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Botswana's President Pleases US Audiences


Botswanan president Festus Mogae shared his insights with American audiences during a recent visit to the United States. The leader of the small southern African nation is known around the world as one of Africa’s most progressive leaders. Mr. Mogae’s appearances in Washington, D.C., and New York drew large crowds and impressed many Americans, as he infused his speeches with humility and warm humor. Wherever he went, he was praised for entrenching peace and democracy in his country and for visionary leadership in efforts to stem HIV/AIDS. In this first part of a five part series on Botswana and its leader, Voice of America English to Africa’s Darren Taylor reports on President Mogae’s unique personality and his views on freedom of political expression.

President Mogae says he intends to leave office next year, after which Botswana will elect a new leader. After two five-year terms as president, he says he’s satisfied, because under him Botswanans have fostered good governance, the rule of law and respect for human rights: “I leave behind – to quote a great American statesman (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.”

Just as Mogae saluted the fathers of democracy in America – such as the country’s second president, John Adams, so American audiences paid tribute to the Botswanan leader. The Americans were particularly impressed by his jokes and easy-going style. While giving a talk in Washington, for example, the president had difficulty turning the pages of his notes, “Why does this thing stick together and break the flow of my speech? (audience laughter) Anyway.”

At another point, Mr. Mogae – who’s eager for Russia to invest in Botswana – told of some 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. (audience laughter) But anyway, they are Russian now!” (laughter)

Then, a member of an audience told President Mogae that some of the American medical researchers working in his country are from a US university with a reputation for producing good American football players. Someone suggested that Botswanans begin to play the rough game, and Mogae responded with a quip of his own.

“When we say football, we mean soccer. And therefore we will copy everything except football, because we think it’s misnamed anyway; it’s misnamed ‘rugby’! And we’re not that strong (to be able to be good at rugby).”

On another occasion, the audience bombarded the president with questions on serious issues ranging from AIDS to the crisis in Zimbabwe. An ambassador in the crowd also asked him whether he intends to write a book about his life. “Well, thank you very much for the questions. I like that of the ambassador best. (audience laughs) Because it’s easier to answer: Yes, I will write a book.” (silence, followed by more laughter).

Americans said they found it refreshing that Mr. Mogae did not hold himself up as a figurehead, but rather credited all Botswanans with building democracy:

“I’m also 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.”

Everywhere he spoke, Mr. Mogae received standing ovations.

Americans who heard President Mogae speak during his trip said they see him as an African leader of vision, not a power monger, hanging on to his throne. He made it clear that he’d happily hand his office to his political opponents, should they win free and fair elections.