I have written something before about, 'Why Nations Fail,’ an excellent book by Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson. This is another excerpt, this time they try apply their ideas to explain Botswana's success. The story of successful management of natural resources in Botswana is well-known, the question is why did it take place here, but not in, say, Sierra Leone, or Zimbabwe?
A few short excerpts below summarise their argument:
"Early stages of independence would play out very differently in Botswana, again largely because of the background created by Tswana historical institutions. In this, Botswana exhibited many parallels to England on the verge of the Glorious Revolution. England had achieved rapid political centralization under the Tudors and had the Magna Carta and the tradition of Parliament that could at least aspire to constrain monarchs and ensure some degree of pluralism. Botswana also had some amount of state centralization and relatively pluralistic tribal institutions that survived colonialism…..
…..At independence the Tswana emerged with a history of institutions enshrining limited chieftaincy and some degree of accountability of chiefs to the people. The Tswana were of course not unique in Africa for having institutions like this, but they were unique in the extent to which these institutions survived the colonial period unscathed…..
….The first big diamond discovery was under Ngwato land, Seretse Khama’s traditional homeland. Before the discovery was announced, Khama instigated a change in the law so that all subsoil mineral rights were vested in the nation, not the tribe. This ensured that diamond wealth would not create great inequities in Botswana…..
…...Another facet of political centralization was the effort to unify the country further, for example, with legislation ensuring that only Setswana and English were to be taught in school. Today Botswana looks like a homogenous country, without the ethnic and linguistic fragmentation associated with many other African nations. But this was an outcome of the policy to have only English and a single national language, Setswana, taught in schools to minimize conflict between different tribes and groups within society. The last census to ask questions about ethnicity was the one taken in 1946, which revealed considerable heterogeneity in Botswana.
….Botswana broke the mold because it was able to seize a critical juncture, postcolonial independence, and set up inclusive institutions. The Botswana Democratic Party and the traditional elites, including Khama himself, did not try to form a dictatorial regime or set up extractive institutions that might have enriched them at the expense of society. This was once again an outcome of the interplay between a critical juncture and existing institutions."
I have reproduced the chapter in full below. Its a fascinating book that I would recommend to anyone interested in understanding this question.
ON SEPTEMBER 6, 1895, the ocean liner Tantallon Castle docked at Plymouth on the southern coast of England. Three African chiefs, Khama of the Ngwato, Bathoen of the Ngwaketse, and Sebele of the Kwena, disembarked and took the 8:10 express train to Paddington Station, London. The three chiefs had come to Britain on a mission: to save their and five other Tswana states from Cecil Rhodes. The Ngwato, Ngwaketse, and Kwena were three of the eight Tswana states comprising what was then known as Bechuanaland, which would become Botswana after independence in 1966.
The tribes had been trading with Europeans for most of the nineteenth century. In the 1840s, the famous Scottish missionary David Livingstone had traveled extensively in Bechuanaland and converted King Sechele of the Kwena to Christianity. The first translation of the Bible into an African language was in Setswana, the language of the Tswana. In 1885 Britain had declared Bechuanaland a protectorate. The Tswana were content with the arrangement, as they thought this would bring them protection from further European invasions, particularly from the Boers, with whom they had been clashing since the Great Trek in 1835, a migration of thousands of Boers into the interior to escape from British colonialism. The British, on the other hand, wanted control of the area to block both further expansions by the Boers (this page–this page) and possible expansions by Germans, who had annexed the area of southwest Africa corresponding to today’s Namibia. The British did not think that a full-scale colonization was worthwhile. The high commissioner Rey summarized the attitudes of the British government in 1885 clearly: “We have no interest in the country to the north of the Molope [the Bechuanaland protectorate], except as a road to the interior; we might therefore confine ourselves for the present to preventing that part of the Protectorate being occupied by either filibusters or foreign powers doing as little in the way of administration or settlement as possible.”
