Treasure Not Found in the Ground: Political Institutions and Resource Wealth in Botswana and Gabon

School students celebrating Botswana’s 50th independence day. Photo by Mahyar Sheykhi.

This piece originally appeared in the Intercollegiate Issue 2017 of the Yale Review of International Studies. This piece was written by Matthew Taylor King, a senior at Duke University.


Both Gabon and Botswana gained their independence in the 1960s and shortly afterward had to come to grips with the complex task of managing resource rents: oil in Gabon and diamonds in Botswana. Over the past forty years, clear management patterns have manifested: in Gabon, widespread corruption predominates and a staggering kleptocracy has emerged, fueled by the petroleum sector, while Botswana sports Africa’s lowest levels of corruption and responsibly plows resource revenues back into education, health care, and infrastructure development. A novel performance index developed specifically for this paper lays bare Botswana and Gabon’s divergent paths of resource management. What accounts for these differences? This paper contends that it was the political institutions that developed during the colonial era—political institutions of indigenous and colonial origin—that ultimately shaped how Gabon and Botswana responded to the windfall of resource wealth in the early postcolonial years. Under French rule, Gabon developed hierarchical, extractive political institutions while in Botswana, largely hands-off British policy meant that indigenous leaders had to remain accountable to their own people. Paradoxically, the French ‘civilizing mission’ ended up hobbling Gabon’s institutional development, while the British policy of ‘salutary neglect’ allowed Botswana to further develop its own inclusive institutions.


On October 20, 2008, the Mo Ibrahim Foundation awarded its $5 million prize to Festus Mogae, the outgoing President of Botswana. The Ibrahim Prize is awarded to democratically elected leaders on the African continent who abide by constitutional limits while in office, promote good governance, and step down after their allotted time in office has ended. At the announcement of the award for President Mogae, former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, who chaired the selection committee, lauded Mogae’s response to the HIV/AIDS epidemic in Botswana and cheered his management of the southern African country’s diamond wealth. “Botswana demonstrates how a country with natural resources can promote sustainable development with good governance,” noted Annan, adding that Mogae’s accomplishment was all the more remarkable “in a continent where too often mineral wealth has become a curse.”[i]

Less than a year later, longtime Gabonese President Omar Bongo lay dying in a Spanish hospital, too ill to remain in Gabon for treatment and too controversial to convalesce in France, the old colonial métropole, where the ailing dictator was under investigation. In power since 1967, Omar Bongo was, among other things, a gardener. Under Bongo’s care, a hardy vine of corruption and clientelism crept outward from Libreville, the Gabonese capital where Bongo co-opted rivals with oil money, reaching into Gabon’s interior and even snaking its tendrils as far afield as Abidjan and Paris.[ii] In an ironic reversal of the neocolonial narrative, Bongo exerted considerable influence over French domestic politics, compromising French politicians as notable as Jacques Chirac with illicit campaign contributions.[iii] Meanwhile, the Bongo family plucked the fruits of the vine, and recent investigations have begun to illuminate the extent of their harvest: more than $100 million in luxury vehicles and Parisian real estate, almost certainly a small fraction of the family’s biens mal acquis, or ill-gotten goods.[iv] Bongo’s death on June 8, 2009 seemed to signal less change than continuity in Gabonese governance. In October of that same year, an ominous headline in the French daily Libération heralded the next stage in Gabonese history: “Ali Inherits the Throne of ‘Papa’ Bongo.”[v]

Botswana and Gabon are both small, resource-rich African countries that held multiparty elections after gaining independence in the 1960s. Botswana was a sparsely populated hinterland of the British Empire in Southern Africa; Gabon was only marginally more important to French ambitions in Central Africa. After independence, both experienced resource booms in the 1970s—petroleum in Gabon, diamonds in Botswana—that sustained growth for decades, lifting Botswana and Gabon above their peers to rank among the richest economies in sub-Saharan Africa on a per capita basis. There the similarities end. Botswana regularly outperforms Gabon in key measures of institutional performance, including corruption perceptions, credit worthiness, education, and infrastructure. Both countries bear the mixed blessing of resource wealth. Only one has managed the windfall wisely.

Why was it that in June 2009, a septuagenarian Gabonese president couldn’t even have the luxury of dying in France because he had so badly mismanaged resource wealth, while a few months prior a former President of Botswana was receiving a prize for managing it so well? Surely the answer has something to do with political leadership. According to this line of thinking, Botswana was lucky in enjoying a succession of “good leaders” and Gabon was unfortunate in being stuck with “bad leaders” from the Bongo clan. But this explanation raises more questions than it answers. How do good leaders emerge and what forces hold them accountable? Why do bad leaders behave so wickedly and why is it so difficult to remove them?

