The battle of Dimawe

An African whodunit: The Botswana economic miracle

Published September 8, 2006 7:09PM (EDT)

Who won the battle of Dimawe between the Boers and the Tswana in 1852? Dr. David Livingstone, the famous Scottish missionary, lived nearby at the time. No fan of the Boers, he wrote that the Tswana, under the leadership of their canny chieftain, Kgosi Kgolo Sechele, managed to defend themselves until nightfall and then slipped away in the dark, albeit suffering the loss of hundreds of captured women and children. But some modern historians declare that the Tswana defeated the Boers outright, with the help of guns and a cannon stockpiled by Sechele.

One thing is not in dispute: the advance of the Boers from their south African stronghold stopped there. And the borderlines of what eventually became the modern country of Botswana were formed.

As development economists survey the wreckage that is sub-Saharan Africa, the battle of Dimawe rages on. Because Botswana is an African mystery -- for 30 years, from the 1960s to the 1990s, it boasted the fastest growing economy in the world. In 1965, at the moment of independence, it was the third poorest nation in the world. In 2001, per capita income was $7,280, placing it squarely in the ranks of the world's upper-middle-income nations, leaps and bounds beyond the vast majority of its sub-Saharan brethren. It is rated the least corrupt country in Africa, has a rock-solid credit rating, and substantial foreign reserves.

A country the size of Texas with a population of 1.6 million, Botswana is no paradise. Inequality and unemployment are high, and AIDS is a nightmare. But in a continent of failed states, Botswana is a beacon. How did it do it? And can its example be copied?

There seems to be near universal agreement that good leadership and sound policy choices were critical to Botswana's success. The first president of Botswana, Seretse Khama, a tribal chieftain educated at Balliol College in the U.K., is widely credited with being a great leader. Taxation rates have historically been low and rule by law effective. The prudent use of revenues from Botswana's lucrative diamond mines to fund government expenditure was also crucial.

But the most interesting question is whether Khama and Botswana benefited from historically contingent forces related to colonialism that ended up giving the country a leg up. "An African Success Story: Botswana," by Daron Acemoglu, Simon Johnson and James Robinson (three economists, two from MIT and one from Harvard), argues that the Tswana tribes enjoyed pre-colonial institutions that encouraged cooperation, tolerated dissent, and in general provided solid support for the development of a mature civil society. Due to a unique set of historical circumstances, those institutions survived the colonial era.

The battle of Dimawe was part of that. But so was Sechele's subsequent plea to Britain to place his nation under its protection, as defense against the Boers. The British resisted for a few decades, then acceded when the German seizure of what later became Namibia threatened their imperial ambitions. But the British never paid much attention to the Protectorate of Bechuanaland. Distracted by the rest of their empire, convinced that there was nothing to be gained from direct exploitation, they left the Tswana essentially to themselves.

Whereas elsewhere in Africa, colonial incursions by the British, the French and, most notoriously, King Leopold's Belgians in the Congo made havoc of whatever pre-colonial institutions existed, typically practicing divide-and-rule strategies that set tribe against tribe, setting in place resentments that have lasted to this day, with awful consequences.

The theory put forth by Acemoglu et al. is not holy writ. In "Explaining Botswana's Success: The Critical Role of a Post-Colonial Policy," Scott Beaulier, an assistant professor of economics at Mercer University, takes direct issue with the thesis. Beaulier argues that the policy choices of Khama were far more important than the lack of an exploitative colonial legacy, and that much of the rest of Africa's failures can be laid at the door of bad leaders who went down ill-fated Marxist paths.

Historical arguments that attempt to explain economic success (or failure) can rarely be settled, one way or another. But in this corner, attempts to explain away the impact of colonialism on Africa are viewed with suspicion. Great historical crimes do mean something.

Kgosi Sechele, writes Livingstone in his memoir "Missionary Travels," responded to demands by the Boers that "he surrender himself as their vassal, and stop English traders from proceeding into the country with fire-arms for sale," with the declaration, "I was made an independent chief and placed here by God, and not by you." His efforts to get British protection against Boer incursions are reminiscent of the concurrent successful strategy thousands of miles away by Mongkut, the King of Siam, to avoid direct colonization by the French and English. When one reviews the disasters that befell Thailand's neighbors in the 20th century, including Burma, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam and China, it's easy to come to the conclusion that direct colonial rule had some serious drawbacks for future stable political and economic development.

In the contemporary debate over how to nurture economic development, Africa often gets the worst of it, blamed for its failures because of its own mistakes. And no doubt about it, mistakes have been made aplenty. Nor are there any easy answers offering a road map to ridding oneself of corruption or escaping the poverty trap. But Botswana does offers a counter-example, a model for what can happen when good leaders make good decisions in an environment where traditional social structures survive intact in the face of Western imperial domination. It is not at all clear how to apply the Botswana model to other countries with more tragic histories, but at the very least, a contemplation of its circumstances gives rise to hope.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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