But things changed for the Tswana in 1889 when Cecil Rhodes’s British South Africa Company started expanding north out of SouthAfrica, expropriating great swaths of land that would eventually become Northern and Southern Rhodesia, now Zambia and Zimbabwe. By 1895, the year of the three chiefs’ visit to London, Rhodes had his eye on territories to the southwest of Rhodesia, Bechuanaland. The chiefs knew that only disaster and exploitation lay ahead for territories if they fell under the control of Rhodes. Though it was impossible for them to defeat Rhodes militarily, they were determined to fight him any way they could. They decided to opt for the lesser of two evils: greater control by the British rather than annexation by Rhodes. With the help of the London Missionary Society, they traveled to London to try to persuade Queen Victoria and Joseph Chamberlain, then colonial secretary, to take greater control of Bechuanaland and protect it from Rhodes.
On September 11, 1895, they had their first meeting with Chamberlain. Sebele spoke first, then Bathoen, and finally Khama. Chamberlain declared that he would consider imposing British control to protect the tribes from Rhodes. In the meantime, the chiefs quickly embarked on a nationwide speaking tour to drum up popular support for their requests. They visited and spoke at Windsor and Reading, close to London; in Southampton on the south coast; and in Leicester and Birmingham, in Chamberlain’s political support base, the Midlands. They went north to industrial Yorkshire, to Sheffield, Leeds, Halifax, and Bradford; they also went west to Bristol and then up to Manchester and Liverpool.
Meanwhile, back in South Africa, Cecil Rhodes was making preparations for what would become the disastrous Jameson Raid, an armed assault on the Boer Republic of the Transvaal, despite Chamberlain’s strong objections. These events likely made Chamberlain much more sympathetic to the chiefs’ plight than he might have been otherwise. On November 6, they met with him again in London. The chiefs spoke through an interpreter:
Chamberlain: I will speak about the lands of the Chiefs, and about the railway, and about the law which is to be observed in the territory of the Chiefs … Now let us look at the map … We will take the land that we want for the railway, and no more.
Khama: I say, that if Mr. Chamberlain will take the land himself, I will be content.
Chamberlain: Then tell him that I will make the railway myself by the eyes of one whom I will send and I will take only as much as I require, and will give compensation if what I take is of value.
Khama: I would like to know how [i.e., where] the railway will go.
Chamberlain: It shall go through his territory but shall be fenced in, and we will take no land.
Khama: I trust that you will do this work as for myself, and treat me fairly in this matter.
Chamberlain: I will guard your interests.
The next day, Edward Fairfield, at the Colonial Office, explained Chamberlain’s settlement in more detail:
Each of the three chiefs, Khama, Sebele and Bathoen, shall have a country within which they shall live as hitherto under the protection of the Queen. The Queen shall appoint an officer to reside with them. The chiefs will rule their own people much as at present.
Rhodes’s reaction to being outmaneuvered by the three African chiefs was predictable. He cabled to one of his employees, saying, “I do object to being beaten by three canting natives.”
The chiefs in fact had something valuable that they had protected from Rhodes and would subsequently protect from British indirect rule. By the nineteenth century, the Tswana states had developed a core set of political institutions. These involved both an unusual degree, by sub- Saharan African standards, of political centralization and collective decision-making procedures that can even be viewed as a nascent, primitive form of pluralism. Just as the Magna Carta enabled the participation of barons into the political decision-making process and put some restrictions on the actions of the English monarchs, the political institutions of the Tswana, in particular the kgotla, also encouraged political participation and constrained chiefs. The South African anthropologist Isaac Schapera describes how the kgotla worked as follows:
all matters of tribal policy are dealt with finally before a general assembly of the adult males in the chief’s kgotla (council place). Such meetings are very frequently held … among the topics discussed … are tribal disputes, quarrels between the chief and his relatives, the imposition of new levies, the undertaking of new public works, the promulgation of new decrees by the chief … it is not unknown for the tribal assembly to overrule the wishes of the chief. Since anyone may speak, these meetings enable him to ascertain the feelings of the people generally, and provide the latter with an opportunity of stating their grievances. If the occasion calls for it, he and his advisers may be taken severely to task, for the people are seldom afraid to speak openly and frankly.