My answer to those questions depends on an understanding of the political institutions that developed in each country, rather than analysis of the leaders themselves. To classify political institutions, I borrow a typology developed by Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson in Why Nations Fail: inclusive and extractive political institutions. According to Acemoglu and Robinson, inclusive political institutions “distribute power broadly in a society and subject it to constraints,” while extractive political institutions “concentrate power in the hands of a narrow elite and place few constraints on the exercise of this power.”[vi]

This paper is divided into three main sections, each of which treats a discrete component of the argument. The first section elaborates on the independent variable, political institutions. I argue that the critical institutional differences between Botswana and Gabon developed during the colonial era. Inclusive political institutions emerged in Botswana under the hands-off British policy of salutary neglect, while the heavy-handed French civilizing mission meant that Gabon was saddled with extractive political institutions from the start. In the second section, I contend that when diamonds were discovered in Botswana and oil in Gabon shortly after independence, each country could only respond to the new resource rents with its existing institutions. In the third section, I treat the dependent variable, management of resource wealth. To measure how well Botswana and Gabon have managed the windfall of resource wealth, I provide a novel Performance Index that combines six measures of institutional performance: corruption, credit worthiness, infrastructure, education, health, and poverty. The conclusion discusses contemporary politics in Botswana and Gabon and the potential for feedback loops between political institutions and management of resource wealth.[vii]


Institutional Development

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Chart 1: Causal Chain for Institutional Development

comparing institutional developments

Table 1: Comparing Institutional Development in Botswana and Gabon 


Botswana’s history of inclusive political institutions begins with the kgotla, a pre-colonial institution unique to the Tswana people. An early political history of Botswana provides three meanings of kgotla:

  1. A meeting place for the ward or morafe [group];
  2. A meeting for the discussion of group matters of any importance;
  3. A court for settling disputes within the group according to customary law.[viii]

At the kgotla, a section of the archetypical Tswana village demarcated by tall wooden polls arrayed in a semicircle, the kgosi (chief) would convene a meeting for the purpose of making a decision, relaying news, or settling a dispute. What is so remarkable about the kgotla, according to Acemoglu and Robinson, is that it “encouraged political participation and constrained chiefs.”[ix] In the eight Tswana states, the kgosi had to persuade his people of the merits of a particular position and win support by way of discussion and consensus-building. Out of this milieu came a Tswana saying about the kgosi that seems to reflect an intuitive understanding of popular sovereignty: kgosi ke kgosi ka morafe (“The king is king by the grace of the people.”).[x]

After decades of trade and missionary involvement with the British, as well as intermittent clashes with Boers migrating from South Africa, the Tswana feared for their future security. In response, the British declared the Protectorate of Bechuanaland in 1885, encompassing the territory of the eight Tswana states. Meanwhile, Cecil Rhodes was building a business empire in Southern Africa, passing on a road through Bechuanaland to what would become the colonies of Northern and Southern Rhodesia. Worried that Rhodes might one day seize their territory and subordinate their people, three Tswana diKgosi—Khama III of the Bangwato, Sebele I of Bakwena, and Bathoeng I of Bangwaketse—steamed to Britain to lobby the Colonial Office for extended protectorate status to shield the eight Tswana states from the depredations of Rhodes and the British South Africa Company. With the aid of a missionary who translated their words, the three diKgosi wrote Colonial Secretary Joseph Chamberlain (father of Neville Chamberlain), “There is no Government that we can trust as we trust that of the Great Queen. . . . We fear the Company because we think they will take our land and sell it to others.”[xi] Knowing that they might have to compromise to secure a deal, they offered a counter-proposal to avoid immediate annexation by Rhodes’ company:

Let us continue to live under the Government for 10 years, till we can get to know the Company better. If they are good in their government of the Makalaka and Matabele we shall get to know it, and our people will trust them, and when you agree that we shall pass under the rule of the Chartered Company we pray that you will put strong words in the agreement to help us and protect us. Do not let them take away the land, which is the life of your children. Do not let them bring liquor into our country to kill our people speedily. Do not let them deprive us of our right to hunt the game that is in our country, and do not let them deprive us of our right to do justice among our own people. We know them better than you do, and can act more justly towards them than you can, though we know that you wish to be just.[xii]

The Tswana chiefs secured what they had requested. Critically, they also asked to maintain the right to act as middlemen between their people and the colonial authorities, thus preventing foreign tax collectors from visiting their villages. Between the chiefs’ proactive diplomacy, dedication to preserving their inclusive political institutions, and farsighted emphasis on fiscal independence, they helped ensure that Botswana would avoid many of the deleterious effects of colonialism. Meanwhile, the British established a limited colonial administration with a headquarters outside of Bechuanaland proper, in Mafeking—a South African city. Fewer than 100 British colonial administrators were responsible for governing the protectorate.[xiii] In essence, they ran Bechuanaland as a night watchman state, leaving governance mostly to the Tswana chiefs. Of the British administrators, one early history of Botswana reports, “They succeeded in governing this large country because their aims were limited to three: controlling disorder, collecting revenue, and introducing small-scale improvement projects.”[xiv]

While missionaries did establish a handful of schools and hospitals in the territory, development of Bechuanaland was never the goal of the British colonial administration. Instead, much as the British had done in the eastern American colonies from 1607 to 1763, the British governed Bechuanaland under a policy of salutary neglect. Unless Tswana chiefs stirred up a great deal of trouble or failed to collect enough taxes, the British administration would not interfere with Bechuanaland’s evolving institutions. Under colonial rule, the kgotla actually spread to non-Tswana tribes living in the area:

The kgotla system, which had been introduced by Botswana overlords before the nineteenth century, was in the twentieth century demanded by each group in the territory as its best guarantee of equal treatment within the larger community. Even people who historically had no kgotla system realized its value in protecting their interests against attack from others. The kgotla served its members in other ways. It afforded men the opportunity to be present when important decisions were made (women fought for and won the same privilege before colonial rule had ended); it supported the practice of law in accordance with local traditions and changing circumstances; it gave each group its choice of representatives on councils governing at higher levels; and it gave all ward members legal status equal to members of other wards.[xv]

The elaborate and pluralistic system of Bechuanaland governance, involving ward councils and enfranchising women, usually melded well with the institutions the British established.

