Many African Leaders Mistake Personal for National Interest – Festus Mogae, Former President of Botswana

Four years ago, the former president of Botswana, Festus Mogae, became the second African head of state to win the Mo Ibrahim award for African leadership. The accolade, which supports "great" African leaders who have voluntarily left office, is the world's single largest annual award, worth a hefty $5m over 10 years. But the club of laureates – now at only three – is an elite one.

This year, the prize went unawarded for the third time in six years. Mr Mogae sits alongside only Joaquim Chissano, the ex-president of Mozambique, who was awarded the inaugural Mo Ibrahim prize in 2007 for ending a devastating 16 years of post-independence civil war; and Pedro Pires, the former leader of Cape Verde, which is still the only African country to be awarded the top rating by US-based Freedom House for political freedom and democracy. Nelson Mandela was also made an honorary laureate in 2007.

Having vowed to fight poverty and unemployment in diamond-rich Botswana, Mr Mogae's decade in power was characterised by programmes to develop the education and health sectors, and to privatise chunks of the economy, notably the airlines and telecoms industry. Like his laureate counterparts, he voluntarily stepped down in line with constitutional requirements, handing over leadership in 2008 after two terms.

His fight to tackle Botswana's endemic HIV/Aids crisis – which saw the introduction of free antiretroviral treatment and routine opt-out testing – continues today, through his stewardship of the country's National Aids Council and the advocacy group Champions for an HIV-Free Generation.

However, speaking with This is Africa at the launch of a report by the Global Commission on Elections, Democracy and Security – of which he is a member – Mr Mogae is donning a governance hat, as he considers the development of "legitimate" democracies.

Lessons from Gaborone

The Global Commission, headed by Nobel laureate Kofi Annan, points to the urgent international actions needed to ensure that elections stregthen democracy. The report, Deepening Democracy: A Strategy for Improving the Integrity of Elections Worldwide, finds that elections are almost ubiquitous today, with all but 11 of the world's countries having held national elections already this century. Some of these, though, were merely nods to the process, providing what it calls a "false veneer of legitimacy" to autocratic governments.

There is a lot that many of today's African leaders could learn from Botswana's experience. The southern African country has raced ahead of most of its neighbours, becoming one of Africa's wealthiest and most stable democracies. It is also regularly ranked as one of the least corrupt.

Under Mr Mogae's leadership, what was Botswana's biggest success? "We tried to do the right thing – to hold free and fair elections – and to a large extent, in terms of the judgement of the international community, we succeeded," he says. But the former president is a realist, and his satisfaction is tempered: "Success is relative in a situation like that and there is a lot of room for improvement."

The first and most important step, he says, was building independent institutions. "I think we are considered successful because when there is rule of law, and the courts are operating, it means that individuals have recourse for redress," he argues. That is the crucial starting point: "It's not that everything will be smooth, but that in the event that things go wrong there are ways open to the aggrieved to find a redress within the system."

Botswana isn't the only country to have made strides in this respect. "Democracy is much more recognised than was ever the case before. Attempts have been made to hold elections; and many of those elections are credible. They may have been imperfect, but they are increasingly credible," Mr Mogae argues.

He points to Ghana as a bright light, but also other, less recognised nations like Zambia and "even Nigeria" – one of the continent's most fractious democracies, where the 2010 presidential election was "imperfect but still credible in representing the will of the people". The results saw Goodluck Jonathan, a Christian southerner, complete an improbable ascent to power. And while the election was widely deemed credible, it was still the bloodiest in Nigeria's independent history, with Muslim northerners and Christian southerners coming to blows.

Mr Mogae says he recognises these problems, but is satisfied with the progress: "The good thing is that there were 20 widely nominated presidential candidates. Of course there was violence, but it was not strictly related to elections per se, it was really related to the politics – partly religious, partly ethnic."

In other less successful democracies, elections provide an air of legitimacy to leaders who are otherwise perceived as benign dictators. So what of the state-heads – among them Rwanda's Paul Kagame, and the late prime minister of Ethiopia Meles Zenawi – whose record on economic development and growth is strong, but who have been criticised for dubious human rights records, and strong crackdowns on dissidents and political opposition? Some countries, especially those emerging from ethnic violence, may not be ready for multi-party politics, their supporters argue. Can strong leadership ever override the need for democracy? Not really, he says: "A democratic dispensation is a necessary condition for sustainability. You can have a benign dictator who brings about development, but the danger is that that growth will die with him.