Beyond the kgotla, the Tswana chieftaincy was not strictly hereditary but open to any man demonstrating significant talent and ability. Anthropologist John Comaroff studied in detail the political history of another of the Tswana states, the Rolong. He showed that though in appearance the Tswana had clear rules stipulating how the chieftancy was to be inherited, in practice these rules were interpreted to remove bad rulers and allow talented candidates to become chief. He showed that winning the chieftancy was a matter of achievement, but was then rationalized so that the successful competitor appeared to be the rightful heir. The Tswana captured this idea with a proverb, with a tinge of constitutional monarchy: kgosi ke kgosi ka morafe, “The king is king by the grace of the people.”
The Tswana chiefs continued in their attempts to maintain their independence from Britain and preserve their indigenous institutions after their trip to London. They conceded the construction of railways in Bechuanaland, but limited the intervention of the British in other aspects of economic and political life. They were not opposed to the construction of the railways, certainly not for the same reasons as the Austro-Hungarian and Russian monarchs blocked railways. They just realized that railways, like the rest of the policies of the British, would not bring development to Bechuanaland as long as it was under colonial control. The early experience of Quett Masire, president of independent Botswana from 1980 to 1998, explains why. Masire was an enterprising farmer in the 1950s; he developed new cultivation techniques for sorghum and found a potential customer in Vryburg Milling, a company located across the border in South Africa. He went to the railway station master at Lobatse in Bechuanaland and asked to rent two rail trucks to move his crop to Vryburg. The station master refused. Then he got a white friend to intervene. The station master reluctantly agreed, but quoted Masire four times the rate for whites. Masire gave up and concluded, “It was the practice of the whites, not just the laws prohibiting Africans from owning freehold land or holding trading licenses that kept blacks from developing enterprises in Bechuanaland.”
All in all, the chiefs, and the Tswana people, had been lucky. Perhaps against all odds, they succeeded in preventing Rhodes’s takeover. As Bechuanaland was still marginal for the British, the establishment of indirect rule there did not create the type of vicious circle playing out in Sierra Leone. They also avoided the kind of colonial expansion that went on in the interior of South Africa that would turn those lands into reservoirs of cheap labor for white miners or farmers. The early stages of the process of colonization are a critical juncture for most societies, a crucial period during which events that will have important long-term consequences for their economic and political development transpire. As we discussed in chapter 9, most societies in sub-Saharan Africa, just as those in South America and South Asia, witnessed the establishment or intensification of extractive institutions during colonization. The Tswana would instead avoid both intense indirect rule and the far worse fate that would have befallen them had Rhodes succeeded in annexing their lands. This was not just blind luck, however. It was once again a result of the interplay between the existing institutions, shaped by the institutional drift of the Tswana people, and the critical juncture brought about by colonialism. The three chiefs had made their own luck by taking the initiative and traveling to London, and they were able to do this because they had an unusual degree of authority, compared with other tribal leaders in sub- Saharan Africa, owing to the political centralization the Tswana tribes had achieved, and perhaps they also had an unusual degree of legitimacy, because of the modicum of pluralism embedded in their tribal institutions.
Another critical juncture at the end of the colonial period would be more central to the success of Botswana, enabling it to develop inclusive institutions. By the time Bechuanaland became independent in 1966 under the name Botswana, the lucky success of chiefs Sebele, Bathoen, and Khama was long in the past. In the intervening years, the British invested little in Bechuanaland. At independence, Botswana was one of the poorest countries in the world; it had a total of twelve kilometers of paved roads, twenty-two citizens who had graduated from university, and one hundred from secondary school. To top it all off, it was almost completely surrounded by the white regimes of South Africa, Namibia, and Rhodesia, all of which were hostile to independent African countries run by blacks. It would have been on few people’s list of countries most likely to succeed. Yet over the next forty-five years, Botswana would become one of the fastest-growing countries in the world. Today Botswana has the highest per capita income in sub-Saharan Africa, and is at the same level as successful Eastern European countries such as Estonia and Hungary, and the most successful Latin American nations, such as Costa Rica.
How did Botswana break the mold? By quickly developing inclusive economic and political institutions after independence. Since then, it has been democratic, holds regular and competitive elections, and has never experienced civil war or military intervention. The government set up economic institutions enforcing property rights, ensuring macroeconomic stability, and encouraging the development of an inclusive market economy. But of course, the more challenging question is, how did Botswana manage to establish a stable democracy and pluralistic institutions, and choose inclusive economic institutions, while most other African countries did the opposite? To answer this, we have to understand how a critical juncture, this time the end of colonial rule, interacted with Botswana’s existing institutions.
In most of sub-Saharan Africa—for example, for Sierra Leone and Zimbabwe—independence was an opportunity missed, accompanied by the re-creation of the same type of extractive institutions that existed during the colonial period. Early stages of independence would play out very differently in Botswana, again largely because of the background created by Tswana historical institutions. In this, Botswana exhibited many parallels to England on the verge of the Glorious Revolution. England had achieved rapid political centralization under the Tudors and had the Magna Carta and the tradition of Parliament that could at least aspire to constrain monarchs and ensure some degree of pluralism. Botswana also had some amount of state centralization and relatively pluralistic tribal institutions that survived colonialism. England had a newly forming broad coalition, consisting of Atlantic traders, industrialists, and the commercially minded gentry, that was in favor of well-enforced property rights. Botswana had its coalition in favor of secure procedure rights, the Tswana chiefs, and elites who owned the major assets in the economy, cattle. Even though land was held communally, cattle was private property in the Tswana states, and the elites were similarly in favor of well-enforced property rights. All this of course is not denying the contingent path of history. Things would have turned out very differently in England if parliamentary leaders and the new monarch had attempted to use the Glorious Revolution to usurp power. Similarly, things could have turned out very differently in Botswana, especially if it hadn’t been so fortunate as to have leaders such as Seretse Khama, or Quett Masire, who decided to contest power in elections rather than subvert the electoral system, as many post independence leaders in sub-Saharan Africa did.
At independence the Tswana emerged with a history of institutions enshrining limited chieftaincy and some degree of accountability of chiefs to the people. The Tswana were of course not unique in Africa for having institutions like this, but they were unique in the extent to which these institutions survived the colonial period unscathed. British rule had been all but absent. Bechuanaland was administered from Mafeking, in South Africa, and it was only during the transition to independence in the 1960s that the plans for the capital of Gaborone were laid out. The capital and the new structures there were not meant to expunge the indigenous institutions, but to build on them; as Gaborone was constructed, new kgotlas were planned along with it.
Independence was also a relatively orderly affair. The drive for independence was led by the Botswana Democratic Party (BDP), founded in 1960 by Quett Masire and Seretse Khama. Khama was the grandson of King Khama III; his given name, Seretse, means “the clay that binds together.” It was to be an extraordinarily apt name. Khama was the hereditary chief of the Ngwato, and most of the Tswana chiefs and elites joined the Botswana Democratic Party. Botswana didn’t have a marketing board, because the British had been so uninterested in the colony. The BDP quickly set one up in 1967, the Botswana Meat Commission. But instead of expropriating the ranchers and cattle owners, the Meat Commission played a central role in developing the cattle economy; it put up fences to control foot-and-mouth disease and promoted exports, which would both contribute to economic development and increase the support for inclusive economic institutions.
