The President of Botswana, Festus Mogae, recently completed a visit to the United States – a country with which the small southern African nation enjoys a very close relationship. America regards Botswana as a bastion of democracy in Africa - a continent that’s all too often labeled hopeless as a result of poverty, conflict, corruption and lack of political freedom in some countries. In recent years, the US has rewarded Botswana for its progress. Washington has given Gaborone millions of dollars to combat its HIV/AIDS pandemic, established an international police training base in Botswana, and accorded the country membership of key trade initiatives, giving it access to great economic benefits. In the second of a series on Botswana, VOA’s Darren Taylor examines the nation’s burgeoning relationship with the US.
During his US trip, President Mogae was careful to avoid discussion of the Iraq war, and it was clear that he didn’t want to offend American sensitivities about the Middle East conflagration. Botswana’s leader didn’t want to take sides, even when pressed by members of his various audiences.
On one occasion, at a think tank in Washington, Mr. Mogae preempted any mention of Iraq by stating firmly: “…. I’m clever enough to avoid controversial issues, so I’m going to talk to you regarding the performance of your government in relation only to sub-Saharan Africa.”
Then, he suggested a reason why he didn’t feel qualified to speak about the controversial conflict, and the US’s actions in the Middle East.
“I only passed (briefly) through the Middle East, and therefore I have no authority to talk about those things. And so, I will confine my remarks to Africa,” President Mogae repeated.
The US government has a particularly close relationship with Botswana, having long characterized it as one of Africa’s great hopes, and the country’s leader didn’t want to do anything to sour his favorable relations with Washington.
Although many of its two million citizens are impoverished, the southern African nation has been politically stable ever since gaining independence from colonial power, Britain, in 1966, and its democratic institutions are going from strength to strength. Washington is not blind to this, and has been rewarding Gaborone for its dedication to good governance.
Down the years, the US has increased investment in Botswana. The U.S. Peace Corps is active in the country, mainly focusing on HIV/AIDS programs – as are American researchers from the Centers for Disease Control. With 300, 000 people living with the virus, Botswana is one of the most affected in the world by the disease, and the country has been a primary recipient of funds from the US President’s Emergency Fund for AIDS Relief.
Washington has headquartered its Regional Center for Southern Africa, which implements US Agency for International Development initiatives in the region, in Gaborone. In addition to all of this, the US International Board of Broadcasters operates a major Voice of America relay station in Botswana, which serves most of Africa.
Together, the governments of the US and Botswana have established an International Law Enforcement Academy (ILEA) in Gaborone. The facility is jointly financed, and is staffed by both nations. ILEA trains police from all over Africa in anti-crime techniques and counterterrorism, amongst other strategies.
In the US, Mr. Mogae was at pains to acknowledge all the assistance he’s received from Washington, and said it remained his mission to continue focusing American attention on his homeland. Wherever he went, the president constantly emphasized Botswana’s friendship and good relations with America. He repeated: “We’re friends” like a mantra, and said on several occasions that he was speaking on behalf of sub-Saharan Africa, and not only Botswana.
“I also wish to extend my gratitude to all of you for your continued interest in Africa,” he told a gathering of academics in Washington.
“Most of you would be aware that I’m leaving office in March next year. However, as I move on – as you Americans would say – I wish to take this opportunity to share my thoughts with you, on a number of issues, as Botswana’s friends, as Africa’s friends.”
President Mogae said the “modest successes” that Botswana and Africa had achieved – such as Gaborone’s fight against HIV/AIDS – could not have been achieved without US support.
“America led by good example - this time - and made a difference, and continues to do so,” he said.
Although he was full of compliments for his American hosts, Mr. Mogae was also explicit in making it clear that his country, and others in Africa, were making sacrifices and suffering as a result of their “friendship” with Washington.
He said Botswana remained the only country in southern Africa that had signed an undertaking not to attempt to bring Americans before the International Criminal Court in The Hague for alleged war crimes.
“I don’t think that any…. black African government is trying to (charge Americans with war crimes),” Mr. Mogae stressed, before adding: “But they did not sign (the undertaking). But we have signed. And therefore we are blasted by the opposition in our country, and the newspapers. They say, well, we are lackeys of the United States. Anyway. I don’t know whether we are, or not. But we are only lackeys when it comes to development assistance.”
If it helped his people more than harmed them, said President Mogae, he would always maintain friendship with America. “We know what side our bread is buttered,” he acknowledged, but also added: “But if you (the US) do wrong things, we don’t support you.”
However, he maintained, the good will from America towards Botswana was palpable, and he was grateful for this. He cited the presence in the country of medical researchers from three US institutions, including Harvard University, who were conducting “groundbreaking” work in the field of HIV/AIDS, and the ILEA, which was improving the quality of policing in Africa.
Stephen Morrison, the head of the Africa Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, said initiatives such as these were mutually beneficial.
“From the American standpoint, these relationships transform our institutions in very positive ways. When you talk to people from each of those three (medical) institutions, it’s changed the perspective; it’s changed their outlook. There’s enormous excitement, and there are clearly very long-term benefits for our society and for our institutions, and we’re very grateful for that,” Morrison told Mr. Mogae.
Botswana’s leader intends leaving office early next year, after two five-year terms as president. Some in the US have expressed the wish that Mr. Mogae will thereafter continue to work closely with America.
“It is my secret hope that he finds a bit of his future here in Washington. He did some very pioneering and very important work with the (US) Congress – bringing HIV/AIDS awareness to a higher state in Washington, and I think that his leadership on helping (Americans) understand Africa would be most welcome,” said John Hamre, CSIS president.