In 1919, the British set up the Native Advisory Council, later known as the African Advisory Council, which once a year brought the Tswana chiefs, tribal chiefs, and the occasional “person of standing” to meet with the Resident Commissioner. Transcripts from these meetings reveal spirited debates.[xvi] The British also established the European Advisory Council in 1920 to represent the interests of the 1700 European settlers who lived in the Protectorate at that time.[xvii] In 1951, a Joint Advisory Council was established, composed of eight representatives each from the European and African Advisory Councils.[xviii] In 1960, the Protectorate adopted a new constitution that turned the Joint Advisory Council into the Legislative Council—now containing elected members—another step in making Botswana’s political institutions more inclusive. From 1960 to 1965, new political parties formed and contested elections for the Legislative Council; it was the electoral success of one of these political parties, the Bechuanaland Democratic Party (BDP), that lead to Bechuanaland’s independence under a new constitution in 1966.

Fortunately for Botswana, on the eve of independence, the country’s political elite had many years of experience with inclusive political institutions. No doubt the people of Botswana, thanks to the intense discussion and consensus-building built into the kgotla system, also benefited from what Robert Putnam calls “social capital,” or the accumulated value of social connections.[xix] The British had allowed the kgotla system to endure and even spread. Thanks to their light footprint policy of salutary neglect, the British had also depended on the Tswana states to shoulder much of the governance of the territory themselves. Where the British did interfere with indigenous governance—and this was the exception, not the rule—the consequences were negative and lasting, as James Robinson and Q. Neil Parsons argue:

We may also note that the two local Tswana states that remained the least democratic and the least guided by legal-rational ideas in the later twentieth century, the Kwena and the Tawana, were the two tribal reserves in which the British had interposed and replaced clever dissident chiefs in 1906 and 1931 by more pliant individuals of their choice. Subsequent chiefs were dependent on colonial sponsorship rather than popular legitimacy, and tended to concentrate on feathering their own nests rather than developing their tribal states.[xx]

As we shall see in the case of Gabon, it matters a great deal whether indigenous leaders in the colonial era had to worry more about maintaining bottom-up support from the people they were supposed to represent or were more concerned with conceding to top-down pressure from colonial administrators.


Like Botswana, Gabon did not exist as a discrete polity before the colonial era. Densely forested and sparsely populated—even before the slave trade further depopulated the area—little governance existed above the village level in pre-colonial Gabon. One exception was the Orungu Kingdom, which grew wealthy and powerful for about a century from the 1760s to the 1870s by selling thousands of slaves to Portuguese traders. Unlike the Tswana, Orungu centralization was short-lived, and they did not possess similarly inclusive political institutions. The Orungu numbered only around 5000, and their chiefs “could even be described as despots, for they no longer submitted to either advice or control from the traditional council of clans.”[xxi] The building blocks of inclusive political order would not be found among the Orungu.

Another factor makes it difficult to assess pre-colonial institutions: Gabon’s contemporary political system stifles historical scholarship. As one review of the historical vocation in Gabon explains, “It is fair to say that in the past the Bongo regime had been extremely suspicious of intellectuals and in order to control them a two-pronged strategy was developed: punish those who dared to dissent and reward those who were willing to participate in the government. . . . [W]hether crushed in opposition or seduced by the ruling power, the consequences for sustained research on Gabonese history by Gabonese scholars remain the same: it simply does not happen.”[xxii] The scholarship on pre-colonial Gabon from scholars at Omar Bongo University is unreliable, and only a handful of scholars elsewhere study Gabon.

Centralized political institutions did not develop in Gabon until the colonial era. Gabon was assembled piecemeal by French explorers and conquerors, beginning in 1839, when the French secured the first of many treaties with indigenous peoples. Over the next four decades, the French would cajole and subdue Gabon’s many ethnic groups: the Mpongwe, Fang, Okanda, Mba, Echira, Bakalai, Badouma, and Batéké. Shortly after Gabon’s recognition as an official colony in 1886, Gabon came face to face with the first of many extractive institutions: concessionary companies. The French colonial government borrowed this institutional form from the nearby Congo Free State, where Leopold II of Belgium’s depredations had just begun. While these concessionary companies were technically economic institutions, for Gabonese colonial subjects the companies often represented the first form of colonial governance they had encountered—after all, one company received a concession over roughly half the country and employed a private militia to keep it orderly—and their experience with the concessions was far from pleasant.[xxiii] As the concessionary companies stripped Gabon’s forests of okoumé wood and floated the lightweight logs up the Ogooué river to Port-Gentil for export, they also pressed thousands of colonial subjects into forced labor with unapologetic cruelty. Reports of concessionary brutality prompted Pierre Savorgnan de Brazza, the legendary explorer and  former commissioner-general of the French Congo,[xxiv] to emerge from retirement and investigate. Brazza’s report was never published, but it found widespread abuses and “resulted in the mitigation of some of the worst abuses and scaling down of many of the concessions.”[xxv]

