The Downfall of the Botswana Democratic Party

By Matthew Candau

The 39th Botswana Democratic Party National Congress was recently held in Tsabong, where President Mokgweetsi Masisi spoke about the current economic and political state of Botswana, as well as made a consolidated effort to unify the Botswana Democratic Party (BDP) in preparation for the upcoming 2024 elections.

Botswana is consistently recognized as one of the most developed and free countries on the African continent, with a Human Development Index hovering around 0.700, a GDP per capita (PPP) of nearly $20,000 (the highest on the continent excluding Mauritius and Seychelles), one of the most stable democracies, and having its claim to fame as the longest-lasting continuous democracy in Africa. At the centre of all of this is the BDP, which has held a significant majority in the National Assembly, and thus the Presidency, since the country’s independence in 1966.

Despite the economic and political figures seemingly working in the BDP’s favour, they obscure the much less glamorous reality of the status of Botswana and its people – one that could lead to the end of governance for one of the world’s longest-reigning political parties.

What is the BDP?

The Botswana Democratic Party initially came to power under Sir Seretse Khama, who, running as a moderate against other candidates that many viewed as too ethnocentric and radical, acquired over 80% of the popular vote. This sturdy hold on Motswana politics lasted for a few decades, in which the BDP held a supermajority during the first six election cycles.

Even today, the BDP remains the strongest party in Botswana, and has received over 50% of the popular vote in every election except 2014. It maintains a fairly conservative ideology that especially resonates with older generations and those in rural areas, and places a notable emphasis on supporting constituents in those areas. This support is particularly evident in current President Mokgweetsi Masisi, who removed the ban on elephant hunting in the country because of anecdotes that claimed the excessive elephant populations were causing farmers’ crops to be trampled and even killing people. While some sources have tried to dispute this, human deaths by elephants in the country have increased in recent years.

The BDP’s manifesto remains highly idealistic and appealing to the general populace, highlighting support for all industries and all people one way or another. Yet one main issue presents itself – it provides very few actual policy directives, so there is no clear approach to tackling the main issues that affect the average Motswana voter. As such, the same issues that have been affecting Botswana for decades remain prevalent.

While the BDP has maintained a majority government every election since independence, the percentage of the vote that they have received has significantly decreased over time; the most recent two elections showcase two of only three times in Botswana’s history where the BDP has only controlled a majority and not a supermajority. Therefore, there seems to be evidence that public opinion is turning in the opposition parties’ favour. So, what are the issues that affect Botswana? Why could there be a shift in hegemony? And what implications could this shift have on the country’s economy?  

The Economic Problem

While the figures suggest that the economic and living conditions for the average Motswana is better than most of Africa, this is not necessarily the case due to rampant economic inequality. According to the World Bank’s Gini index, Botswana has the 10th greatest income inequality of any country in the world. One suggested explanation of this widespread inequality is the structuring of Botswana’s economic output. 

A significant portion of the country’s GDP is generated by the mining and tourism sectors. As one of the world’s largest diamond exporters, much of the wealth within Botswana has been relegated to massive mining corporations, namely Debswana and Bamangwato Concessions, Ltd (BTL). Debswana was founded as a joint venture between the government of Botswana and British-owned mining company De Beers, and now provides the government with 50% of its yearly revenue. Overall, the mining industry accounts for over one-third of the nation’s GDP and over 80% of export revenue. Tourism accounts for another 12% of GDP according to recent figures.

While mining may be a useful revenue generator for the government and large corporation owners, it excludes the vast majority of Botswana; the industry has historically employed only around 10,000 people. Furthermore, the rapidly growing youth population of Botswana tends to be more focused on other sectors, such as business and entrepreneurship. While these other industries have been growing in Botswana, high youth unemployment remains a serious problem.

In addition, this lack of economic diversity also creates a very high potential for economic disaster. With the Great Recession of 2008 and the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, Botswana’s GDP was hit much more severely than many other countries, as tourism became less prevalent, and the demand for diamonds significantly decreased.

So what does this have to do with the BDP? The frail structure upon which Botswana’s infrastructure was built was orchestrated by the BDP at the country’s independence, and recent presidents and national assemblies have continued this trend. The party does acknowledge the problem of undiversified infrastructure and has continuously stated their intentions on dealing with it, but little has been accomplished. The BDP simply lacks clear and effective policies to tackle the issue, which affects a very significant majority of Botswana’s population. With the spread of criticism of Masisi, accompanied by high levels of freedom of the press and increasing internet usage, more citizens seem to be waking up to this reality.

