Capital: Gaborone
Population: 1,991,000

Political Rights Score: 3 *
Civil Liberties Score: 2 *
Status: Free

Ratings Change

Botswana's political rights rating declined from 2 to 3 due to decreased transparency and accountability in the executive branch under President Seretse Khama Ian Khama's administration.


The ruling Botswana Democratic Party swept parliamentary elections in October 2009, and Parliament confirmed President Seretse Khama Ian Khama for a full term in office. Khama, previously the vice president, had risen to the presidency in 2008 after the incumbent retired, and government transparency has been reduced under his administration. In May 2009, he was accused of ordering the extrajudicial killing of a suspected criminal, amid a spate of similar killings by security forces that began in 2008.

Elected governments, all led by the Botswana Democratic Party (BDP), have ruled the country since it gained independence from Britain in 1966. Vice President Festus Mogae, a former central bank chief, rose to the presidency when longtime president Ketumile Masire retired in 1998, and he was confirmed as the country's leader after the BDP easily won legislative elections in 1999. The BDP took 44 of the 57 contested seats in the 2004 elections, securing a second presidential term for Mogae. International observers declared the polling free and fair but recommended giving the opposition equal access to state-run media and setting the date for elections well in advance.

In April 2008, Mogae – like Masire before him – retired before the end of his term, leaving Vice President Seretse Khama Ian Khama to assume the presidency. Khama, the son of independence leader and first president Seretse Khama, had been appointed vice president by Mogae in 1998 and was elected chairman of the BDP in 2003. He quickly shuffled the cabinet and appointed former foreign minister Mompati Merafhe as vice president. Critics have accused the BDP of subverting democratic institutions through this "automatic succession" process.

Significant rifts within the ruling party emerged before legislative elections in October 2009. Most notably, Khama suspended his rival, BDP secretary general Gomolemo Motswaledi, preventing him from standing as a candidate for Parliament. In September, the High Court rejected Motswaledi's related lawsuit against Khama, citing the head of state's constitutional immunity from civil suits.

In the elections, the BDP won 45 of 57 seats with 53.3 percent of the vote. The Botswana National Front (BNF) won 6 seats and almost 22 percent of the vote, while the Botswana Congress Party (BCP) won 4 seats and 19 percent. Two other parties each captured one seat. Parliament confirmed Khama for a full presidential term later that month, and preliminary observer reports declared the elections free and fair.

A spate of extrajudicial killings by police and other security forces that began in 2008 continued in 2009. According to government statistics and media reports, there were between 10 and 12 such killings from April 2008 to the end of 2009. In May, the killing of alleged criminal John Kalafatis sparked a major controversy after press reports claimed that security forces were involved and that President Khama had ordered Kalafatis's death. The government vociferously denied the charge.

More than 17.5 percent of Botswana's population is infected with HIV, and the UN Children's Fund estimates that AIDS has created more than 120,000 orphans in the country. Nevertheless, the government announced in February 2009 that revenue shortfalls would force cuts to its HIV/AIDS programs, which have included free antiretroviral drugs and routine HIV testing in all public health facilities.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties

Botswana is an electoral democracy. The 63-seat National Assembly, elected for five years, chooses the president to serve a concurrent five-year term. Of the Assembly's 63 members, 57 are directly elected, 4 are nominated by the president and approved by the Assembly, and 2 – the president and the attorney general – are ex-officio members. Despite being elected indirectly, the president holds significant power; while he can prolong or dismiss the legislature, the legislature is not empowered to impeach the president. Democracy advocates have alleged that power has become increasingly centralized around current president Seretse Khama Ian Khama, with many top jobs going to military officers and family members.

The 15-member House of Chiefs, which serves primarily as an advisory body, represents the country's eight major Setswana-speaking tribes and some smaller ones. Groups other than the eight major tribes tend to be left out of the political process; under the Territories Act, land in ethnic territory is distributed under the jurisdiction of majority groups. Due in part to their lack of representation in the House of Chiefs, minority groups are subject to patriarchal Tswana customary law despite having their own traditional rules for inheritance, marriage, and succession.

The BDP's control of the National Assembly and the presidency has never faced a serious challenge, and opposition parties, namely the BCP and the BNF, have accused the government of effectively institutionalizing the BDP's dominant status. Nevertheless, the Independent Election Commission, created in 1996, has helped consolidate Botswana's reputation for fairness in voting.

An anticorruption body set up in 1994 has special powers of investigation, arrest, and search and seizure, and the resulting conviction rate has been more than 80 percent. Nevertheless, there are almost no restrictions on the private business activities of public servants. Botswana was ranked 37 out of 180 countries surveyed in Transparency International's 2009 Corruption Perceptions Index, and has had the best rank among African countries for several years running.

A free and vigorous press thrives in cities and towns, with several independent newspapers and magazines published in the capital. The private Gaborone Broadcasting Corporation television system and two private radio stations have limited reach, though Botswana easily receives broadcasts from neighboring South Africa. State-owned outlets dominate the local broadcast media, which reach far more residents than the print media, and provide inadequate access to the opposition and government critics. In addition, the government sometimes censors or otherwise restricts news sources or stories that it finds undesirable. In December 2008, the government passed a new Media Practitioners Act, which set up a media regulatory body and mandated the registration of all media workers, without holding promised consultations with the bill's detractors. The government does not restrict internet access, though such access is rare outside cities.

Botswana does not have a freedom of information law, and critics accuse the government of excessive secrecy. President Khama had yet to hold a press conference as of the end of 2009. In May, he threatened to sue the Sunday Standard for reporting that linked him to the murder of alleged criminal John Kalafatis by security forces; the Sunday Standard announced that it would countersue.

Freedom of religion is guaranteed, but all religious organizations must register with the government. There are over 1,000 church groups in Botswana.

Academic freedom is generally respected. However, in 2005, the authorities deported Australian-born academic Kenneth Good after he criticized the institution of "automatic succession" and said the government was run by a small elite and manipulated state media. While free and private discussion is largely protected, the government in 2008 mandated the registration of all prepaid mobile-telephone SIM cards, at risk of disconnection; only 15 percent of such cards had been registered by the December 2009 deadline. The November 2009 arrest and overnight detention of a South African woman for insulting the president also raised concerns about freedom of expression.

The government generally respects the constitutional rights of assembly and association. Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), including human rights groups, operate openly without harassment. However, the government has barred San rights organizations from entering the Central Kgalagadi Game Reserve (CKGR), the subject of a long-running land dispute, and demonstrations at the reserve have been forcibly dispersed. While independent labor unions are permitted, workers' rights to strike and bargain collectively are restricted.

The courts are generally considered to be fair and free of direct political interference, although the legal system is affected by staffing shortages and a large backlog of cases. Trials are usually public, and those accused of the most serious violent crimes are provided with attorneys. Civil cases, however, are sometimes tried in customary courts, where defendants have no legal counsel.

Occasional police abuse to obtain evidence or confessions has been reported, and Botswana has been criticized by rights groups for continuing to use corporal and capital punishment. The 2007 Intelligence and Security Services Act created a Directorate of Intelligence and Security (DIS) in the office of the president. Critics said it vested too much power in the agency's director – allowing him to authorize arrests without warrants, for instance – and lacked parliamentary oversight mechanisms. DIS officers were implicated in a number of extrajudicial killings in 2008 and 2009. Prisons are overcrowded and suffer from poor health conditions, though the government has responded by building new facilities and providing HIV testing to inmates.

Discrimination against ethnic minorities is a problem. Since 1985, authorities have relocated about 5,000 San to settlements outside the CKGR. Almost all of those remaining, 530 people, left in 2002 when the government cut off water, food, health, and social services. A three-judge panel of the High Court in Lobaste ruled in favor of the San in 2006, ordering the government to allow them to return. Several hundred San have since gone back to the CKGR, although disagreement remains as to how many will be allowed to live in the reserve. The government insists that the San have been adequately compensated and are provided with decent education and health facilities in the new settlements, and it rejects claims that it simply wanted unrestricted access to diamond reserves in the region. In September 2009, a report by the Bench Marks Foundation alleged that mining operations in the CKGR had been excluded from environmental impact assessments and were making it difficult for San to access local water sources. The San tend to be marginalized in education and employment opportunities.

Illegal immigrants from Zimbabwe face increasing xenophobia and are accused, sometimes legitimately, of criminal activity. These immigrants are subject to exploitation in the labor market. Botswana is building an electric fence along its border with Zimbabwe, ostensibly to control foot-and-mouth disease among livestock, but the barrier is popularly supported as a means of halting illegal immigration; thousands of Zimbabweans have been deported in recent years.

Botswana features a vibrant market economy and was ranked highest among African countries in the Heritage Foundation's 2009 Index of Economic Freedom.

Women enjoy the same rights as men under the constitution, but customary laws limit their property rights. Women married under traditional laws are deemed legal minors. However, the 2004 Abolition of Marital Powers Act established equal control of marriage estates and equal custody of children, removed restrictive domicile rules, and set the minimum marriage age at 18. A 2007 report by Physicians for Human Rights stated that women's disempowerment perpetuated the HIV/AIDS pandemic in Botswana. Domestic violence is rampant, and trafficking in women and children for the purposes of prostitution and labor is a problem. The law prohibits homosexuality.

*Countries are ranked on a scale of 1-7, with 1 representing the highest level of freedom and 7 representing the lowest level of freedom.

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