The year 1910 brought with it the restructuring of French colonial administration in Central Africa. Gabon, Middle Congo, Ubangi-Shari, and Chad were now part of French Equatorial Africa (AEF), which introduced a uniform governance system to more directly administer the territories. Because the French did not, as a rule, believe that the indigenous people were capable of self-government, they sought to cultivate an African elite who could act as intermediaries between the parochial masses and the French administrative elite. Under the AEF, the French established a extractive, hierarchical system of colonial administration, consisting of the tiers: (1) the chef de village, who was empowered to collect the head tax from his village; (2) the chef de terre, who oversaw “a group of villages united by tradition . . . or administrative convenience” and distributed the prestation (forced labor) among the villages; and (3) the chef de province, who was often but not always a chief from a leading family of the province.[xxvi] A fascinating and prescient passage from a 1942 British Royal Navy report suggests how this colonial arrangement was different from that at work in Botswana:

In almost all British colonies . . . chiefs of all degrees are appointed by their people and installed by native customary law, government retaining only a right of approval, and not that in all cases. Similarly, they can be deposed by their people in accordance with the same customary law, though [colonial] government has put an end to the cruder means of dismissal. Resting thus on old tradition, they both carry weight with their people and can represent their opinions in dealings with government, but on the other hand may prove to be more independent of government control, and more heedless of its wishes, than chiefs in French Equatorial Africa and Cameroons, who owe their appointment and their continuance in office solely to government [emphasis added]. Which system is most beneficial to the country in the long run is not argued here . . .[xxvii]

To prepare colonial subjects for service in the colonial administration, the French adopted a hands-on colonial model that required much more investment than the British salutary neglect of Botswana or the earlier concessionary company glut in Gabon: the civilizing mission (mission civilizatrice). French colonists built schools and hospitals; extraordinarily talented students could even go on to study in Dakar or Paris. In one famous example of the French enthusiasm for uplifting Africa, the great humanitarian Dr. Albert Schweitzer sailed up the Ogooué in 1913 to found a hospital at Lambaréné. He would die there in 1965 after more than 50 years of treating sleeping sickness and other tropical maladies. And while Europeans like Schweitzer might enjoy powerful roles in colonial Gabon, for ambitious, civically-minded Gabonese, there was only one real way to contribute: assimilate, acquire an education, and serve in the colonial bureaucracy.

The career of Georges Aleka Damas serves as a case study of public service under extractive and limited inclusive political institutions in Gabon. From 1948 to 1954, Damas advised the governor of Gabon and served in his council of administration. When elective institutions opened up in 1956 under the loi cadre, rather than run for a seat in the new Territorial Assembly (a colony-wide representative assemply), Damas contested and won a local government position on the municipal commission of Libreville. After Gabonese independence, he served as president of the national legislature. But when multiparty democracy gave way to a single-party regime in 1968, Damas continued to serve, this time as treasurer-general for the ruling Gabonese Democratic Party (PDG). He even composed the national anthem, La Concorde.[xxviii] But what Damas’ career best illustrates is the arc of political institutions in Gabon: from extractive institutions established under French rule, to more pluralistic institutions at the end of colonialism and the beginning of independence, and back again to extractive institutions under the Bongo regime. The inclusive institutions did not have time to ensconce themselves.

Resource Windfall

At the critical juncture when Botswana began exporting diamonds and Gabon started producing oil, each country’s post-colonial political institutions had more or less stabilized. Gabon was stuck with extractive political institutions that concentrated power in the hands of a single ruler, Omar Bongo, while Botswana was blessed with inclusive political institutions that made its first president, Seretse Khama, a limited executive in a country where power was broadly diffused among the citizenry. The development of political institutions under colonial rule influenced the form of early post-colonial institutions, which in turn shaped how each country responded to its resource bounty. Before we assess how each country responded to its resource windfall, it is important to provide a brief overview of diamond mining in Botswana and oil production in Gabon.


Far more significant than the discoveries of copper and nickel deposits during the colonial era, Botswana’s great mineral discovery came in 1967—months after independence—when De Beers discovered a large pipe of diamonds at Orapa. In 1969, De Beers established a joint venture, Debswana, with the government of Botswana, which owned a 15 percent stake in the company. By 1971, the diamond mine was open at Orapa and Botswana had begun to export diamonds. Later that decade, the government upped its stake in Debswana to 50 percent, ensuring that a significant portion of government revenue would stem from diamonds. Debswana has monopolized diamond production in the country ever since, opening three new mines, including the world’s richest at Jwaneng. As of 2014, the mining industry stood at 26.5 percent of Botswana’s GDP, up from 21.5 percent in 2010, a sign that the government’s attempts to diversify the economy away from mineral exports still have much work to do.[xxix]


In the 1970s, Gabon’s export-oriented economy shifted from okoumé wood to petroleum products. Oil companies had been exploring in Gabon since the 1930s, but the first significant discovery came at Ozouri, close to Port Gentil along the Atlantic Coast, in 1957. After 1967, production shifted offshore, and 1974 saw the discovery of oil at Gamba-Ovinga, a massive offshore site. Gabon’s entry into the world oil market possessed providential timing; thanks to the OPEC oil embargo, the price of Gabonese oil surged 300 percent in the two years from 1972 to 1974.[xxx] Gabon was an OPEC member from 1975 to 1995—Omar Bongo reportedly converted to Islam to win favors from Arab oil producers—and the country officially rejoined the oil cartel in July 2016.[xxxi] In 2014, Gabonese oil production accounted for 35.7 percent of GDP, a sign that the country’s economy is still heavily dependent on export of a single commodity.[xxxii]

Management of Resource Wealth

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Chart 2: Causal Chain for Institutional Development and Management of Resource Wealth

evaluating management

Table 2: Evaluating Management of Resource Wealth (Performance Index)

In this section, we examine how Botswana and Gabon performed in the Performance Index, which is intended to approximate our dependent variable, management of resource wealth. I created the Performance Index specifically to compare how Botswana and Gabon have managed resource rents. Two assumptions are important to note for the index. First, the index scales scores from 0 to 100 so that higher scores reflect better performance: lower corruption; higher credit ratings; more advanced infrastructure, education, and health systems; and lower poverty rates. Second, is also assumed that each of those dimensions reflects something or at least stands in for something that can be influenced by government action. We will examine and compare Botswana and Gabon’s performance in each category of the index, then briefly discuss alternative methods of weighting the Performance Index.

