On a recent visit to the United States, the President of Botswana, Festus Mogae, who’s globally respected as one of Africa’s most progressive leaders, regaled American audiences with his insights. His appearances at think tanks and other forums in Washington D.C. and New York drew large crowds and impressed many in the US, as he infused his speeches with warm humor and humility. Wherever he went, Mr. Mogae was lauded for entrenching peace and democracy, and for his visionary leadership in the southern African nation’s fight against HIV/AIDS. In the first part of a series on Botswana and its leader, VOA’s Darren Taylor reports on President Mogae’s respect for freedom of political expression, and his unique personality.
Wherever he went, Mr. Mogae received standing ovations. In Botswana’s affable leader, American audiences were presented with something completely different from the usual clichés of corrupt African despots, ruthlessly clinging to power in defiance of the wills of their impoverished populations.
Mr. Mogae has been president of the country since 1998, and his rule has seen the small southern African nation of less than two million people further establish its reputation as a bastion of good governance and political freedom.
And although the majority of Botswanans continue to live in extreme poverty, President Mogae has never hesitated to confront his homeland’s challenges, instituting various economic reforms, fighting to secure Gaborone’s membership of international and regional trade initiatives and working tirelessly to ease the effects of a devastating HIV/AIDS pandemic, which has resulted in about 300,000 of his compatriots being infected with the disease.
During his US visit, Mr. Mogae also impressed by his willingness to answer all questions that came his way – including controversial ones about Zimbabwe, Botswana’s neighbor that’s enduring economic meltdown.
Southern African leaders, including President Mogae, have come under increasing pressure from the international community to find a way to convince Zimbabwe’s autocratic ruler, Robert Mugabe, to negotiate a political settlement with his political foes. Yet, even in the face of tough questioning regarding the Zimbabwe crisis, Mr. Mogae remained friendly and accommodating.
Mostly, though, American analysts complimented Botswana for its deep respect of democracy. Unlike most countries in sub-Saharan Africa, Botswana has been untroubled by serious political violence since it received independence from colonial power, Britain, in 1966.
And President Mogae will further boost democracy in Africa next year, when, after two five-year terms, he’ll leave office and prepare to hand power to a successor.
The president told a think tank in Washington: “As my tenure of office draws to an end, I look back with great satisfaction at my people’s success in building and entrenching democratic governance. Over the last 41 years, the people of Botswana, under the leadership of the Botswana Democratic Party, which is my party – and with the cooperation and contribution of the opposition parties, of which there are many, have built a society committed to democracy, the rule of law, respect for human rights – including women’s rights – transparency and good governance.”
Mr. Mogae also went out of his way to show respect for his American hosts, seeking to emphasize the US’s historical contribution to international democracy.
“I leave behind – to quote a great American statesman (the US’s second president, John Adams) – a country of laws, not of men. And I feel honored to have been part of this tradition and political architecture. I leave a party, a country, in which institutions and issues are more important than individuals.”
But just as President Mogae paid tribute to legendary Americans, so, too, did his hosts laud his vision.
John Hamre, the President of Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the US could learn a lot from one of Africa’s leading statesmen.
“America is going through a pretty angry time. Our politics is hard, and people are not happy with the government. And frankly, at the core of it, is a sense that government isn’t working here very well. (Hurricane) Katrina undercut this perception that America’s government could get things done. And frankly, the difficulties that we’re having in Iraq adds to that…. We now have an opportunity to learn from someone who’s getting things done in the right way,” Hamre commented.
Mr. Mogae’s relaxed presence was in stark contrast to other African leaders who’ve visited the US, who have often appeared tense, defensive and evasive. Botswana’s president came across as an extremely modest man…. Here, after all, was a world leader who often traveled economy class on overseas flights, believing that the use of his private jet was more often than not an unnecessary extravagance.
President Mogae injected a rich vein of humor into his public appearances and talks in America – at times leaving his audiences in paroxysms of laughter. At one point, during a speech in Washington, he struggled to turn the pages of his speech. Mildly exasperated, and feigning intense frustration, he berated the document before him, gazing at the crowd in front of him before exclaiming: “Why does this thing stick together, and break the flow of my speech!”
At another point, Mr. Mogae – who’s eager for Russia to invest in Botswana - spoke of some international businessmen who’d recently secured an appointment with him by presenting themselves as “Russian investors.”
“So they said, we are Russians; we have come to pay a courtesy call. But all these Russians were Americans and Canadians and South Africans,” the president joked.
As his audience burst into laughter, Mr. Mogae smiled and quipped: “But anyway, they are Russian now!”
And fresh waves of amusement rippled through his listeners.
Despite the overall serious nature of the discussions he held in the US, President Mogae always made time to joke…. When a member of an audience told Botswana’s leader that some of the American medical researchers who were working in his country hailed from a US university with a reputation for producing good American football players, someone suggested - with tongue-in-cheek - that Botswanans themselves should start to play the rough game. Mr. Mogae responded:
“When we say football, we mean soccer. And therefore we will copy everything (from the Americans) except football, because we think it’s misnamed anyway – it (should be called rugby). And we’re not that strong (to be able to be good at rugby).”
Later, the audience assailed the president with questions about serious issues ranging from AIDS to the Zimbabwe dilemma. An ambassador in the crowd also took the opportunity to ask him whether he intended to write a book about his remarkable life.
“Well, thank you very much for the questions!” Mr. Mogae responded, before continuing: “I like that of the ambassador best, because it’s easier to answer: Yes, I will write a book,” he stated. And when his listeners expected him to elaborate, he simply stared at them and shrugged his shoulders, sending them again into fits of giggles.
Throughout, President Mogae never held himself up as a figurehead, or as an all-powerful being without who his country’s democratic foundation would crumble. Instead, he credited all Botswanans with his country’s political maturity.
“I’m…. confident that these democratic traditions, institutions and laws – and not men – will not only transcend and survive any pitfalls or political evolution, but will thrive and deepen. The people of Botswana – the architects and visionaries of our political experiment – have succeeded where many have faltered. They can only move forward. They own our democratic culture, and deserve the credit. I was privileged to have been a small part of it.”
Mr. Mogae frequently made it clear that he was willing to let go of the reins of power – even in favor of his political opponents, should they win free and fair elections in 2009. And whenever he arrived and left venues, he was not accompanied by a phalanx of burly bodyguards hiding behind dark sunglasses and fearsome grimaces, but by friendly officials who were always eager to engage people about their homeland.
Many who’d witnessed President Mogae’s appearances said they’d rarely had the pleasure of meeting such an unassuming leader, and they expressed the collective wish that more presidents and prime ministers – whether from Africa or not – would follow his example.