Critics express fears for Botswana's lauded democracy, but president says he's no dictator

GABORONE, Botswana (AP) — Diamond-rich Botswana is often lauded as a beacon of hope on a continent plagued by violence and poverty, yet some here say democracy is eroding. The president pledged Friday though he won't cling to power beyond his constitutional term limit.

In an interview with The Associated Press, President Seretse Ian Khama insisted he is a democrat and doesn't even want to stay in power much longer in this southern African nation.

"This dictatorial thing you're talking about, I don't see it," Khama, 57, said during an hour-long interview in his Gaborone office. "I know I've been accused of it because I'm not tolerant of poor performance."

Botswana may not be plagued by coups or dictators, but some observers believe the country is also not the role model as it is often portrayed.

Journalists fear a new law is trying to assert too much state control over media. Politicians in the capital say when they disagree with Khama, they are shut out. Now some members of Khama's party who have bristled at his leadership style are forming their own party.

"We were once described as the shining light, and that label stuck," said Clara Olsen, a former leading member of Botswana's ruling party who is now the editor of the Gazette, an independent Gaborone weekly.

As a result, she said, foreign democracy watchdogs don't take the country's problems seriously: "When we complain, they say, 'What are you complaining about? You are a shining light.'"

Khama, the son of independent Botswana's founding president, has been in power since 2008. Along with the advantage of having a beloved icon for a father, he also has a populist touch and is recognized as a hereditary chief in part of the country.

During last year's campaign, he hopped on a bicycle to visit voters in the villages. As president, he regularly holds traditional community meetings known as kgotlas, which he calls the essence of democracy.

But media rights watchdog Thapelo Ndlovu said that people in remote areas hear only what the state media wants them to hear, so Khama is unlikely to be challenged at his kgotlas.

And this week, Sidney Pilane, a longtime member of the ruling party who was legal adviser to Khama's predecessor, announced that he and other Botswana Democratic Party (BDP) members are forming a party of their own.

"I think that he means well," Pilane said of the president. "I think that he is concerned about the circumstances under which some of our people live. Maybe he thinks democracy is a waste of time. He is kind of a benevolent dictator."

Khama was serving as vice president when President Festus Mogae stepped down in 2008 before the end of his second term to help usher Khama into power. That allowed Khama to run as the incumbent last year, when his party once again won control of parliament.

The BDP has been in power since the first elections in 1965, held on the eve of independence from Britain in 1966. But the party's share of the popular vote has been declining, though the country's first-past-the-post system means that has not been reflected in parliament.

Botswana's constitution restricts presidents to 10 years, or two five-year terms. Khama said he has not decided whether he would seek another five years in 2014. But if he did and won, he said he would step down early because he counts the nearly two years he served after his predecessor stepped down as part of his 10.

Khama, though, said he could sympathize with many people in another southern African country, Swaziland, who reject calls for democracy in sub-Saharan Africa's last absolute monarchy. "Politicians are not always the best leaders," Khama said.

Still, elections in Botswana have been regular and generally deemed free and fair. U.S. President Barack Obama, welcoming Khama to the White House in November, called Botswana "truly one of the extraordinary success stories in Africa."

But because foreigners aren't here dispensing aid and financial advice, Botswana often escapes the close international scrutiny to which other African countries are subjected.

The independent group Botswana Law Society says it has recorded more than a dozen alleged cases of extra-judicial killings. Most of the victims have been criminal suspects, perhaps explaining why there has been little outcry. The president, though, rejects complaints that authorities are increasingly taking the law into their own hands.

Journalists here are also concerned about a law passed in late 2008 that creates a media council with complaints and appeal committees appointed by the minister of communications. Khama said the press law was intended not to limit speech, but to ensure journalists did their jobs correctly.

"There should be rules by which everybody in life has to abide by and when you break those rules, you just have to account," Khama said.