Government Finances


For a measure of corruption, the index relies on Transparency International’s 2015 Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI). The CPI is the most commonly used measure of corruption, an activity that is notoriously difficult, if not outright impossible, to actually measure. Transparency International relies on survey data to collect perceptions of corruption in different countries and translates survey responses into a scaled score from 0 (most corrupt) to 100 (least corrupt).[xxxiii] Botswana scores a 63, superior to Italy and Spain. Gabon comes in at 34, about the same as Mexico and Belarus. Botswana clearly outperforms Gabon on this measure of institutional performance—a key indicator of the professionalism of the civil service and the efficiency and integrity of government spending.

Credit Worthiness

The three major credit ratings agencies—Standard & Poor’s (S&P), Moody’s, and Fitch Group—provide assessments of the risk of government debt. As a general rule, countries with lower risks of default, lower deficits, more constant revenue streams, restrained spending activity, and professional budgetary procedures tend to have better credit ratings. One website, Trading Economics, provides a translation of alphanumeric ratings from the Big Three ratings agencies into a scaled score from 0 (worst) to 100 (best). In November 2016, Botswana scored a 73, while Gabon earned a 40.[xxxiv] [xxxv] Despite having comparable debt-to-GDP ratios, Botswana clearly outperforms Gabon in the dimension of creditworthiness, a measure that reflects investors’ confidence in Botswana to pay its debts. A sound credit rating also means that Botswana can borrow relatively cheaply to finance spending projects, such as infrastructure.

Government Services


The World Economic Forum (WEF) issues an annual Global Competitiveness Report providing useful measures with which one may compare countries across many different dimensions of economic competitiveness. The infrastructure rating draws on nine different input measures—such as quality of roads and quality of electricity supply—to form a scaled score from 1 (least competitive) to 7 (most competitive). Botswana scored a 3.5, edging Gabon’s 3.1 score.[xxxvi] I divide these scores by 7 and multiply them by 100 to fit them on a 0 to 100 scale.

It is worth dwelling here to consider Gabon’s most significant infrastructure investment to date: the Transgabonais railroad, one of the only railways in the region not built during the colonial period. It runs from Libreville to Franceville, where Bongo family lands happen to abut uranium and manganese deposits, and also to Bélinga, where there are significant iron ore deposits. Gabon’s multi-billion dollar investment in the Transgabonais is a typical vanity project; the railroad still requires state subsidies and only runs at half capacity.[xxxvii] Even if the Transgabonais were profitable and well-utilized, it would represent a flawed development strategy: diversifying away from oil only to produce more commodities that would be subject to the same devastating price swings and resource curse dynamics. In pursuing this grand project, Gabon has sadly neglected the fundamentals of infrastructure. As one journalistic account puts it,

The theft of billions of dollars of oil money has stalled the country’s development. Nearly 50 years after independence, Gabon has fewer miles of paved road than it has of oil pipelines. . . Even within Libreville – which can seem deceptively well-off if you keep to the seaboard, with its hotels, casinos and patisseries – the lack of infrastructure is glaringly obvious. Many houses are connected by tiny footpaths filled with rubbish and tangles of hosepipes that serve as the mains water supply.[xxxviii]

Health and Primary Education

The Competitiveness Report’s rankings on Health and Education represent perhaps the least helpful of the WEF data. Botswana scores a 4.7 in this category and it is a comparable 4.8 for Gabon. Because Botswana suffers from high rates of HIV/AIDS and Gabon grapples with endemic malaria, these countries will have lower health scores even if they invest significant amounts in their health systems. The African Development Bank (AfDB) provides some helpful measures to supplement the WEF data. With regard to nutrition, Gabon significantly outperforms Botswana, reflecting a higher caloric intake and a far lower prevalence of malnourishment—some 5 percent in Gabon versus 24 percent in Botswana.[xxxix] Botswana’s frequent droughts may have something to do with the high levels of malnourishment, but Botswana’s state capacity should be high enough for government action to remedy the issue. When life expectancy is adjusted to reflect a hypothetical no-AIDS scenario, Botswana scores almost three years higher than Gabon. And, in an indication of how far Botswana has come since independence, the country now has one doctor for every 2500 people, a tenfold increase since 1970, when patients in rural Botswana also had to rely on a pilot-doctor to fly out for house calls.[xl]

On the education front, the WEF data are helpful, but they could also stand to be supplemented by AfDB data. Botswana’s 97.9 percent youth literacy rate exceeds Gabon’s 89.1 percent rate by nearly nine points. The Botswana-Gabon literacy gap is even greater among the young than the old, suggesting that the educational disparity between the two countries is widening rather than shrinking as Gabon’s education system stagnates. Education spending figures reveal the extent of Gabon’s stagnation: Botswana spent an average of 9.5 percent of GDP on education from 2000 to 2013, while Gabon only spent an average of 3.8 percent over that same period. Botswana’s heavy investment in education and high literacy rates are especially impressive compared to the country’s educational situation at independence:

