a wide majority in legislative elections that year. Polling was deemed free and fair, although the BDP enjoyed preferential access to state-run media.

The BDP firmly defeated a fractured opposition in October 2004 legislative elections, taking 44 of the 57 contested seats in the National Assembly and securing Mogae a second term in office. The main opposition party, the Botswana National Front, won 12 seats, while the Botswana Congress Party won a single seat. International observers declared polling free and fair, but recommended measures to strengthen the democratic process, including giving the opposition equal access to state-run media and setting the date for elections well in advance.

In 2002, a suit brought by 243 members of the San ethnic group, also known as Bushmen, challenged a 1997 government decision to evict them from their lands in the Central Kgalagadi Game Reserve (CKGR) and relocate them to nearby settlements. The San, an indigenous group that traditionally lived by hunting and gathering, claimed that the government acted unlawfully by cutting off water, food, and health services and confiscating water tanks and livestock in the reserve in 2002, forcing them to leave what they considered their ancestral lands. The government argued that maintaining the services was prohibitively expensive and asserted its right to clear the area for wildlife and tourism. The San and some rights groups contend that the government intends to exploit diamond resources in the reserve. In March 2006, the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination pressed the government to reopen negotiations with leaders of the San community over the dispute. The rights group Survival International continued to accuse the government of launching a “massive crackdown” on the San in 2005 and blocking their access—along with that of their legal representatives and of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs)—to the game reserve. The government has denied these allegations. In December 2006, a three-judge panel of the high court in Lobaste issued a long-awaited ruling in favor of the San, judging them wrongly evicted from the CKGR and ordering the government to allow them to return.

Economic progress in Botswana has been built on sound fiscal management and low rates of corruption, and privatization is progressing slowly. Efforts are under way to diversify the economy, in which diamonds account for 76 percent of export earnings and 33 percent of gross domestic product. However, unemployment is an estimated 40 percent.

AIDS has taken a toll on the economy; more than 37 percent of the population is infected with HIV. The government has taken a pioneering regional role in combating the pandemic, offering free antiretroviral drugs and introducing routine HIV testing in all public health facilities. The latter policy has led to objections from civil libertarians, who are concerned that Batswana are not adequately informed before being tested and that their privacy rights are open to abuse.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

Botswana is an electoral democracy. The 63-seat National Assembly, elected for five years, chooses the president to serve a concurrent five-year term; despite being elected indirectly, the executive enjoys significant power. The courts confirm the Assembly’s choice when the winning party receives more than half of the seats in Parliament. Of the Assembly’s 63 members, 57 are directly elected, 4 are appointed by the majority party, and 2—the president and attorney general—are ex-officio members.

The 15-member House of Chiefs, which primarily serves as an advisory body to the National Assembly and the government, represents the country’s eight major Setswana-speaking tribes and some smaller ones. Groups outside the eight majority tribes tend to be marginalized from the political process; under the Territories Act, land in ethnic territory is distributed under the jurisdiction of majority groups. In 2004, a draft constitutional amendment providing for the election of 20 representatives from eight minority groups was introduced in Parliament (where it remained at year’s end). A lack of representation in the House of Chiefs has allowed the imposition of Tswana patriarchal customary law on minority groups, which often have different rules for inheritance, marriage, and succession.

The BDP has dominated politics in Botswana since independence; neither its majority in the National Assembly nor its control of the presidency has ever faced a serious challenge. Opposition parties—namely the Botswana Congress Party and the Botswana National Front—have accused the government of effectively institutionalizing the BDP’s dominant status. Nevertheless, the Independent Election Commission, created in 1996, has helped consolidate Botswana’s reputation for fairness in voting. President Festus Mogae has said that he will not serve a full five-year term and plans to hand over the presidency in 2008—a year before the next elections—to his appointed vice president, Seretse Ian Khama.

The government passed a bill in 1994 that set up an anticorruption body with special powers for investigation, arrest, and search and seizure; the resulting conviction rate has been more than 80 percent. Botswana was ranked 37 out of 163 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2006 Corruption Perceptions Index, and has had the best rank among African countries for several years running.

A free and vigorous press thrives in cities and towns, and political debate is open and lively. Several independent newspapers and magazines are published in the capital. However, the government dominates the broadcast media, which reach far more residents than the print media, and provides inadequate access to the opposition and government critics. In addition, the government sometimes censors or otherwise restricts news sources or stories that it finds undesirable. In September 2006, press freedom advocates and opposition political parties condemned a government warning to state-owned media to exercise “maximum patriotic solidarity, collective responsibility, [and] allegiance to country and nation” in reporting about the CKGR dispute.

