PROUD mogae bows out

GABORONE - Botswana's president stepped down yesterday, handing over power in the kind of smooth transition for which the country is known - one that contrasts sharply with the political turmoil in neighbouring Zimbabwe.

GABORONE - Botswana's president stepped down yesterday, handing over power in the kind of smooth transition for which the country is known - one that contrasts sharply with the political turmoil in neighbouring Zimbabwe.

On a continent where leaders are all too often accused of holding on long past their mandate, Festus Mogae, 69, is stepping down even before the end of his second term - the last he is allowed under the constitution.

That allows his vice-president, Seretse Ian Khama, son of Botswana's first president, Seretse Khama, to run the country until the next election.

"I retire a proud citizen," Mogae said at a farewell rally held by the ruling Botswana Democratic Party on Saturday.

"Let me advise those leaders in similar circumstances: leave when the time for you to leave comes and you will be embraced with love by your people."

While Mogae might claim to have set the standard for democracy, politicaly activists and opposition members here complain about "automatic succession".

The Botswana Democratic Party, in power since the former British protectorate gained independence in 1966, virtually anoints the next head of state.

The BDP is expected to continue its dominance in the face of a weak and divided opposition.

"The danger is that it provides for a dynastic succession that has been the trend since Seretse Khama," said Chris Maroleng of the Institute for Strategic Studies in South Africa.

In South Africa a bruising internal battle in the ruling African National Congress was hailed by some as a sign of the strength of democracy.

President Thabo Mbeki, nearing the end of his second and constitutionally mandated last term, had sought to continue as president of his party, which would have given him great influence over national affairs.

Mbeki's rival, Jacob Zuma, won the internal race and now stands poised for the presidency.

In Zimbabwe Robert Mugabe is accused of marshalling fraud and intimidation to grab a victory in weekend presidential elections.

Mugabe's opposition claimed a wide lead on Monday but official results were only trickling in, heightening fears that a rigging plot was afoot.

Botswana has escaped such tensions. Mogae, an Oxford educated economist, has presided over a decade of economic growth and political stability.

The sparsely populated country is known for its warm hospitality and spectacular wildlife. It is also the world's largest producer of diamonds, which has transformed it from one of the world's poorest countries to one of the wealthiest in the region.

Diamonds account for a third of the country's gross domestic product but the country still suffers from high levels of poverty and unemployment, challenges that Khama will have to face.

Mogae drove a campaign to ensure Botswana benefits more from its mineral wealth, venturing into cutting and polishing diamonds instead of just exporting uncut stones and leaving most of the profit-taking to foreigners.

He has been praised for his fiscal discipline, prudent management style and for tackling the country's high HIV-Aids infection rates, which are among the worst in the world.

Mogae came to power in 1998, succeeding Ketumile Masire, and was re-elected in October 2004.

His successor, Khama, is a former army commander expected to reunite the party after splits emerged for the first time over his succession.

Khama now enjoys support among most party members, analyst Maroleng said.

Botswana's population is largely homogeneous, making it unlikely the country will ever see the kind of ethnic tensions that rocked Kenya after elections there in December.

"Botswana does fall short of some Western notions of what a democracy is.

"But in terms of the rest of the continent it is a democratic state," Maroleng said, adding that elections are held regularly and parliament and the judiciary are seen as independent.

Mogae's presidency has also been dogged by controversy over the removal of the indigenous San communities from the Central Kalahari Game Reserve.

In 2005 Mogae ordered the deportation of Australian professor Kenneth Good, who criticised the president and who had close links with an international group lobbying for San rights.

Mogae is likely to be best remembered for tackling Aids. He has taken an Aids test publicly and addressed the issue in almost every one of his speeches.

Lifesaving anti-retroviral drugs are known locally as "Mogae's tablets".

"He has been the face of the issue," said Alice Mogwe, director of the Botswana Centre for Human Rights.

A decade ago nearly 40 percent of the country was infected and Mogae said in 2001 that his nation was "threatened with extinction".

Today the number of children being infected with HIV by their mothers has dropped from 40 percent to 4 percent and anti-Aids drugs are reaching 95 000 of the 100 000 needy people.

Sadzani Baile, manager of a Gaborone restaurant, lists the fight against Aids as one of Mogae's greatest achievements, along with attracting foreign investment and marketing the country's diamonds.

Mogae "did a lot", Baile said. "He is not a person who abuses his power. He has been fair to and honest with the nation." - Sapa-AP