1998 Scores

Status: Free
Freedom Rating: 2.0
Civil Liberties: 2
Political Rights: 2


Former central bank chief Festus Mogae succeeded Quett Masire as Botswana's president in April. Mogae's smooth transition to power reflected both the country's entrenched democratic institutions and the dominance of the ruling Botswana Democratic Party (BDP). A referendum on whether the president should be directly elected was withdrawn shortly before a scheduled vote in late 1997, and the majority party in the National Assembly will continue to appoint the country's leader. With the main opposition party increasingly fractured, the BDP is expected to dominate the next legislative elections, which are due by October 1999. In general, Botswana respects human rights, although occasional police misconduct, slow progress in improving women's rights, and the continued relocation of indigenous Baswara, or N/oakwe ("red people"), from traditional lands to make way for game parks and cattle ranching lingered as problems.

Elected governments have ruled Botswana for more than three decades since the country gained independence from Britain in 1966. The country is now Africa's longest continuous multiparty democracy. Economic progress has been built on sound fiscal management and low rates of corruption, but most of the country's people remain poor. In the past two years, the government has committed scarce resources to major weapons purchases, including fighter aircraft and tanks. Analysts believe that the escalation is linked to territorial and riparian disputes with neighboring Namibia. Both countries, however, have pledged to resolve these disputes through negotiations. Botswana sent about 400 soldiers to join a South African intervention in Lesotho in September to quell protests against alleged election irregularities.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties

The legislative elections through which Botswana's 1.5 million citizens choose their government are now considered free and generally fair, despite accusations that the BDP, which has held power since independence, has regularly manipulated the electoral process. Election conduct has steadily improved, and the Independent Election Commission created in 1996 is expected to reduce partisanship in polls administration still further. The National Assembly elects the president to serve a concurrent five-year term. The opposition Botswana National Front won 13 of 35 seats contested in October 1994, but suffered from crippling infighting in 1998. The new United Action Party could draw some support, but a disunited opposition is not expected to defeat the BDP.

Botswana's human rights record is outstanding in Africa and was praised by President Bill Clinton during his March visit to the country. Several laws regarding sedition and allowing detention without trial (under the National Security Act), however, remain on the books. While rarely invoked, they remain a threat to freedom of expression and political activity. Another law bars "uttering words with intent to bring into ridicule the president of Botswana."

The courts are generally considered to be fair and free of direct political interference. Trials are usually public, and those accused of the most serious violent crimes are provided public defenders. The University of Botswana Legal Assistance Center and the Botswana Center for Human Rights offer free legal services, but are limited by a lack of resources.

Political debate is open and lively, and there is a free and vigorous print media in cities and towns. The opposition and government critics, however, receive little access to the government-controlled broadcast media. Issuance of licenses for commercial FM radio stations in late 1998 could help to break this monopoly. The government has not reintroduced the media legislation that was withdrawn after strong local and international protests last year. The law would have demanded stricter registration of newspapers and accreditation of journalists. In May, the government dropped charges of "spreading false rumours likely to cause alarm" against a resident British journalist.

Treatment of Botswana's indigenous Baswara, known as "Bushmen," has drawn local and international concern. Government relocation schemes reportedly include forcible evictions of Baswara from their traditional lands. Baswara are subject to widespread discrimination and abuse. Only a few thousand are still permitted to practice traditional nomadic lifestyles in the central Kalahari desert. Almost 50,000 others have been resettled in villages or as laborers on farms. Baswara demands include restitution of land and the right to hunt on traditional lands, much of which are now wildlife preserves.

Women's rights are not fully respected. Married women may not take a bank loan without their husbands' permission, and women, especially those in rural areas, face traditional discrimination. Only four of 44 National Assembly members are women, and only two women serve in the cabinet. Domestic violence against women is reportedly rampant, with little action to stem it through police action or education.

Concentration of economic power has hindered labor organization. While independent unions are permitted, workers' rights to strike and to bargain for wages are restricted. Botswana's competent financial management and relatively low rates of corruption have attracted both Korean and Swedish automobile manufacturers to build assembly plants in the country, but unemployment remains at approximately 35 percent. A 1996 law requires the president, members of the cabinet, and parliamentarians to declare their assets.

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