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“Africa Is Not a Country”

Newest African President-in-Residence on what he hopes to teach us


Festus Mogae of Botswana, BU’s newest African President-in-Residence, says he hopes to convey Africa’s diversity to Americans. Photo by Kalman Zabarsky

In the 1970s, the government of Botswana sought to establish its own currency — the pula — and break away from the South African banking system. Festus Mogae, two-term president of Botswana, at the time was working with the International Monetary Fund and asked the IMF to recommend a draftsman who could write the new financial legislation. Unfortunately, Mogae says, the draftsman refused to come to Botswana — his wife said that it was too dangerous because of riots in the Congo.

“I had to explain to him that not going to Botswana because there are riots in the Congo is like not going to London because there are riots in Moscow, because that is exactly the same distance,” says Mogae. “Four hours, by jet.”

Last week, Mogae, who led Botswana from 1998 to 2008, became the sixth African leader to accept a three-month appointment at BU’s African Presidential Archives and Research Center (APARC) as the latest Balfour African President-in-Residence. “A statesman of President Mogae’s stature can provide an interpretive framework for Americans to understand the importance of engaging Africa in new ways,” says Charles Stith, APARC director and a former U.S. ambassador to Tanzania, in announcing the appointment.

The recipient of the Mo Ibrahim Prize for Achievement in African Leadership and the Grand Cross of the French Légion d’honneur, Mogae says he hopes to use the three-month residency to help American students better understand the diversity of his country and the African continent. He spoke about his plans with BU Today.

BU Today: You’re the sixth African President-in-Residence here at BU — why is this continued partnership important?
The United States is the most powerful country in the world, and even though Africa is the weakest area, I don’t think the United States can afford to ignore it. From the point of view of Africa, we can benefit by copying some of your practices, using some of your institutions — for example, we send some of our students here — and trading and talking with you.

How does this residency foster that exchange of ideas and practices?
We don’t only come here, we also have a roundtable forum in which we exchange views about our experiences — not only in our countries, but our experiences here. Also, coming here gives you the opportunity to reflect in a quieter, more intellectual atmosphere as distinct to the home atmosphere, where you are busy every day, so it’s an opportunity to reflect and exchange views with scholars, some of which you then want to impart.

What other initiatives have you been involved with since leaving the presidency?
As you know, South Africa is the epicenter of the AIDS epidemic. So I formed an association of former presidents and other personalities called Champions for an HIV-Free Generation. We seek permission to visit individual countries and engage their leadership at the presidential level, at the parliamentary level, at the civil society level, at the trade union level, and at the private sector level to brainstorm on what else could be done in southern Africa to prevent the spread of the virus.

One other thing we are thinking about nowadays is that there appears to be cumulative evidence that male circumcision improves the chance of babies escaping infection by 60 percent, so we are discussing those findings as an example of the things that could be done for prevention.

I also am a special envoy of the United Nations Secretary General on climate change, so I have attended meetings on his behalf and with him.

There are a lot of little domestic things in which I’m involved. I am the patron of the Southern African Society for People Living with Disability. I am patron of the Botswana Society for the Deaf and patron of Junior Achievement, which tries to teach primary and secondary school students about business concepts. So those keep one busy too.

What do you hope to teach people about Africa during your time here?
I hope to convince people that Africa is a continent and not a country. That it is not homogenous. That in spite of coups in Mauritania, Guinea-Bissau, and Guinea, there were democratic elections in Ghana and Zambia, and that in 2009, there will be democratic elections in Malawi, Mozambique, South Africa, Botswana, and Namibia. That although some are tiny, there are about 53 countries. And while some of the worst things you have heard are true, nevertheless other good things have happened in the same place.

Funded in 2002 by a $1 million grant from the Lloyd G. Balfour Foundation, a nonprofit that promotes educational efforts to help underserved populations, the African President-in-Residence program brings democratically elected former African leaders to Boston University for up to two years. Zambia’s Kenneth Kaunda was named the first Balfour President-in-Residence in 2002, followed by Ruth Sando Perry, of Liberia, Karl Auguste Offmann, of Mauritius, Sir Q. Ketumile Masire, of Botswana, and António Mascarenhas Monteiro, of the Republic of Cape Verde.

Jessica Ullian can be reached at jullian@bu.edu. Edward A. Brown can be reached at ebrown@bu.edu.


One Comment on “Africa Is Not a Country”

  • Joseph Edgecombe on 03.23.2009 at 9:08 pm

    Emerging African Countries

    Thats great, many people do not have the knowlegde on AFrica/The continent, I look forward to attending the lecture.

    The Republic of Botswana and a number of other countries are our emerging countries of Africa and we need to ensure this early 21st century process is completed and more confidence is built for the african continent and african peoples.

    Joseph Edgecombe

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