Botswana | Freedom House

Freedom in the World



Freedom in the World 2009

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In April 2008, Vice President Seretse Khama Ian Khama assumed the presidency after the incumbent, Festus Mogae, resigned. Khama appointed former foreign minister Mompati Merafhe as vice president. Meanwhile, the government stirred controversy in April by refusing to allow members of the San ethnic group to access land in the Central Kgalagadi Game Reserve. The government also passed a controversial Media Practitioners Bill in December, which established a media regulatory body and mandated the registration of all media workers, despite earlier criticism from the opposition and press freedom advocates.

Elected governments, all led by the Botswana Democratic Party (BDP), have ruled the country since it gained independence from Britain in 1966. Vice President FestusMogae, a former central bank chief, rose to the presidency when longtime president Ketumile Masire retired in 1998, and he was confirmed as the country’s leader in 1999. The BDP won by a wide margin in legislative elections that year. Polling was deemed free and fair, although the BDP enjoyed preferential access to state-run media.

The BDP took 44 of the 57 contested seats in the 2004 legislative elections, securing a second presidential term for Mogae. The main opposition party, the Botswana National Front (BNF), won 12 seats, while the Botswana Congress Party (BCP) won a single seat. International observers declared the polling free and fair but recommended giving the opposition equal access to state-run media and setting the date for elections well in advance.

In April 2008, Mogae—like Masire before him—retired before the end of his term, leaving vice president Seretse Khama Ian Khama to assume the presidency. Khama, the son of independence leader and first Botswanan president Seretse Khama, had been appointed vice president by Mogae in 1998, and was elected chairman of the BDP in 2003. Khama quickly shuffled the cabinet and appointed former foreign minister Mompati Merafhe as vice president. Critics have accused the BDP of subverting democratic institutions through this “automatic succession” process; Khama was set to be confirmed for a full term by the BDP-dominated parliament after legislative elections in 2009.

Also in April, the government stirred controversy by refusing to allow members of the San ethnic group to access a water boreholein the Central Kgalagadi Game Reserve (CKGR). In 2002, a suitbrought by 243 San had challenged a 1997 government decision to evict them from their lands in the CKGR and relocate them to nearby settlements. A three-judge panel of the High Court in Lobaste ruled in favor of the San in 2006, ordering the government to allow them to return. Despite initially being denied access, several hundred San have since returned to the CKGR, although disagreement remains as to how many will be allowed to live in the reserve.

More than 37 percent of Botswana’s population is infected with HIV, and the UN Children’s Fund estimates that AIDS has created more than 120,000 orphans in the country. In response, the government has offered free antiretroviral drugs and introduced routine HIV testing in all public health facilities. The latter policy has raised concerns that Batswana are not adequately informed before being tested and that their privacy rights are open to abuse.

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, which relies on the diamond and cattle industries. Nevertheless, the unemployment rate is an estimated 40 percent.

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 president holds significant power. Of the Assembly’s 63 members, 57 are directly elected, 4 are nominated by the president and approved by the Assembly, and 2—the president and the attorney general—are ex-officio members.

The 15-member House of Chiefs, which serves primarily as an advisory body, represents the country’s eight major Setswana-speaking tribes and some smaller ones. Groups other than the eight major tribes tend to be left out of the political process; under the Territories Act, land in ethnic territory is distributed under the jurisdiction of majority groups. Due in part to their lack of representation in the House of Chiefs, minority groups are subject to patriarchal Tswana customary law despite having their own traditional 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 BCP and the BNF, 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.

After a series of corruption scandals involving BDP leaders, the government in 1994 set up an anticorruption body with special powers of investigation, arrest, and search and seizure; the resulting conviction rate has been more than 80 percent. Botswana was ranked 36 out of 180 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2008 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 October 2008, the Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA) warned that the government had directed state-owned media to report positively on a campaign against alcohol abuse. The government sometimes censors or otherwise restricts news sources or stories that it finds undesirable.

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 July 2008, the government announced a new Media Practitioners Bill, which would set up a media regulatory body and mandate the registration of all media workers. The measure was withdrawn in August after the opposition and press freedom advocates objected, but the government reintroduced it in November and passed it the following month without holding promised consultations with the bill’s detractors. 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, but all religious organizations must register with the government.

Academic freedom is generally respected. However, in 2005 President Festus Mogae employed the National Security Act of 1986 to deport Australian-born academic Kenneth Good after he criticized the institution of “automatic succession” and said the government was run by a small elite and manipulated state media.

The government generally respects the freedoms of assembly and association, which are guaranteed by the constitution. Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), including human rights groups, operate openly without harassment. However, the government has barred San rights organizations, including the First People of the Kalahari group, from entering the CKGR, and demonstrations at the reserve have been forcibly dispersed. 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 attorneys. 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 other forms of abuse to obtain evidence and elicit confessions. Botswana has been criticized by rights groups for continuing to use corporal and capital punishment. In 2007, the government passed an Intelligence and Security Services Bill that created a Directorate of Intelligence and Security in the office of the president. Civil society organizations and opposition politicians strongly criticized the bill, saying it vested too much power in the director of the new agency—by allowing him to authorize arrests without warrants, for instance—and lacked appropriate mechanisms for parliamentary oversight. 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 testing.

Almost all of those remaining, 530 people, left in 2002 when the government cut off water, food, health, and social services. The government insists that the San have been adequately compensated in money and cattle and are provided with decent education and health facilities in the new settlements, and it rejects assertions by critics that it simply wanted unrestricted access to diamond reserves in the region. The San tend to be marginalized in education and employment opportunities.

Illegal immigrants from Zimbabwe face 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 among livestock,but the barrier is popularly supported as a means of halting illegal immigration; thousands of Zimbabweans have been deported in recent years. Botswana features a vibrant market economy and was ranked highest among African countries in the Heritage Foundation’s 2008 Index of Economic Freedom.

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. However, the 2004 Abolition of Marital Powers Act established equal control of marriage estates and equal custody of children, removed restrictive domicile rules, and set the minimum marriage age at 18. A 2007 report by Physicians for Human Rights stated that women’s disempowerment perpetuated the HIV/AIDS pandemic in Botswana. Domestic violence is rampant, and trafficking in women and children for the purposes of prostitution and labor is a problem. The law prohibits homosexuality.