The state of education at independence was hardly promising. Only 2,416 people in the country had passed their JC [Junior Certificate Examination, the test administered at the end of 10th grade], while no more than thirty-five people held university degrees. Some fear that, modest as Botswana’s education system was, the new Government would not be able to maintain it. At the time, the country only had five qualified Batswana secondary school teachers.[xli]

Higher Education and Training 

Botswana outperforms Gabon considerably in WEF’s measure of Higher Education and Training, which captures secondary and tertiary educational enrollment as well as the quality of non-traditional training services. As commodity-based economies transition from resource dependence to an industrial or services-based economy, higher education is essential. Both Botswana and Gabon have invested to some extent in universities, and I have already chronicled the limitations on academic freedom at Omar Bongo University. It is worth nothing as well that at least one University of Botswana professor has also raised concerns about political intimidation.[xlii] Nevertheless, based on the data, it appears that Botswana is significantly outperforming Gabon in this crucial dimension of how the government has invested the gains from resource wealth.

Poverty Alleviation

Another useful investment governments can make in the wake of resource wealth booms is in reducing poverty. Poverty and its associated effects—malnutrition, disease, lack of access to transportation—hinder the development of human potential. Based on the most recent World Bank poverty data I could glean, I created an index of poverty rates for the 49 countries of sub-Saharan Africa. In a ranking of countries by the percentage living below the $1.90/day (2011 dollars) World Bank poverty line, I found that Gabon outperformed Botswana, ranking in the 94th percentile of sub-Saharan African countries compared to Botswana’s place in the 83rd percentile.[xliii] Only 7.97 percent of Gabon’s population lives under the global poverty line, while some 18.24 percent of Botswana’s population does. This finding is consistent with the AfDB nutrition data discussed earlier in the health section; clearly, Gabon is outperforming Botswana in terms of poverty reduction. Just how much of this poverty reduction is due to concerted government policy, rather than Gabon’s somewhat higher per capita income, remains to be seen.

Alternative Weighting

As the baseline measure for the dependent variable, management of natural resource wealth, I compiled a Performance Index deriving 50 percent of its score from government finances measures and 50 percent from government services measures. Botswana outperforms Gabon 66 to 50 on the Performance Index, as Table 2 illustrates. But I also considered alternative methods for weighting the scores for natural resource management. One method reduces the share for government finances to 33 percent and increases the share for government services to 67 percent. The underlying logic behind this weighting is that it may not matter if the government uses a little corruption to grease the wheels of social progress, so long as it is investing efficiently in core services. I also tried double-weighting poverty alleviation because the ultimate goal of development plans is to lift populations out of poverty. And, finally, I reverted to the 50-50 weighting and removed from consideration the health and primary education data because of the concerns expressed earlier in this section. In each of these alternative weighting scenarios, Botswana maintained a significant lead over Gabon. Based on the Performance Index and the above discussion, I conclude that Botswana outperforms Gabon in its management of the gains from resource wealth.


botswana cycle

Chart 3: Botswana’s Virtuous Circle

gabon cycle

Chart 4: Gabon’s Vicious Circle

It is important to acknowledge that once resource rents enter into a society, the neat causal chain between political institutions and how the resource wealth is managed may become somewhat more complicated. In countries with strong inclusive political institutions characterized by high levels of accountability and professionalism, such as Norway and Botswana, revenue from resource rents can initiate a virtuous circle in which well-managed resources enhance or at least fail to undermine political institutions.[xliv] Under the framework of Douglass C. North, John Joseph Wallis, and Barry R. Weingast in Violence and Social Orders, this virtuous circle allows countries to fortify an open access order characterized by impersonal relations, meritocracy, the rule of law, and strong taboos against corruption.[xlv] Meanwhile, when a country with extractive political institutions encounters a resource boom, the revenues allow rulers to siphon more funds off for themselves, appoint relatives and loyalists to key positions, engage in grandiose building projects, co-opt rivals with bribes, and strengthen patron-client networks. This vicious circle leads to increasing discontent with the corruption and a higher likelihood of social upheaval—characteristics of North, Wallis, and Weingast’s natural state.[xlvi]

Recent events underscore the importance of political institutions in Gabon and Botswana. In October 2014, Ian Khama, son of Seretse Khama, was reelected as Botswana’s president, but the ruling BDP earned its lowest-ever vote total, signaling that the first truly competitive multiparty era in Botswana’s history may soon arrive.[xlvii] Gabon’s general election in August 2016 saw the country’s highest court uphold a clearly rigged result that allowed Ali Bongo to stay in power.[xlviii] Riots ensued in Gabon’s largest cities. Even had Bongo’s challenger, Jean Ping, won the election, it would have hardly been a victory for inclusive institutions in Gabon; Ping has two children with Pascaline Bongo, Omar’s daughter and Ali’s sister, who is rumored to loathe her brother. Politics remains a family business in Gabon, and while the Khama dynasty has done well for itself in Botswana’s politics, we can expect Ian Khama to step down in 2018. Another democratically elected leader will take the helm and grapple with the challenge of diversifying Botswana’s economy. Khama’s successor would be wise to understand that the country’s greatest treasure is not in its soil, but in its people and the institutions they have shaped over so many years.



Acemoglu, Daron and James A. Robinson. Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty (New York: Crown Business, 2012).

Barnes, James F. Gabon: Beyond the Colonial Legacy (Boulder: Westview Press, 1992).

