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Botswana: African bastion of stability, but struggling to control HIV

Gaborone, Botswana | AFP |  Diamond-rich Botswana is hailed for its stability, but the southern African nation struggles with income inequality, unemployment and a high rate of HIV.

Ahead of its general election on October 23, here is some background about the landlocked country of 2.2 million people wedged between Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe.

– Stable since 1966 –

Formerly a British protectorate, Botswana became an independent democracy in 1966. The Botswana Democratic Party (BDP) has been in power ever since.

The country’s first president, Seretse Khama, died in 1980 and his deputy Ketumile Masire took over, going on to entrench democracy and development.

Masire stepped down in 1998 and was replaced by his vice president, Festus Mogae, who oversaw strong growth during his two five-year terms.

He was succeeded by Ian Khama in 2018, a former military chief and son of Botswana’s first president. Khama positioned himself as a regional leader, for example calling for the resignation of Zimbabwe’s long-ruling president Robert Mugabe.

Khama, accused by opponents of an increasingly authoritarian approach, stepped down in 2018 after the constitutional limit of 10 years in office.

He handed power to his deputy Mokgweetsi Masisi.

Khama then quit the governing BDP party — which was co-founded by his father — in May 2019, citing major differences with his hand-picked successor.

In the run-up to Wednesday’s election, Khama backed a small splinter party of BDP dissenters, and even urged voters in some constituencies to vote for the main opposition coalition Umbrella for Democratic Change (UDC).

– Running on diamonds –

About the size of France, Botswana is one of the world’s largest diamond producers. The gems are its main source of income and account for more than three-quarters of total annual exports, according to the African Development Bank.

Since independence, the country has been one of the world’s fastest growing economies with business activity expanding by about five percent a year over the past decade, the World Bank said in 2018.

Income inequality is among the highest in the world, the World Bank added, with 16 percent of the population living in poverty and around 20 percent unemployed.

The economy was hit by a drop in diamond prices in 2009 and record drought in 2015, and has sought to diversify, notably through tourism.

Botswana is rated Africa’s second least corrupt country, after the Seychelles, by Transparency International.

– Largest elephant population –

Much of Botswana is covered by the semi-arid Kalahari desert, home to the indigenous Bushmen people and rich in flora and fauna. It is the second largest desert in Africa after the Sahara.

The Bushmen, also called the San, are hunter-gatherers and have been evicted from ancestral land in the Kalahari, where there are diamond deposits.

With unfenced parks and wide-open spaces, Botswana has Africa’s largest elephant population with more than 135,000 — about a third of the continent’s total.

Most of the animals are in the Chobe National Park, an important tourist draw.

In May 2019 President Masisi lifted a 2014 ban on elephant hunting however, saying their numbers needed to be controlled.

– AIDS hotspot –

Botswana has the world’s third-highest prevalence rate of HIV, with 23 percent of adults aged between 15 and 49 living with the AIDS-causing virus, according to UNAIDS 2019 data.

The country’s average life expectancy plummeted from 62 in 1987 to 48 in 2001, but has since climbed back up to 66. It was the first African nation to offer universal anti-retroviral treatment to fight the disease.

In June 2019 Botswana’s High Court decriminalised homosexuality, which had been punishable by a jail term of up to seven years.


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