Though the early growth in Botswana relied on meat exports, things changed dramatically when diamonds were discovered. The management of natural resources in Botswana also differed markedly from that in other African nations. During the colonial period, the Tswana chiefs had attempted to block prospecting for minerals in Bechuanaland because they knew that if Europeans discovered precious metals or stones, their autonomy would be over. The first big diamond discovery was under Ngwato land, Seretse Khama’s traditional homeland. Before the discovery was announced, Khama instigated a change in the law so that all subsoil mineral rights were vested in the nation, not the tribe. This ensured that diamond wealth would not create great inequities in Botswana. It also gave further impetus to the process of state centralization as diamond revenues could now be used for building a state bureaucracy and infrastructure and for investing in education. In Sierra Leone and many other sub-Saharan African nations, diamonds fueled conflict between different groups and helped to sustain civil wars, earning the label Blood Diamonds for the carnage brought about by the wars fought over their control. In Botswana, diamond revenues were managed for the good of the nation.
The change in subsoil mineral rights was not the only policy of state building that Seretse Khama’s government implemented. Ultimately, the Chieftaincy Act of 1965 passed by the legislative assembly prior to independence, and the Chieftaincy Amendment Act of 1970 would continue the process of political centralization, enshrining the power of the state and the elected president by removing from chiefs the right to allocate land and enabling the president to remove a chief from office if necessary. Another facet of political centralization was the effort to unify the country further, for example, with legislation ensuring that only Setswana and English were to be taught in school. Today Botswana looks like a homogenous country, without the ethnic and linguistic fragmentation associated with many other African nations. But this was an outcome of the policy to have only English and a single national language, Setswana, taught in schools to minimize conflict between different tribes and groups within society. The last census to ask questions about ethnicity was the one taken in 1946, which revealed considerable heterogeneity in Botswana. In the Ngwato reserve, for example, only 20 percent of the population identified themselves as pure Ngwato; though there were other Tswana tribes present, there were also many non-Tswana groups whose first language was not Setswana. This underlying heterogeneity has been modulated both by the policies of the postindependence government and by the relatively inclusive institutions of the Tswana tribes in the same way as heterogeneity in Britain, for example, between the English and the Welsh, has been modulated by the British state. The Botswanan state did the same. Since independence, the census in Botswana has never asked about ethnic heterogeneity, because in Botswana everyone is Tswana.
Botswana achieved remarkable growth rates after independence because Seretse Khama, Quett Masire, and the Botswana Democratic Party led Botswana onto a path of inclusive economic and political institutions. When the diamonds came on stream in the 1970s, they did not lead to civil war, but provided a strong fiscal base for the government, which would use the revenues to invest in public services. There was much less incentive to challenge or overthrow the government and control the state. Inclusive political institutions bred political stability and supported inclusive economic institutions. In a pattern familiar from the virtuous circle described in chapter 11, inclusive economic institutions increased the viability and durability of inclusive political institutions.
Botswana broke the mold because it was able to seize a critical juncture, postcolonial independence, and set up inclusive institutions. The Botswana Democratic Party and the traditional elites, including Khama himself, did not try to form a dictatorial regime or set up extractive institutions that might have enriched them at the expense of society. This was once again an outcome of the interplay between a critical juncture and existing institutions. As we have seen, differently from almost anywhere else in sub-Saharan Africa, Botswana already had tribal institutions that had achieved some amount of centralized authority and contained important pluralistic features. Moreover, the country had economic elites who themselves had much to gain from secure property rights.
No less important, the contingent path of history worked in Botswana’s favor. It was particularly lucky because Seretse Khama and Quett Masire were not Siaka Stevens and Robert Mugabe. The former worked hard and honestly to build inclusive institutions on the foundations of the Tswanas’ tribal institutions. All this made it more likely that Botswana would succeed in taking a path toward inclusive institutions, whereas much of the rest of sub-Saharan Africa did not even try, or failed outright.