After completing two terms as president of Botswana in 2008, Festus Mogae was awarded the $5 million Mo Ibrahim Prize for Achievement in African Leadership. The prize committee cited “Botswana’s continued stability and prosperity in the face of an HIV/Aids pandemic which threatened the future of his country and people.” Mogae, whose unassuming style and willingness to speak frankly have earned him international respect, visited Nigeria last month to chair the 10th annual dialogue sponsored by the Daily Trust. He was interviewed in Abuja by AllAfrica’s Rougui Diaw. Excerpts:
The issue of governance – the focus of the Daily Trust Dialogue – is widely debated. What in your view are the key elements of good governance in Africa?
Good governance consists of transparent accountable government. When governance is transparent, it’s bound to be accountable, because people know what the government is doing and therefore are able to influence it – either to support it or oppose it. In time, government will have to respond to the public or to the electorate or to the nation. In other words, a government that does things in the open can be influenced by public opinion. It can make mistakes, but the mistakes will be minimised if it is responsive to the public.
Accountability also assumes respect for the rule of law so there is no arbitrariness. Offenders are tried and charged in open court, entitled to representation, no arbitrary arrests and so on. People [need to] know that when they are aggrieved – not only against each other but also against the government – they can have recourse to the law. They need to know they are equal before the law. Of course, you can’t have proper rule of law if there is violence, and you can’t have genuine peace without rule of law. These are mutually supportive.
Botswana gets generally high marks for governance. Does your experience of Botswana offer ideas for other countries?
Well, I don’t know if it does or not. But to the extent that any African country has been successful in whatever respect, that is a demonstration of what may be doable in other countries. In other words, if one African country can be successful in agriculture, that would worth emulating. Therefore, the extent that Botswana may have been successful in, say, natural resource management or the way we responded to the problem of HIV – you know we are one of the countries that was most seriously affected by HIV and Aids – to that extent, yes, our example is worth emulating.
Among the chief challenges in Africa is youth unemployment, something you and others addressed at some length at the Mo Ibrahim Forum in Dakar last November.
There is youth unemployment globally. In Africa, we are under developed and therefore face this to a greater extent than most. Our population is younger. We are told by statisticians that 70-75 percent of our population is 20-22 or under. When it is said that unemployment in any African country is 25 percent, you could easily double that for youth unemployment.
At the same time, there is greater communication between youths of the world because of technologies and all the new social media. Youth know what is happening elsewhere, and so all youth are impatient. African youth are even more impatient since we are able to provide them less than the developed countries, and they know what is available in the rest of the world. Some of us growing up didn’t know that we were suffering so much – not until later – but nowadays they know they are deprived by poverty.
What do you see as other major challenges facing Africa?
African governments face a number of challenges [due to] under-development. Poverty alleviation is a big challenge, of course. Africa is very rich in natural resources, but the vast majority of African peoples live in poverty – to a greater extent than is the case in developed countries. Our youthful population is in need of education. Therefore education and training is a challenge for Africa. We need to provide health services, access to clean water, food and nutrition.
One of the challenges of underdevelopment is infrastructure. Our people need transportation infrastructure so they can go from one place to another and trade. Whatever you produce- food, for instance – you must be able to transport to the urban areas. Our neighbouring country Zambia is a case in point. They are doing relatively well in agriculture and have been producing surpluses of our staple grain, maize. But the road infrastructure is in a very bad state. Most of the crop is unable to be transported from the producing areas to the urban centers where it is needed for domestic consumption and where it can be exported to neighbouring countries. Physical infrastructure is key.
When you were president, you were an advocate for science education. There is a program called RISE - Regional Initiative in Science and Education - which supports networks of universities and scholars across Africa, including in Botswana. Do you see a need for more African scientists – for example, to nurture local expertise to address challenges of development?
Of course! Today’s world is a science-oriented world. The leaps and bounds being achieved by the human race are through technological breakthroughs, derived from science. In Botswana, we have always had education and training as priority number one.
During my time as president, I tried to orient the education system more towards science and technology. I decided that science teachers at all levels would be paid a science and mathematics bonus of ten percent of salary. But I failed – precisely because 95 percent of the teachers were neither science nor mathematics teachers. They organised a long strike and, in the end, I had to give in.
Until then we provided free education to PhDs, which was good and valid, although it was never going to be sustainable in the long term. The assumption was that if we succeeded initially within the first 30 or 40 years, then it will become self-sustaining, because educated people would know that education is important. What I was able to do was to free grants for those who are doing science and mathematics. both in the country and outside, while those doing other subjects will be entitled to interest free loans. That was the incentive that I tried to do, aimed at inducing the students themselves to apply themselves more to science and maths.
I’ll finish with Nigeria: do you see progress being made in this country?
Yes, a great deal of progress has been made. There are a great many challenges that remain. It is the largest country, population-wise, in Africa, with many ethnic groups [and] diverse religions. It’s a big country with different regions, some as wet as the tropics, others as dry as the Sahara Desert.
It is not alone in those challenges but – by virtue of its size – the challenges are, shall I say, more significant than is the case elsewhere. Some of them have not been handled as well as they could have been.
The frustrating thing about Nigeria is that it has the potential, it has the human resources, it has the natural resources to do better than it is doing. At the present time, with ongoing violence in the north, and in the south-south, as they call it, Nigeria is going through a very difficult phase, challenging governance much more than perhaps has been the case in the past. But I believe it is a passing phase that, in the end, Nigerians would address, because they have the capacity to do so.
They have the most educated critical mass of educated and experienced people. Nigerians as a people are very enterprising. They are also very confident and combative.
There is no criticism you can make of Nigeria and of Nigerians that they themselves are not making! Many people in society are critical of the shortcomings. The press here is brave and courageous – look at the role played by the Daily Trust. But the press is having less of an impact than it has elsewhere. To some extent, that is frustrating. [People] are aware of what is going on – what should not be happening and what should be happening. You just want to say: ‘Nigerians you know what you got to do, why are you not doing it?’
But I remain optimistic. Progress has been made, but it is less than what is possible. In other words, Nigeria could double the rate of progress it is making in all fields, and they could utilise their resources more effectively, more efficiently than they are doing.