November 1, 2005

African President Visits

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Sir Quett Ketumile Joni Masire, president of Botswana from 1980-1998, visited campus yesterday to discuss the development of sustainable leadership in Africa. Masire is largely credited with helping Botswana achieve what the World Bank recognized as the world’s fastest growing economy during his presidency.

In addition to meeting with students from Cornell and surrounding schools,President Masire spoke in the Biotechnology Building last night as part of the Institute for African Development’s Special Speaker Series.

Masire emphasized the importance of preventing the tribal and regional hostilities that have plagued other African nations by driving home a message of unity.

When Botswana gained independence from Great Britain in 1966, it was faced with the “monumental task” of creating a central government with power over the entire state.

“We are a nation that is an amalgam of tribes, no longer just one tribe,” Masire said in a press conference at the Statler Hotel. While the new government assumed the role of a “paramount chief,” presiding over all of Botswana, the chiefs retained the role of “dispensing justice under customary rule.” Today, according to Masire, more than three quarters of all civil and criminal cases in the country are still settled in traditional courts.

To begin his lecture, Masire enumerated certain elements he deemed indispensable in establishing a stable democratic government. Among them were upholding the rule of law, adhering to the principles of separation of powers, “promoting the equality of all citizens before the law,” safeguarding individual liberties, “and acknowledging the inalienable right of individuals to participate” in their government.

Successful economic development also played a part in maintaining the stability of the new democratic political system, according to Masire. “Our strategy was first to reinvest our increased revenues in social and physical infrastructure and then diversifying the economy,” he said.

Despite its economic growth and its postion as the world’s leading exporter of uncut diamonds, Botswana suffers one of the highest HIV infection rates on the continent, currently hovering around 37%. “HIV/AIDS is clearly our greatest challenge,” he explained. AIDS “puts unbearable strain on communities and their ability to care for their dying and elderly and the increasing number of orphans,” Masire said.

Masire saw fighting the stigma attached to the virus as the most effective weapon available in fighting its spread. “AIDS is a disease,” he said. “We all know we shall die one day of one disease or another, so what is all the fuss about AIDS? The sooner you can declare you have a disease, the sooner you can be looked after, the better.”

Masire also noted the progress being made, with the help of American NGOs in developing anti-retroviral drugs that can be used to treat the afflicted. The government of Botswana has also taken a lead in establishing monitoring stations and prenatal clinics to help prevent the spread of the virus to newborn children.

Many academics have extolled Masire’s extraordinary integrity and unwavering commitment to improving his homeland. In an effort to facilitate a peaceful transfer of power, Masire resigned from the presidency in 1998, two years before his term was set to expire.

“I think he wanted to set up a precedent so people could learn that you can transfer power peacefully,” said Prof. Muna Mdulo, Law, director of the Institute for African Development.

Prof. Willene Johnson, applied economics and management, who served on the U.N. Committee for Development Policy, also hailed Masire’s leadership. “I was impressed by the emphasis that he placed on social justice as a guiding power in development,” she said.

Vongi Kandiwa grad agreed. “The most important part [of the talk] for me was that he helped the audience appreciate the role of good governance in Africa and the way that good leadership can lead to the improvement of economic development and the general welfare. I’m from Zimbabwe, which is next to Botswana and for us, Botswana is an example of a mineral-rich country that can manage the mineral resources of the country for the benefit of everybody,” she said.

Masire, who also served as chair of the Organization of African Unity committee that investigated the 1994 Rwandan genocide and facilitator of the Inter-Congolese National Dialogue, addressed the noted lack of honest effective leaders in much of the continent.

“Looking into what happened in Rwanda, it was really heart-wrenching becuase it was a genocide that could have been prevented,” he said.

“There was a long period when those [in power] were certainly making preparations for the day when the genocide would start.” “If the U.N. or the big powers had done something it could have – reduced the number who were killed,” he added.

Referring to Robert Mugabe, the dictator who many blame for leading Zimbabwe into its current disarray, Masire said: “there are two ways of treating an organ. Either you cut it off or you treat it. I think the conventional wisdom dictates that you first try to mitigate it and I think that’s what especially the Southern countries are trying to do.”

Masire remained optimistic about the future of Africa, and hoped to “remove the perception of Africa as a hopeless continent.

With the right amount of foreign assistance, Masire is convinced that where there is a will, the leaders can find a way.

When it comes to foreign aid, he stressed, “its augmentation, it’s not ‘come and do it for us, we shall fold our arms.'” “The sprit is willing, [even if] the pocket is weak.”

Archived article by Joshua Goldman
Sun Staff Writer