The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How democratic is Botswana after 50 years of independence?

Botswana’s President Ian Khama sits at his desk in Gaborone on Sept. 19. (Siyabonga Sishi/Reuters)

Today Botswana marks 50 years of independence. Over the past half century, the country has seen incredible change.

Botswana was one of the poorest countries in the world when it gained independence from the United Kingdom in 1966. The landlocked country had only 22 college graduates and 12 kilometers of paved road. It went on to experience greater economic growth than any other country in the world. Because of this stellar performance, political economists called Botswana an “African Success Story.”

With the same party ruling since independence, and growing concerns about freedoms and governance, analysts question whether that characterization is outdated.

In the run-up to the most recent elections in 2014, political scientist and Botswana expert Amy Poteete brought attention to the gap between Botswana’s reputation and reality. Economic growth was slowing, there were tensions with public sector unions, and citizens were faced with water shortages and electricity blackouts. As the election neared, opposition politicians and journalists claimed harassment at the hands of government agents and members of the long-ruling Botswana Democratic Party (BDP).

Does Botswana deserve its reputation as a stable democracy?

Although support for the BDP declined in the 2014 election, it managed to hold on to significant power. The party’s vote share was at an all-time low (46.7 percent), yet — thanks to the electoral rules — the BDP still managed to win 37 of 57 parliamentary constituencies (64.9 percent of seats). Poteete argued the 2014 election underlines BDP’s vulnerability and foresees continued decline in its electoral support.

How the rules are privileging Botswana’s ruling party

Particularly because of events surrounding the 2014 elections, critics accuse President Ian Khama of “creeping authoritarianism.” While still outperforming many other African countries in its overall score of governance as measured by the Mo Ibrahim Foundation, Botswana is reported to be on a negative governance trajectory.

But how do Botswana’s citizens characterize its government? Afrobarometer — an African-led research network — released a report this year examining public opinion on democratic consolidation. The report examines multiple waves of surveys conducted between 1999 and 2014.

Across waves, the proportion of Botswana citizens reporting that their country was “a full democracy” or “a democracy, but with minor problems” was high; it never dropped below 59 percent. The same can be said for how satisfied Botswana’s citizens have been with the way democracy works in Botswana.

Consistent with analysts’ assessments, however, both measures recorded declines after 2008, when the current president, Ian Khama, took office. Also declining since 2008 were respondents’ beliefs about how free they are to say what they think; while 83 percent of Botswana’s citizens felt completely free in 2008, that number dropped to 65 percent in 2014.

Botswana is Africa’s oldest continuous democracy. Its citizens have enjoyed decades of political stability and multiparty competition — even if the same party has managed to hold onto the president’s office and a majority in parliament. However, if the trends continue as they are, the country may risk losing gains it has made in these 50 years since independence.

This post is part of our Friday Afrobarometer series, which highlights findings from the Pan-African, nonpartisan research network that conducts public attitude surveys on democracy, governance, economic conditions and related issues in more than 35 countries in Africa. Read earlier posts in the series: