BOTSWANA AT 50: THE JOURNEY HAS BEEN LONG BUT THERE ARE REASONS TO CELEBRATE THIS HISTORIC MILESTONE
Today on 30th September, 2016 the Republic of Botswana, a Southern African state of almost the same geographical size as Kenya, but with a population of just over 2.2 million inhabitants is attaining 50 years of independence. Attaining 50 years by any entity is a historic milestone. That may be why it is valuably labeled a golden jubilee. Botswana has been stable, democratic and peaceful since independence. These attributes account for the modest successes we have achieved in the last 50 years given the position the country was in when the British flag was lowered and replaced by the blue, black and white flag of the Republic of Botswana at independence.
To better appreciate how Botswana has progressed since independence it is important to remember, among others, the exact words of Mr. John Stonehouse of Wednesbury when he was moving for the 2nd reading of the Botswana Independence Bill in the British House of Lords on 26th July, 1966;
“ I do not want to delay the House long, but I must refer to some of the immense economic problems that Botswana faces on independence. It is a poor and underdeveloped country. It is almost wholly dependent upon the cattle industry, and, although this has been developed considerably on recent years since the establishment initially of an abattoir with CDC money and subsequently with the canning factory in Lobatsi, the economy is far from viable.” This profound but true observation by Lord Stonehouse and which was clearly understood by the leaders of the new Republic was buttressed by many other observers who painted a very gloomy picture about the economy of Botswana registering any progress to make a difference in the lives of the small population scattered across the mainly dry and dusty landscape. If the leadership of Botswana had allowed the rather pessimistic comments about their young Republic to disturb their focus the country would not be where it is today.
The achievement of our Golden Jubilee milestone against the frightening realities confronted at independence gives us many reasons to celebrate. Indeed, the leadership of the young and free multi-racial Botswana had to first negotiate with the threat of destruction from the forces of apartheid while at the same time grappling with the challenges of absence of almost all basic infrastructure required in a functioning state such as schools, medical facilities, paved and tar-marked roads as well as electricity to light up the hopes of an expectant population. As dry, and as hopeless as Botswana appeared at independence the vision of its leaders, presided over by Sir Seretse Khama, founding President of the Republic and the fortune of being blessed with mineral and wildlife resources were to prove pivotal in the unbelievable story of progress that unfolded before the eyes of the international community. From being listed as one of the poorest countries at independence Botswana has risen to become a middle income country, a respected multi-party democracy and significant player in international affairs.
We have reason to celebrate because we managed to escape the so called resource course and prudently invested the revenues derived over the years from diamond sales to provide roads, schools, health facilities, clean water and electricity for the people of Botswana. The Government of Botswana prioritized infrastructure and education as early as 1966. The only 6km of tarred road at independence were increased to the more than 6600 km of tarmac road networks that now interconnects the major districts, towns and villages of modern Botswana and the neighbouring countries. The only 9 secondary schools in 1966 have increased to the more than 265 today to provide for more than 97% access to free secondary school by all children who complete the 9 years of free basic primary education, compared to 8% in 1966. This has led to the achievement of more than 87% literacy in the country. Against a population of just over 2.2 million this is phenomenal. Democracy, rule of law, good governance, respect for human rights and the promotion of an open and free economy in which the private sector plays a pivotal role have been the main pillars of Botswana’s success. Above all, a combination of the wisdom of our leaders, our believe in dialogue and the inherent peace loving nature of our people has enabled the consultative system of government to remain the cornerstone of our progress. Today as we celebrate Botswana’s Golden Jubilee it is appropriate to reflect on the confidence the international system continues to give to our developmental efforts through the accolades provided in various global rankings. For example in the past 13 years Botswana has been consistently ranked the least corrupt county in Africa by Transparency International. The 2016 World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business Report ranks Botswana at 72 from among the 189 economies assessed on 10 measures of regulatory quality and efficiency. This puts Botswana 2nd in Africa after Rwanda.
The HIV and Aids pandemic that badly hit Botswana in the 90s threatened to reverse the gains made in the socio-economic development of the country. It equally presented the biggest threat to the survival of our people. As captured aptly at the June 2001 special session of the UN General Assembly by Former President Mogae who led from the front in mobilizing the biggest anti-HIV and Aids response programme in the continent: ”We are threatened with extinction. People are dying in chillingly high numbers. It is a crisis of the first magnitude.” Thanks to the vision and tenacity of our leadership and the international aid focused in Botswana but anchored on our own national strategy we have turned the corner. The problem of HIV and Aids is certainly not defeated in the continent. However, Botswana’s experience does offer valuable lessons to draw from. We were the first African country to embark on a programme of rolling out free anti-retroviral drugs to all citizens living with HIV who needed them. By 2007 we had delivered HIV treatment to more than 90% of those who required it. Our Prevention of Mother-to-Child Transmission (PMTCP) programme rolled out in 1999 managed to achieve 94% success by 2009, giving a great boast to our vision to achieve an Aids free generation.
Botswana and Kenya have enjoyed friendly relations, anchored on the early government to government contacts at independence and strong people to people connections. Our two governments collaborate through formalized bilateral platforms and also partner effectively at continental and multilateral fora to promote common interests. We continue to jointly champion regional efforts to promote a conservation agenda anchored on the importance of protecting the environment and securing the abundant natural resources that our two countries are blessed with to support a sustainable development agenda.
There is evidence that the private sector in both countries are keen to harvest the investment opportunities available at either end. As we celebrate 50 years of independence we are reminded of the historic contribution that the Government and people of Kenya have played in the economy of Botswana. For many years Botswana hosted Kenyan nationals who continue to contribute to our development as educators, investors and government workers, among others. Kenya has since 1967 hosted Batswana trainees in various fields at its higher institutions of learning. A very good number of the doctors, meteorologists, railway technicians, meat inspectors, journalists and other public service workers from Botswana received their training in Kenya. I have no reason to doubt that the trajectory in the growing relations between Botswana and Kenya will translate to even more benefit for the people of both countries. The founding Presidents of Kenya and Botswana, HE Mzee Jomo Kenyatta and HE Sir Seretse Khama, had the vision to forge a strong, friendly and fruitful relationship between our two countries. Botswana remains forever grateful to the first President of Kenya and we even have a road named Jomo Kenyatta Highway in our capital city, Gaborone. Today, as we celebrate the 50th anniversary of independence of the Republic of Botswana, let us all be reminded to build on the strong foundation these iconic leaders have laid for the benefit of future generations.
John Moreti, High Commissioner of Botswana to Kenya.