The Washington Diplomat / March 2014
By Larry Luxner
By African standards, Botswana and Tanzania could hardly be more different.
Botswana, the continent’s oldest functioning multiparty democracy and one of its most stable economies, is a sparsely populated, arid nation with just over 2 million people today. By 2100, predicts the United Nations, Botswana will still have only 6 million inhabitants, a consequence of the continuing AIDS epidemic.
Tanzania, a socialist regime for much of its tumultuous history, is twice the size of California. It already has 49 million people and is today among the world’s fastest-growing countries. By 2100, there could be 276 million Tanzanians — ranking it sixth in size behind India, China, Nigeria, the United States and Indonesia.
But both countries are also home to stories of progress, perseverance and empowerment — embodied by the two women representing them in Washington. These stories stand as a welcome contrast to the grimmer headlines about Africa coming from places such as South Sudan, Libya and the Central African Republic.
Late last year, the two countries’ ambassadors appeared together at an event co-sponsored by the Meridian International Center’s Council on Women’s Leadership and THIS for Diplomats. Botswana’s Tebelelo Seretse and Tanzania’s Liberata Mulamula spoke on the topic “Africa Rising: Unconventional Pathways to Economic Empowerment.”
These two “sisters in diplomacy” are among nearly 30 female envoys currently serving in Washington. While that may seem like a lot from a historical perspective — there were only five as late as the 1990s — it also means that women still account for only one-sixth of all ambassadors accredited to the United States. And more than half of them represent African countries.
“Women empowerment in Africa exceeds that of the Western world. It’s shocking here in the United States that after 237 years, you have never had a woman president. In Africa, we have two already,” said Seretse. “Our governments are sensitive to gender imbalances. Women have always played an important role in African society. They were not in the forefront, but they were always recognized and valued.”
Seretse, who’s been in Washington since February 2011, is the first woman ever to represent Botswana as ambassador to the United States. “My mother was one of the first women in Botswana to drive a tractor, which was deemed a man’s job. She would plow from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. She also drove a cement truck,” Seretse recalled. “When you empower a man anywhere in the world, you empower an individual. When you empower a woman, you empower a nation.” More importantly, she said, empowering a woman doesn’t only improve the nutritional health of her family, but it generates income that can be accounted for.
“We need to ensure that as women work hard, they are trained how to invest their money and how to save. All of us women ambassadors have a common story to tell,” Seretse explained. “Traditional economics taught us that when you have transparency, an open economy and rule of law — and when you don’t have corruption and government doesn’t interfere in the running of people’s business, when you protect individual property and people have the right to use and invest their money however they like, foreign direct investment will flow into your country.”
In fact, most of Botswana’s income derives from diamond mining. That wealth and income is spread widely enough to provide almost half of its population with a middle-class lifestyle. At the time of independence in 1966, Botswana’s annual per-capita income was only $70, among the lowest in Africa. In 2012, it hovered around $16,000, according to the World Bank. “In the U.S., when you talk about diamonds, everybody thinks ‘blood diamonds.’ But in Botswana, we call them diamonds for development,” the ambassador said.
For the past 26 years, Transparency International has ranked Botswana the least corrupt country on the African continent. Last October, Moody’s Investors Service assigned Botswana an A2 government bond rating, noting that “unlike many other resource-rich countries in the developing world, Botswana’s government has managed income from its diamond mines with a long-term view to promote economic and social development. As a result, the government has remained a net creditor throughout the global financial crisis.”
Seretse attributes Botswana’s prosperity not only to the prevalence of diamonds but also to a historical legacy that preserved — rather than eradicated — tribal customs.
“Botswana became a [British] protectorate by going to the English people and asking them to protect us. They couldn’t pronounce the name Botswana, and to them it sounded like Bechuana, so they called it Bechuanaland,” she said. “The British didn’t interfere with our culture. And because they didn’t kill our tribal structures, when we got our independence, we continued with our ways of life. In Zimbabwe, it wasn’t the same and in South Africa, it wasn’t the same. The media needs to underscore those differences.”
In fact, she said her country’s relative prosperity means it doesn’t receive injections of foreign assistance often directed at other African nations. “For Botswana, our biggest disadvantage is our own doing, because we’re now classified as a middle-income country. We’re always being told, ‘You don’t qualify for this, you don’t qualify for that.’”
While Botswana is free of the ethnic strife, grinding poverty, religious extremism and threat of terrorism that plagues much of sub-Sahara Africa, it has not escaped one of the worst scourges of all: AIDS. Nearly 25 percent of all Batswana between the ages of 15 to 49 are HIV-positive, the second-highest prevalence in the world after Swaziland.
For years, public spending on AIDS research was minimal, but as the disease took its toll, the nation responded. In 2003, the government established its first National Strategic Framework for HIV/AIDS, and by 2008, public spending in response to the disease had risen to $340 million.
“These days, in Botswana, everybody who needs to be on anti-retroviral drugs is on them,” Seretse said. “Our life expectancy had dropped from 75 to 36, but now it’s in the upper 50s. Our government intervened correctly and got rid of stigmas, while in other countries it is considered witchcraft.”
In the meantime, she added, “We have an educated labor force, and the government provides free education up to university level, as well as free health care. We also have a Rural Electrification Program to bring electricity to a number of villages electricity every year.”
Seretse said she’s proud that Botswana has already achieved or is likely to achieve most of the eight broad-based Millennium Development Goals it set out to meet back in 2000. These include reducing by half the proportion of people who suffer from hunger and malnutrition by 2016; achieving universal access to 10 years of basic education by 2011; and cutting Botswana’s maternal mortality rate by more than half between 1991 and 2011.
“When you look at the Millennium Development Goals, you’ll find we’ve complied quite well,” said Seretse. “In 2016, the country will turn 50 years old, and we are now talking trade, not aid.”
Tanzania also has an anniversary coming up. This April marks half a century since the formation of the United Republic of Tanzania, which came into being April 26, 1964, through the union of mainland Tanganyika and the offshore archipelago of Zanzibar, both of which had already won independence from England a few years earlier.
Julius Nyerere became president of the new country and soon outlawed all political parties other than his own. He also suppressed labor unions, was responsible for the disappearance of thousands of political opponents, adopted a socialist economy, and laid the foundations for state corruption — a problem that persists to this day.
“The Americans abandoned Tanzania because of our socialist policies — but President Kennedy had already established the Peace Corps in 1961,” said Mulamula. “So while U.S. businesses abandoned Tanzania, the Peace Corps came to help our children in very remote villages. They joined with communities and built schools, hospitals and wells for water. This is what has kept Tanzania and America together.”
Since the program’s establishment, more than 2,500 Peace Corps volunteers have served in Tanzania, Mulamula said, noting that “although our countries have had our differences, we have respected each other and our values.”
Nyerere retired from office in 1985 and several years later, multiparty politics was introduced. Although the country remains poor (compared to Botswana’s per-capita GDP of $16,000, Tanzania’s is $1,600), Tanzania has avoided the internal strife that’s wracked neighbors such as the Democratic Republic of Congo.
“Tanzanians never fought about tribal differences, ethnicity or religion,” Mulamula explained. “What you’re seeing in other countries — massacres and genocides — Tanzania never had that. Instead, we’ve had peace and stability for 52 years. The crisis we saw in Kenya was basically tribal, and in Rwanda’s genocide, the Hutus were pitted against the Tutsis. We inherited the same colonial legacy, but for Tanzania, it was more of an indirect administration, so it was easier when the British left for Tanzania to take over.”
Mulamula, who started with the Tanzanian Foreign Service 33 years ago, served at her country’s U.N. mission in New York twice — the first time from 1985 to 1992.
“Those were difficult times,” she said. “The Cold War was at its worst, and Tanzania was a spokesman for the Non-Aligned Movement. I was the chief adviser on disarmament, decolonization and the anti-apartheid struggle.”
These days, with the Cold War over and South Africa a multiracial democracy, Tanzania’s focus is on boosting its economy.
“When we were socialist, there was no business, but in 1985 we got a new government that opened up the economy,” said the ambassador. “In the early ’90s, things started picking up slowly. Foreign investors were afraid their businesses would be nationalized, but all that’s changed, and this new attitude has given them confidence.”
According to the World Bank’s latest report, Tanzania has made great progress in several critical areas, such as improving access to credit for small-business owners. The country recently received a $689 million grant through the Millennium Challenge Corp., and its economy is growing at a healthy clip of roughly 7 percent a year.
“We are doing well in terms of GDP, but our challenge is to see how this trickles down,” said Mulamula. “We know we can’t make it on our own. We need investments, especially in agriculture, because that’s where the majority of our people work.”
Underscoring the country’s importance to Africa, Presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama have all traveled to Tanzania.
“Last July, I was fortunate to host two American presidents in Tanzania at the same time. You should have seen the headlines,” the ambassador said, referring to the visit of Obama and Bush. “For Tanzania, the opportunities are in abundance. Cell phones have transformed our lives in so many ways. Nobody goes to the bank anymore. They transfer money through their mobile system. Technology has leapfrogged. We’ve also had discoveries of gas, and we’ve seen a lot of investments in telecommunications, mining, tourism and agriculture.”
In both Botswana and Tanzania, the 2009 inauguration of Barack Obama as the first black president of the United States had tremendous repercussions, although Africans also held Obama’s predecessor in high regard, largely because of Bush’s staunch support for the U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR).
“People don’t always give credit to Bush, but Bush did a lot for Tanzania, and he was not black,” said Mulamula. “After [Obama’s] inauguration, my president was among the first African leaders to be invited to the White House. We see him as one of us. We don’t have to preach to him. When he visits our countries, people turn out by the millions.”
And if current projections are correct, there will be tens of millions more Tanzanians — if not hundreds of millions — by the dawn of the 22nd century. As one of the world’s fastest-growing nations, Tanzania’s population density is extremely uneven, ranging from one person per square kilometer in arid regions to 134 people per square kilometer in Zanzibar. By 2100, Tanzania could have nearly as many people as the United States does today, ranking second in population among African countries behind only Nigeria.
Yet Mulamula doesn’t seem alarmed by her country’s coming population explosion, telling us that “if we can effectively use all the resources we have, then population growth wouldn’t be a problem.”
She also doesn’t seem too concerned with gay rights — an issue making world headlines in connection with the Sochi Winter Olympics in Russia, where homosexuality was decriminalized in 1993. By contrast, in Tanzania, sex acts between men carry a maximum penalty of life imprisonment.
“We have more pressing priorities and issues than to talk about this gay thing. For Tanzanians, this is not a priority,” said the ambassador, echoing her Russian colleague, Sergey Kislyak, who told us much the same thing in his February 2014 cover profile.
Quizzed on the same issue, Botswana’s Seretse offered a more thoughtful, measured response.
“The United States is a democracy of 237 years compared to Tanzania and Botswana. We still have a long way to go. It’s not part of the culture, but we are learning and amending laws,” she said, praising South Africa for adopting the continent’s most liberal laws when it comes to same-sex marriage. “We need to teach our people that men can marry men and women can marry women. Like any other thing, it’s going to take time to not only understand, but also to accept.”