Tale of two Africas: In Botswana, a 'boring' election; in Tunisia 6 terrorists killed ahead of tense vote

Elsewhere election “disturbances” means guns and burnings. In Botswana it is when a storm blows off the roof of a makeshift polling station

TWO elections got underway Friday, one in North Africa the other in southern Africa, but the circumstances could not have been more different.

Botswana voted Friday, with the two most exciting things being developments that would be too boring to merit mention in close and cut-throat elections in countries like Ghana and Kenya.

The Botswana Democratic Party (BDP), led by President Ian Khama, which has governed the rich, landlocked country since independence from Britain in 1966 went into the election facing what analysts called “an unprecedented test against an invigorated opposition”. But that was more a buzz, than reality on the group. The BDP, some observers said, might not even lose a seat.

There were reports of “disturbances”, but while elsewhere - like in the May elections in Malawi – that might mean angry voters burning down polling stations or fighting pitched battles with the police, in Botswana it referred to a storm blowing away a makeshift polling station.

Suspected terrorists killed

By contrast in Tunisia, where Tunisians overseas began voting on Friday ahead of the main election Sunday, there was a lot of shooting and deaths.

Tunisian police killed six suspected militants, five of them women, in a raid on a suburban house Friday after a 28-hour standoff, fanning tensions ahead of the landmark election.

Two children were hospitalised after security forces stormed the home near Tunis, a day after a policeman was killed in a firefight with the suspects, interior ministry spokesman Mohamed Ali Aroui said.

He said the children’s father, whose earlier arrest led police to the house, was a member of Ansar al-Sharia, a jihadist group branded a terrorist group by Washington.

The North African nation is preparing to deploy tens of thousands of soldiers and police for the first parliamentary polls Sunday, with the presidential contest coming on November 23.

The authorities have expressed fears that “terrorists” will seek to disrupt the election.

Last Monday, Interior Minister Lotfi Ben Jeddou said the authorities had foiled plots to bomb factories and attack foreign missions.

The contrasts, though extreme, are probably not surprising. Botswanans are among the Africans who have voted most and consistently, being one of the very few countries on the continent that escaped both one-party civilian dictatorship and military rule.

For Tunisia, these elections are historic because they are the first free vote in decades, and are possible only because of the ouster of  former strongman Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in the 2011 uprising three years ago that then inspired the Arab Spring revolutions.

That said, in some respects the Tunisian poll will have the feel of a more competitive election than Botswana’s.

Like a dynasty

Not only will the BDP retain power and continue its nearly 50 years in office, but critics eager to find fault, say Botswana smacks of a dynasty.

The 61-year-old president Ian Khama, who is seeking a second (and last) term, is the son of the country’s first president, Seretse Khama. President Khama is also a traditional chief of the Bangwato clan and can count on strong rural support as he runs for a second term in office.

In Serowe, Khama’s hometown north of the capital Gaborone, women covered in blankets waited patiently outside polling stations.

Khama voted at a community hall in the town, accompanied by Tshekedi Khama, the minister of Environment, Wildlife and Tourism. The minister is president Khama’s brother.

The parched town, with many traditional thatched roof households, has given the country three presidents—two Khamas as well as Festus Mogae, a rarity in Africa. In that respect, Botswana is more like dictator Ben Ali’s Tunisia, when he stuffed government with family and friends.

Beyond that, little else is comparable. Botswana remains one of Africa’s most stable democracies and the tends to go about the business in an orderly fashion.

Queues formed early at polling stations, with some 800,000 registered voters eligible to choose a new parliament—which then elects a president—in the sparsely-populated nation bordering South Africa.

“Voting is proceeding well at all centres,” electoral commission spokesman Osupile Maroba told AFP.

While secure in the countryside, Khama is battling to win over voters in urban areas, where opposition parties have made some inroads since the formation of a breakaway party, the Botswana Movement for Democracy (BMD) in 2010.

Fighting to topple Khama is Dumelang Saleshando, leader of the official opposition, the Botswana Congress Party (BCP).

According to an Afrobarometer report issued last week, the BCP is the fastest growing party in the country.

Another major contender is Duma Boko of the Umbrella for Democratic Change (UDC), a coalition of parties including the breakaway BMD that contested the elections for the first time.

Boko has accused Khama of being increasingly authoritarian, arguing the country needs a change in leader.

Even in the president’s hometown Serowe, there is some grumbling.

Despite its illustrious history, Serowe is still steeped in poverty, with some roads winding between humble homes still unpaved.

And many younger people in the town of some 60,000 are less than sentimental about its political links.

“We need to look beyond the history and sentiments and ask ourselves what does all this history mean for us,” said Thuto Matswiri a college student.

“Personally it has little significance, considering our present circumstances as residents who live on so little.”

Tau Mongwase, an unemployed youth complained that “change is slow, very slow”.

“I think the government is taking care of us but it’s not enough. We need jobs. The mines are not hiring us anymore. Things are very tough for young people here.”

With the global financial crisis leading to a drop in diamond revenues, Khama’s government halted planned investment, leading to growing unemployment and slow progress in diversifying the economy.

But few expect a change this time round because, as the earlier comments of unemployed youth Mongwase indicated, in Botswana it is not that people get nothing from the government. It is that they don’t get a lot more.

Democratic test

Tunisia’s problems, on the other hand, are a mountain. The North African nation is preparing to deploy tens of thousands of soldiers and police, because of fears of terrorist attacks.

According to the Tunisian interior ministry, the terror suspects had been preparing attacks in the southern towns of Kebili and Tozeur.

In addition, they had also previously tried to recruit Tunisians in the northern town of Nabeul to join anti-regime fighters in Syria, travelling via neighbouring Libya.

The women killed in the raid had planned to travel to Syria themselves.

Between 2,000 and 3,000 Tunisians are reported to have gone to join the Islamic State (IS) jihadist group and other extremist organisations fighting in Syria and Iraq.

Tunisian authorities fear some will return to destabilise the country.

Militants have been blamed for a wave of attacks, including last year’s assassination of two leftist politicians whose murders plunged the country into a protracted political crisis.

Militants claiming allegiance to Al-Qaeda’s north African affiliate have been active in Tunisia since the 2011 revolution.

Jihadists have killed dozens of soldiers and police over the past three years, especially in remote mountain areas on the Algerian border.

Tunisia announced a three-day closure from Friday of the border with politically unstable Libya for fear of possible election-day attacks.

However, Rached Ghannouchi, leader of Tunisia’s moderate Islamist movement Ennahda, has said the country’s transition to democracy serves as an example of how to defeat extremists such as IS.

Sunday’s election pits Ennahda against an array of secular groups, including Nidaa Tounes, whose leader Beji Caid Essebsi has criticised Ennahda as anti-democratic.

-Additional reporting by AFP.

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