The private Gaborone Broadcasting Corporation television system and two private radio stations have limited reach, although Botswana easily receives broadcasts from neighboring South Africa. In August 2006, the government presented Parliament with a draft version of the Botswana Broadcasting Bill. It includes plans to establish a new community broadcasting sector—though the number of licenses available to community radio and television stations was not specified—as well as a public entity to monitor the quality and objectivity of state-owned media. The government does not restrict internet access, though such access is almost absent outside cities. Botswana does not have a freedom of information law, and critics accuse the government of excessive secrecy.

Freedom of religion is guaranteed, although all religious organizations must register with the government.

Academic freedom is generally respected. However, in February 2005, Mogae employed the National Security Act of 1986 to declare Australian-born academic Kenneth Good a “prohibited immigrant” and deport him from Botswana. Good had criticized the government, saying it was run by a small elite and was manipulative of state media. In June 2006, Good challenged his deportation in a formal complaint to the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights in the Gambia. In January 2006, the government reintroduced school fees for students at public secondary schools after 20 years of free public education, citing falling tax revenues and increased educational costs. Opposition parties, teachers’ unions, and other civil society organizations objected to the move, arguing that the fees would deter parents from sending their children—particularly female children—to secondary schools.

The government generally respects rights to freedoms of assembly and association, which are guaranteed by the constitution. NGOs, including human rights groups, operate openly without government harassment. However, in September 2005, police used rubber bullets to prevent a San demonstration from entering the CKGR. At least 21 people were arrested, including San leader Roy Sesana. The government contended that police resorted to force after being attacked by the demonstrators.

While independent labor unions are permitted, workers’ rights to strike and bargain collectively are restricted.

The courts are generally considered to be fair and free of direct political interference, although the legal system is affected by staffing shortages and a large backlog of cases. Trials are usually public, and those accused of the most serious violent crimes are provided with public defenders. Civil cases, however, are sometimes tried in customary courts, where defendants have no legal counsel. Trials held under the National Security Act may be conducted in secret.

Authorities have been reported to occasionally use beatings and abuse to obtain evidence and elicit confessions. Botswana has been criticized by rights groups for continuing to use corporal and capital punishment. Prisons are overcrowded and suffer from poor health conditions, but the government has been making moves to address the problem by building new facilities and providing prisoners with access to HIV/AIDS testing.

Discrimination against ethnic minorities is a problem. Since 1985, authorities have relocated about 5,000 San to settlements outside the CKGR. Almost all of those remaining—530 people—left in 2002 when the government cut off water, food, health, and social services. In October 2005, Survival International claimed that the government had forced another 35 San out of the reserve at gunpoint, but the government argued that the 35 wanted to leave and guns were not used. In general, officials deny that the government forced the San to move. They insist that the San were adequately compensated in money and cattle and are provided decent education and health facilities in the new settlements. The authorities also have rejected assertions by critics that the government wanted to protect diamond reserves in the region from potential claims by the San, who had lived there for 30,000 years. In December 2006, a three-judge panel of the high court in Lobaste ruled 2-to-1 that the San had been wrongly evicted from the CKGR and that the government must allow their return. The San tend to be marginalized educationally and do not enjoy the same employment opportunities as more privileged groups.

Illegal immigrants from Zimbabwe and Zambia are the targets of increasing xenophobia and are accused—sometimes legitimately—of criminal activity. These immigrants are subject to exploitation in the labor market. Botswana is building an electric fence along its border with Zimbabwe, ostensibly to control foot-and-mouth disease, but popularly supported as a means of barring illegal immigration. The government has restricted the entry of San-rights organizations, including the First People of the Kalahari group, from entering the CKGR.

Women enjoy the same rights as men under the constitution, but customary laws limit their property rights. Women married under traditional laws are deemed legal minors. Progress in improving women’s rights has been slow. However, in December 2004, the government enacted the Abolition of Marital Powers Act, establishing equal control of marriage estates and equal custody of children, removing restrictive domicile rules, and setting the minimum marriage age at 18. In November 2006, the Botswana Defense Forces began recruiting female soldiers for the first time since its founding in 1977. Domestic violence is rampant; in 2005 and 2006, a spate of so-called passion killings—murders of women by a boyfriend or husband—made gender-related violence a major issue in Botswana. Nevertheless, law enforcement officers rarely intervene in domestic affairs, especially in rural areas. Trafficking in women and children for purposes of prostitution and labor is a problem. The law prohibits homosexuality.