Seretse Khama Ian Khama yesterday became Botswana’s fourth president, taking over from Festus Mogae in a smooth power handover.
On a continent where leaders are often accused of holding on to power, Mogae, 69, is stepping down even before the end of his second term – the last he is allowed under the constitution. That allows his vice president, Khama, son of Botswana’s first president, Sir Seretse Khama, to run as an incumbent in elections next year.
“I retire a proud citizen,” Mogae said at a farewell rally held by the ruling Botswana Democratic Party on Saturday. “Let me advise those leaders in similar circumstances: Leave when the time for you to leave comes, and you will be embraced with love by your people.”
While Mogae may claim to set a standard for democracy, democracy activists and opposition members here complain about “automatic succession.” The Botswana Democratic Party, in power since the former British protectorate gained independence in 1966, virtually anoints the next head of state. The BDP is expected to continue its dominance in the face of a weak and divided opposition.
“The danger is that it provides for a dynastic succession which has been the trend since Seretse Khama,” said Chris Maroleng from the Institute for Strategic Studies in neighbouring South Africa.
Mogae, an Oxford educated economist, has presided over a decade of economic growth and political stability.
Khama said at his inauguration yesterday that “leadership changes can be a time of unease,” but that it doesn’t mean “radical changes”. He said he shared the same objectives that Mogae and the previous government had pursued.
The sparsely populated country the size of Texas is known for its warm hospitality and spectacular wildlife. It is also the world’s largest producer of diamonds, which has transformed it from one of the world’s poorest countries to one of the wealthiest in the region.
Diamonds account for a third of the country’s gross domestic product but the country still suffers from high levels of poverty and unemployment, challenges that Khama will have to face.
Mogae drove a campaign to ensure Botswana benefits more from its mineral wealth, venturing into cutting and polishing diamonds instead of just exporting uncut stones and leaving most of the profit taking to foreigners.
Mogae has been praised for his fiscal discipline, prudent management style and for tackling the country’s high HIV/Aids infection rates, which are among the worst in the world.
Mogae came to power in 1998, succeeding Sir Ketumile Masire, and was re-elected in October 2004.
Khama is a former army commander expected to reunite the party after splits emerged for the first time over his succession. Khama now enjoys support among most party members, analyst Maroleng said.
Botswana’s population is largely homogeneous – making it unlikely the country would ever see the kind of ethnic tensions that rocked Kenya after elections earlier this year.
“Botswana does fall short of some Western notions of what a democracy is. But in terms of the rest of the continent it is a democratic state,” Maroleng said, adding that elections are held regularly, and parliament and the judiciary are seen as independent.
Mogae’s presidency has also been dogged by controversy over the removal of the indigenous San communities from the Central Kalahari Game Reserve.
In 2005 Mogae ordered the deportation of Australian professor, Kenneth Good, who criticised the president and had close links with an international group lobbying for San rights.
Mogae is likely to be best remembered for tackling Aids. He has taken an Aids test publicly and addressed the issue in almost every one of his speeches.
Lifesaving anti-retroviral drugs are known locally as “Mogae’s tablets”.
“He has been the face of the issue,” said Alice Mogwe, director of the Botswana Centre for Human Rights.
A decade ago nearly 40 percent of the country was infected and Mogae said in 2001 that his nation was “threatened with extinction.”
Today, the number of children being infected with HIV by their mothers has dropped from 40 percent to 4 percent and anti-Aids drugs are reaching 95??????’??