Presidental Power Transitions: Botswana, A Public Display of Constitutionalism

  • Jessica Findley, Sonia Mabunda-Kaziboni

Where dysfunctional systems of governance and disregard for constitutionalism seem the norm across the African sub-continent, Botswana has consistently set the pace for good governance and democracy.

Why is Botswana a model for democracy? Special praise goes to their peaceful history of transitions of presidential power, a rarity for African countries. Botswana has seen presidential adherence to the constitution, even when it comes to term limits.  In the past year alone, the issue of term limits has been raised in Burundi, Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda and Uganda as a means for long time rulers to manipulate the political system through democratic processes in order to continue their reign.

On April 1, 2018, Botswana’s President Ian Khama will step down, handing power to Vice-President Mokgweetsi Masisi a full 18-months before the 2019 elections. The action of a president stepping down before an election may surprise many, but is a common occurrence in Botswana. 

The Constitution mandates that “the President is restricted to two terms of office” equating to a maximum of 10 years in office. In accordance with this requirement, presidents of the country vacate the office immediately following the conclusion of their 10-year tenure. Due to this constitutional amendment being passed out of the electoral cycle, presidents’ 10-year tenure conclude 18-months prior to national elections, and vice presidents assume the office in the interim. The Botswana leader’s on-schedule departure has once again made a public display of political leaders obeying the constitutional term limits.

Botswana’s overall progress since independence has been impressive politically, socially and economically, largely due to a tradition and culture of transparency and consultation among its people. What makes Botswana’s form of governance interesting is that with its history of citizen consultation know at the kgotla and political stability, it has added an element of predictability and good governance by a tradition of smooth transitions from one president to another.

In the lead up to the 2019 elections, it will be critical to continue observing political developments in Botswana. Although adherence to the constitution should be applauded, President Khama was critiqued as having authoritarian tendencies. Including diverting funds from private media critical of the government or bypassing the legislative process, which we’ve seen strong men rulers do across the continent.

With backsliding continuing to spread across the Southern Africa region, it’s critical for Botswana to stay on course and further consolidate its democracy. To quote Mo Ibrahim of the Mo Ibrahim Foundation responsible for tracking good governance across the continent, “without vigilance and sustained efforts, the progress of recent years could be in danger of vanishing.” This holds true for Botswana as well. As we look toward the 2019 election, the international community should not go easy on Botswana when initial warning sign of backsliding occur simply because it adheres to its constitution. Advocates for democracy and good governance should continue to demand a culture of openness and consultation between its people, and a competitive electoral environment in 2019.

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