Ketumile Masire, a cattle herder turned statesman who, as president of Botswana from 1980 to 1998, helped solidify his country’s standing as one of the most richly thriving nations in Africa, died Thursday at a hospital in the capital city of Gaborone. He was 91.
Masire died “peacefully” and surrounded by family members at a hospital in Gaborone, the capital, Masire’s family said in a statement. He had been critically ill.
Masire was widely heralded as a model leader in a model nation on a continent where poverty, corruption and violence had crushed many hopes for stability and prosperity.
“We have seen the promise of a new Africa whose roots are deep here in your soil, for you have been an inspiration to all who cherish freedom,” President Bill Clinton declared to Masire on a visit in 1998.
Clinton noted that in 1966 when Botswana — then known as Bechuanaland — obtained independence from Britain, it had two miles of paved roads and a single public high school. Its chief export was beef.
The discovery of diamond reserves transformed the country’s prospects, and under Masire and his predecessor, Seretse Khama, the nation used its revenue to build roads and schools, to improve health care and expand access to clean water, to advance farming techniques and to extend life spans.
Khama, the first president of independent Botswana, was featured in last year’s film “A United Kingdom.”
Masire was credited with leading his landlocked nation through a drought in much of the 1980s. In 1989, he shared the $100,000 Africa Prize for Leadership from the charity the Hunger Project in recognition of the food distribution that helped the country avoid starvation.
He navigated a delicate relationship with South Africa, Botswana’s major economic partner to the south. Botswana opposed apartheid.
While many other African nations suffered under dictatorship, Botswana featured a robust democracy with little if any noticeable corruption. The stability allowed tourism to flourish, with many visitors coming to witness its wildlife.
The country of 2 million people nevertheless faces poverty, a high HIV/AIDS rate and other problems.
Masire was born in southern Botswana on July 23, 1925. In his youth, he was a herder before enrolling in a primary school at 13, according to a statement from the government announcing his death.
He also worked as a journalist, which along with his community involvement helped draw him into politics. Before becoming president, Masire had served in roles including minister of finance and development planning and vice president.
After leaving office, he advised other African leaders and chaired an international panel that probed the Rwandan genocide of 1994.
In his retirement, Masire established the Sir Ketumile Masire Foundation, a nongovernmental organization that seeks to improve agriculture, governance and children’s health in the region.
“We have a saying in Botswana: A man is never strong until he says what he believes and gives other men the chance to do the same,” he once told The Washington Post. “I am proud to say without a doubt . . . we are a strong democracy.”