"There are a lot of African leaders for whom I have the greatest respect. The president of Rwanda has achieved a great deal. He has achieved national reconciliation, he has resuscitated the economy, and the governance is very effective. But sustainability will depend on the extent to which he succeeds in building institutions so that even in his absence the present rate of economic progress could be retained."

Plus, he says, there is always the danger that if a leader stays in power for too long there is an "immense psychological block" amongst citizens who "don't know whether they can be led by anybody else", resulting in "trouble and confusion".

Just look at the likes of Malawi's Hastings Banda, he says, or Zambia's Kenneth Kaunda. "They ruled for a very very long time, and as a result when they left everything went seriously wrong."

Incumbent presidents should be encouraged to step down, he suggests, by means of enforced term limits, and generous pensions.

"I am apprehensive about people who have done the right thing – like the president of Rwanda, like the president of Uganda. I am apprehensive that when you rule, you reach a peak of your performance and you then begin to decline, and after a while you begin to mistake your personal interest for the national interest, and there is a danger that you may end up betraying the very values for which you stood," he says.

"The problem with us in Africa, the distinctive characteristic, is that individuals in many senses are more important than institutions. One criteria of development is that institutions must be more important than individuals. Political parties must be more important than their leaders. The government system as a whole must be more important than the president or the prime minister. The judicial system must be more important than who is judged."

Funding democracies

The report makes a number of recommendations to strengthen democracies, including creating a new international civil society group 'Electoral Integrity International', aiming to shine a light on countries that succeed or fail in organising legitimate elections; asking regional organisations to draw "red lines" of electoral malpractice, which if crossed would immediately trigger multilateral condemnation and sanctions; and suggesting that national electoral management bodies create a global certification process to evaluate and grade each other on their independence and competence.

But one of the biggest problems remains the issue of opaque electoral finance. "Political finance has not received the attention and commitment to reform that it deserves. In a world of increasing economic inequalities, greater concentrations of wealth within democracies, and global economic recession, political finance is a challenge that will only grow in salience," the report states.

Vote buying and bribery of candidates by elites is the obvious problem, but poorly regulated political finance can corrode electoral integrity in more subtle ways.

The report points out that in some countries, direct campaign contributions and other forms of financial support are the dominant form of political influence. "This means that low-income voters have less and less influence over political outcomes," it says.

In other nations, organised crime groups have found that campaign financing can buy influence and protection. "Democratic elections, absent effective electoral finance transparency and oversight, are providing opportunities for organised crime to gain influence over leaders by financing their campaigns," the report states.

That practice is particularly problematic in Latin America and West Africa. In the latter, a long history of drug trafficking has stepped up a gear in the last decade as Latin American cartels take advantage of weak security to turn the region into a hub to serve Europe's growing cocaine market.

Curbing these practices is difficult, since politicians who benefit from loosely regulated financing are unlikely to push for greater transparency. However, donations need to be better regulated and reported, Mr Mogae says: "We should not move towards an American system of financing. We should restrict more severely, enforce more severely, spending limits, so that the well-to-do do not buy elections."

States should also be seeking to level the playing field among electoral contestants by providing public financial support, he argues: "We should supplement those private donation restrictions with public financing – which admittedly is bound to be limited, because after all there are so many competing development needs in any poor country." That public support might exist in non-monetary form, like access to free media airtime or the free use of public facilities for campaign activities, he adds.

International donors, he says, could also "offer financing to all parties", though "whether that would be acceptable to their taxpayers, or to the countries to which they offer aid, is difficult to say". Failing that, they should be directing more time and money towards "developing some of the institutions – the election management boards, trying to offer training and so on".

These are big problems, but having set Botswana on the path to prosperity, the genial former president doesn't seem too phased. "I'm not idealistic," he says wryly. "Democratisation and improving the quality of elections is always work in progress."

Many African Leaders Mistake Personal for National Interest – Festus Mogae, Former President of Botswana

Festus Mogae, former president of Botswana, speaks about democracy, governance, institution-building and political finance in Africa.