The Mo Ibrahim Foundation announced this week that it was awarding its Prize for Achievement for African Leadership to Botswana’s former president Festus Mogae, who led the country from 1998-2008. During his tenure, Botswana became the first country in sub-Saharan Africa to provide free anti-retroviral medication to all its citizens living with HIV, and by 2007 was treating 90 percent of people living with HIV or AIDS, according to UNAIDS.
President Mogae had himself publicly tested for HIV, an outward and visible sign that he and the government were serious about addressing HIV and AIDS in Botswana, where nearly a quarter of the citizens are living with the disease. This is significant because experience has shown that leadership right from the top in addressing the AIDS crisis is essential. Uganda demonstrated this: the government led a concerted effort to reduce the rate of infection and educate everyone about how to prevent and treat the disease. In 1990, 31 percent of women tested at antenatal clinics in the capital Kampala were HIV positive, but by 1998 it was 14 percent, a dramatic reduction.
Botswana has not seen such a drastic reduction in its HIV infection rate. But the country has proven that it will use its wealth from diamonds and other minerals to benefit its citizens, one of the reasons the country is so well and honestly governed. So it should have the resources to fight AIDS. Others in the region could learn a lot from Botswana.
But all diamonds in the world will not bring down an HIV infection rate if Botswana fails to address the gender dimension of the disease: women continue to be infected at a higher rate than men, a sad fact shared with South Africa, its neighbor. To really fight AIDS, all the women I have spoken with in South Africa, Mozambique, and Zimbabwe have been very clear: society must also work on economic opportunity for women, women’s rights, reduce the violence against women, and increase educational opportunities for girls and young women.