March 30, 2008 / 11:00 AM / 11 years ago

Botswana's new leader to keep winning formula

GABORONE (Reuters) - Vice President Seretse Khama Ian Khama takes over the leadership of Botswana this week and is expected to stay on an economic and political course that has made the country one of Africa’s rare success stories.

In this file photo Bostwana's Vice President Seretse Khama Ian Khama arrives at Havana Jose Marti airport June 16, 2007. He takes over the leadership of Botswana this week and is expected to stay on an economic and political course that has made the country one of Africa's rare success stories. REUTERS/Enrique De La Osa

President Festus Mogae will retire after nearly a decade in power, handing over to Khama, a former general who is the son of the country’s first independent leader, at an inauguration on Tuesday. A general election is expected in 2009.

Khama, 55, will inherit one of the best performing economies in southern Africa.

The mineral-rich nation, which is the world’s top diamond producer and famous for its sprawling wildlife reserves, has enjoyed average growth of around 8 percent over the last two decades.

GDP per capita is forecast at $8,453 in 2008, the highest in sub-Saharan Africa, according to global investment banking group UBS. Botswana also has the highest sovereign ratings in Africa, and is ranked the continent’s least corrupt country by Transparency International.

In 1999, Mogae succeeded retiring President Ketumile Masire in a landslide election victory at the head of the Botswana Democratic Party (BDP) that has ruled the former British colony since 1966.

The Batswana expect prosperity regardless of who is in charge of the southern African country of nearly 2 million.

“I think things will stay the same, since they are from the same party,” said B. Kasome, 35, a scout at a game reserve near the capital Gaborone, before adding he was content with life.

“At the moment we are happy with him (Mogae), why change when things are going well.”

Unlike many countries in Africa, Botswana has rejected the ruler-for-life path, limiting presidential terms to 10 years.

TRIBAL CHIEF

Analysts say the handover has been carefully orchestrated to cause as few ripples as possible, in contrast to the often disruptive and sometimes violent succession crises that have erupted in other parts of the continent.

The ruling party, which has won every election since independence from Britain, seems assured of another victory next year, with Khama, the paramount chief of the country’s biggest tribe, the Bangwato, at its helm.

The new president has the right credentials, being the first-born son of Botswana’s hugely popular founding president, Seretse Khama.

A qualified pilot, who attended Sandhurst military academy, he is admired by many, but others fear his military background may bring in an authoritarian leadership style.

“Ian is a chief and he was a soldier so he might use those powers in ruling. It might be bad,” said Tshego Ngeza, 27, a nursery school assistant. “I would prefer Mogae. People are so worried, really worried about Ian’s background.”

While successful on the macroeconomic front, the government has recently come under fire over its human rights record and commitment to democracy.

Botswana faced international scrutiny in 2006 when its highest court ruled it had illegally forced its San Bushmen off their ancestral lands, and last year banned 17 people, mostly foreign journalists and human rights activists from the country.

Analysts don’t expect any major shifts in policies, at least not before the election.

“I don’t envision any impact from this change. The telling time will come after the election,” said Hilton Coghlan, chief investment officer at Fleming Asset Management Botswana.

AIDS FIGHT

The government has won wide praise for its battle against one of the worst AIDS crises in the world, offering drugs and other treatment to contain an epidemic estimated to have infected one in three adults.

The country has been a island of stability in a turbulent region and some believe Khama is the candidate to keep the country on the right track.

“The new president Ian Khama will bring some changes. If you have a problem he is always prepared to help you, he always helps orphans and other poor people,” said 26-year-old childcare worker Boitshepo Mmualefae.

“Ian is a good man ... his office was always open.”

Additional reporting by Michael Georgy, editing by Mary Gabriel

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