Berenson, Edward. Heroes of Empire. Chapter on Pierre Savorgnan de Brazza, 2011.

Colonial Office of Great Britain. “Correspondence Relative to the Visit To This Country of the Chiefs Khama, Sebele, and Bathoen, and the Future of the Bechuanaland Protectorate.” In Miscellaneous Pamphlets on Southern Africa: Volume 2, 13-14. London: Harrison and Sons, circa 1900. Scanned copy via Google Books:

Gardinier, David E. Historical Dictionary of Gabon (Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press, 1994).

Good, Kenneth. Diamonds, Dispossession & Democracy in Botswana (Rochester, NY: Boydell & Brewer, 2008).

Gray, Christopher J. Colonial Rule and Crisis in Equatorial Africa: Southern Gabon, ca. 1850-1940 (Rochester, NY: University of Rochester Press, 2002).

Mavoungou, Elie. Jean Félix-Tchicaya (1903-1961) (Paris: L’Harmattan, 2015).

Morton, F. and J. Ramsay, eds., The Birth of Botswana: A History of the Bechuanaland Protectorate from 1910 to 1966 (Gaborone: Longman Botswana, 1987).

Naval Intelligence Division of Great Britain. French Equatorial Africa & Cameroons (1942).

North, Douglass C. with John Joseph Wallis and Barry R. Weingast. Violence and Social Orders: A Conceptual Framework for Interpreting Recorded Human History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009).

Putnam, Robert D. Making Democracy Work: Civic Traditions in Modern Italy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993).

Ramsay, J. with B. Morton and T. Mgadla. Building a Nation: A History of Botswana from 1800 to 1910 (Gaborone: Longman Botswana, 1996).

Sillery, Anthony. Botswana: A Short Political History (London: Methuen, 1974).

Vaughan, Olufemi. Chiefs, Power, and Social Change: Chiefship and Modern Politics in Botswana, 1880s-1990s (Trenton, NJ: African World Press, 2003).


Journal Articles

Acemoglu, Daron with Simon Johnson and James A. Robinson. “The Colonial Origins of Comparative Development: An Empirical Investigation.” American Economic Review, 91 (2001): 1369-1401.

Gaulme, François. “From Timber to Petroleum.” Review of African Political Economy, 51 (July 1991): 84-87.

Gray, Christopher. “Who Does Historical Research in Gabon? Obstacles to the Development of a Scholarly Tradition.” History in Africa, 21 (1994): 413-433.

Hillblom, Ellen. “Diamonds or Development? A Structural Assessment of Botswana’s Forty Years of Success.” The Journal of Modern African Studies, 46 (June 2008): 191-214.

M’Bokolo, Elikia. “A Social and Economic Study of Pre-Colonial Gabon.” Cahiers d’Études Africaines, 17 (1977), 331-344.

Ngolet, François. “Ideological Manipulations and Political Longevity: The Power of Omar Bongo in Gabon since 1967.” African Studies Review, 43 (Sep., 2000): 55-71.

Reed, Michael. “Gabon: A Neo-Colonial Enclave of Enduring French Interest.” The Journal of Modern African Studies, 25 (June 1987): 283-320.

Rich, Jeremy. “Forging Permits and Failing Hopes: African Participation in the Gabonese Timber Industry, ca. 1920-1940.” African Economic History, 33 (2005): 149-173.

Rich, Jeremy. “‘White Coronations and Magical Boycotts’: Omyènè Political Strategies, Clan Leaders, and French Rule in Coastal Gabon, 1870-1920.” International Journal of African Historical Studies, 43 (2010): 207-226.

Rich, Jeremy. “Gabonese Men for French Decency: The Rise and Fall of the Gabonese Chapter of the Ligue des Droits de l’Homme.” French Colonial History, 13 (2012): 23-53.

Robinson, James A. with Ragnar Torvik and Thierry Verdier. “Political Foundations of the Resource Curse.” Journal of Development Economics 79 (2006): 447-468.

Robinson, James A. and Q. Neil Parsons. “State Formation and Governance in Botswana.” Journal of African Economies, 15 (2006): 100-140.


Magazine and Newspaper Articles

“Ali hérite du trône de ‘Papa’ Bongo.” Libération. October 17, 2009.

“Botswana’s President’s Party Secures Election Victory.” Reuters. October 25, 2014.

Callimachi, Rukmini. “Ruler with 45 Homes among World’s Most Corrupt.” Associated Press, via The Huffington Post. June 21, 2009.

“Ces palais qui se vendent plus de 100 millions d’euros à Paris.” La Tribune. April 13, 2011.

“Constitutional Court in Gabon Upholds Ali Bongo Ondimba’s Disputed Election.” The New York Times. September 23, 2016.

“L’ère Bongo.” Le Monde. June 9, 2009.

“Mort de Bongo: ‘On ne va pas pleurer sur une crapule.’” Libération. June 9, 2009.

“Omar Bongo.” The Economist. June 18, 2009.

Rice, Xan. “Papa Bongo’s 40 Years in Power.” The Guardian. May 4, 2008.


Miscellaneous Resources

African Development Bank (AfDB), Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), and United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA), 2016. African Economic Outlook 2016. Paris: OECD.

“Botswana Credit Rating.” Trading Economics. Accessed November 6, 2016.

“Festus Mogae Wins the Largest Prize in the World.” Mo Ibrahim Foundation. October 20, 2008.