With high youth unemployment and ever-growing voter turnout, especially in favour of opposing parties, the upcoming 2024 election seems as if it is the most likely time for leadership to change into the hands of more left-wing candidates.

Facing the Opposition

As far as the upcoming election goes, there are a number of serious political issues that have been facing, and will face, the BDP. One of the primary reasons that has led to lower performance in recent elections has been the unification of several left-wing parties. This coalition, known as the Umbrella for Democratic Change (UDC), has gained more seats in the National Assembly than any party in history other than the BDP. Their main goal has been to overthrow the BDP and allow for a new party with different views and policies to be able to attempt to solve Botswana’s problems.

With a united opposition in the UDC, it has never been more imperative for party unity within the BDP. However, the formerly unified front presented by the BDP has been falling apart for years. Former president Ian Khama has been very open about his disapproval of Masisi, even before he was formally elected in 2019. During the election cycle, Khama heavily backed and became one of the most prominent members of the newly formed Botswana Patriotic Front (BPF), as he said that the BDP lost its way. He claimed that Masisi was “totally and completely empty with nothing to offer at all”, and that he was too focused on his own reputation that he overlooked the needs of Botswana and effective policy measures. The BPF committee recently voted to join the UDC, expanding the party to appeal to moderates and Khama loyalists.

Divisions within the BDP itself have also become noticeable. During the BDP National Conference, it was overwhelmingly evident that the speakers’ aim was to unite members of the party and their supporters. In private conversations with members of the BDP, Khama has even confirmed that some members of the cabinet are critical of Masisi. This divide has lasted for the last few years and has no clear sign of disappearing. If the BDP wants a chance to win again in 2024, according to Masisi, they also need to focus on the “recruitment of new members.”

Other controversies surrounding the BDP and President Masisi have also come to national attention since his election. Before the 2019 election, the founder of Forensics for Justice Paul O’Sullivan was informed that there were efforts to rig the election in favour of the BDP. One of the whistle-blowers, Dikabelo Selaledi, stated that he was paid off to load up roughly 10,000 voters and create a duplicate of each of them. He also claimed that plenty of influential community members, from professional sports players to church leaders, were bribed by the BDP. Other whistle-blowers corroborate these statements, one of whom said that BDP Chairman and current Vice-President Slumber Tsogwane was actively involved in advocating for vote-rigging. Other criticisms of the president include accusations of money laundering and excessive spending on himself. While the UDC was very open in calling for election recounts and appeared to be in support of the whistle-blowers, nothing official resulted from the allegations besides awareness and speculation within the Motswana community. But that on top of growing economic troubles and increasing power and outreach of the opposition may just be enough for a change in power in 2024.

The Implications

So what could change if the BDP’s reign over Botswana is overthrown? If there is one thing that can be guaranteed, it is that there would be a drastic change in the current policy approach. This has been the vow of the UDC since the creation of the party – to go against the BDP and their “agenda informed by the power play of sectarian interests”. With a focus on development of education, equality, transparency, and resiliency, the younger generation may be particularly supportive. The emphasis on a “clean and effective government” in their manifesto is also used to contrast the alleged depravity of the BDP in recent years.

As far as the economy goes, the UDC has a clear objective. The challenges that currently face Botswana have been identified, with their number one concern being the disproportionate focus on diamond mining in the economy. Other factors such as income inequality and low investment in research, development, and other sectors are highlighted as their centres of attention. The UDC is also very explicit about how they plan to approach these issues: by setting aside funds and subsidies toward alternative industries such as agriculture, mineral processing, and infrastructure, as well as maintaining low tax rates, introducing a major infrastructure plan, providing incentives toward the purchase of local agricultural and other consumer goods, and restructuring regulations to induce more competition and investment. If accomplished, all of these policies would be a great start to modernising Botswana even further.

On the international and diplomatic level, it is unlikely that there is going to be much change, if any. Botswana has retained a very open foreign policy, with advancing relations with countries in the east (namely China and Russia) while maintaining close relations with the west (such as the US and UK). The UDC has given no indication of wanting to change the course of Motswana diplomacy.

Despite all these factors working in the opposition’s favour, Masisi exuded confidence and hope for the future of the BDP at the National Conference: “We will be disciplined and put the party before everything else … We have no reason to fail, but I ask [congress] to support every single one of us. Let us finish the contestations that we’ve been in, stop judging us as individuals, and just support us and complement us. Make us stronger. Encourage us. And make sure that we work as a team.”

While it is impossible to predict what is going to happen in the future of Botswana’s politics, now, more than ever, seems to be a time for change.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own, and may not reflect the opinions of the St Andrews Economist.

Image source: Mmegi Online

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