“Gabon Credit Rating.” Trading Economics. Accessed November 6, 2016.

“Gabon Facts and Figures.” OPEC. Accessed December 1, 2016.

“Gabon’s Transgabonais Railway Unsustainable and Underutilized.” Mining Review Africa. March 30, 2015.

King, Matthew. “World Bank Poverty Data.” Microsoft Excel file on Google Drive. December 10, 2016.

Schwab, Klaus. “The Global Competitiveness Report, 2016-2017.” World Economic Forum. Accessed November 6, 2016.

“Table of Results: Corruption Perceptions Index 2015.” Transparency International. Accessed December 1, 2016.



[i] “Festus Mogae Wins the Largest Prize in the World,” Mo Ibrahim Foundation. October 20, 2000, 1.

[ii] “L’ère Bongo,” Le Monde, June 9, 2009.

[iii] “Mort de Bongo: ‘On ne va pas pleurer sur une crapule,’” Libération, June 9, 2009.

[iv] “Ces palais qui se vendent plus de 100 millions d’euros à Paris,” La Tribune, April 13, 2011.

[v] “Ali hérite du trône de ‘Papa’ Bongo,” Libération, October 17, 2009.

[vi] Daron Acemoglu and A. James Robinson, Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty (New York: Crown Business, 2012), 80-81.

[vii] Despite the similarities in size and resource endowment between these two countries, to my knowledge this paper represents the first comparative study of political institutions and management of natural resource wealth in Botswana and Gabon.

[viii] F. Morton and J. Ramsay, eds., The Birth of Botswana: A History of the Bechuanaland Protectorate from 1910 to 1966 (Gaborone: Longman Botswana, 1987), 199.

[ix] Acemoglu and Robinson, Why Nations Fail, 407.

[x] Ibid, 408.

[xi] Colonial Office of Great Britain, “Correspondence Relative to the Visit To This Country of the Chiefs Khama, Sebele, and Bathoen, and the Future of the Bechuanaland Protectorate,” In Miscellaneous Pamphlets on Southern Africa: Volume 2, 13-14. London: Harrison and Sons, circa 1900.

[xii] Ibid.

[xiii] Birth of Botswana, 2.

[xiv] Ibid.

[xv] Birth of Botswana, 9.

[xvi] Botswana: A Short Political History, 127-128.

[xvii] Ibid 128.

[xviii] Ibid 151.

[xix] Robert D. Putnam, Making Democracy Work: Civic Traditions in Modern Italy, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993).

[xx] James A. Robinson and Q. Neil Parsons, “State Formation and Governance in Botswana,” 119.

[xxi] David E. Gardinier, Historical Dictionary of Gabon, 251.

[xxii] Christopher Gray, “Who Does Historical Research in Gabon? Obstacles to the Development of a Scholarly Tradition,” History in Africa, 21 (1994): 416-417.

[xxiii] James F. Barnes, Gabon: Beyond the Colonial Legacy (Boulder: Westview Press, 1992), 24-25.

[xxiv] Berenson, Edward. Heroes of Empire. Chapter on Pierre Savorgnan de Brazza, 2011.

[xxv] Gardinier, Historical Dictionary, 72-73.

[xxvi] Naval Intelligence Division of Great Britain, French Equatorial Africa & Cameroons (1942), 282-283.

[xxvii] Ibid 281.

[xxviii] Gardinier, Historical Dictionary, 93-94.

[xxix] African Development Bank (AfDB), African Economic Outlook 2016. Paris: OECD.

[xxx] Barnes, Colonial Legacy, 78-80.

[xxxi] “Gabon Facts and Figures.” OPEC. Accessed December 1, 2016.

[xxxii] AfDB, African Economic Outlook 2016.

[xxxiii] “Table of Results: Corruption Perceptions Index 2015,” Transparency International, Accessed December 1, 2016,

[xxxiv] “Botswana Credit Rating.” Trading Economics. Accessed November 6, 2016.

[xxxv] “Gabon Credit Rating.” Trading Economics. Accessed November 6, 2016.

[xxxvi] Schwab, Klaus. “The Global Competitiveness Report, 2016-2017.” World Economic Forum. Accessed November 6, 2016.

[xxxvii] “Gabon’s Transgabonais Railway Unsustainable and Underutilized.” Mining Review Africa. March 30, 2015.

[xxxviii] Xan Rice, “Papa Bongo’s 40 Years in Power,” The Guardian, May 4, 2008.

[xxxix] AfDB, African Economic Outlook 2016.

[xl] Botswana: A Short Political History, 180.

[xli] Birth of Botswana, 191

[xlii] Kenneth Good, Diamonds, Dispossession & Democracy in Botswana (Rochester, NY: Boydell & Brewer, 2008).

[xliii] King, Matthew. “World Bank Poverty Data.” Microsoft Excel file on Google Drive. December 10, 2016.

[xliv] James A. Robinson with Ragnar Torvik and Thierry Verdier, “Political Foundations of the Resource Curse.” Journal of Development Economics 79 (2006), 447-468.

[xlv] Douglass C. North with John Joseph Wallis and Barry R. Weingast, Violence and Social Orders: A Conceptual Framework for Interpreting Recorded Human History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009).

[xlvi] Ibid.

[xlvii] “Botswana’s President’s Party Secures Election Victory.” Reuters. October 25, 2014.

[xlviii] “Constitutional Court in Gabon Upholds Ali Bongo Ondimba’s Disputed Election.” The New York Times. September 23, 2016.