NEW YORK — Ketumile Masire, who as president of Botswana for nearly two decades helped transform his arid and destitute country into the envy of other African nations, died June 22 in Gaborone, the capital city. He was 91.
His death, at a hospital where he had been taken for surgery June 16, was announced in a statement by his family.
Mr. Masire was an architect of Botswana’s government after the southern African country gained independence from Britain in 1966, working alongside Seretse Khama, the country’s first president. Mr. Masire succeeded Khama, who died of cancer in 1980, and he was elected in 1984, 1989, and 1994, serving until 1998.
At the time of its independence, Botswana was listed by the United Nations as one of the world’s least-developed nations, with little running water or electricity, few paved roads, and no public high schools. Beef was virtually the only export.
The geographical challenges were great, too; in the landlocked country, largely made up of desert sand, farming was virtually impossible.
“When we asked for independence, people thought we were either very brave or very foolish,” Mr. Masire was often quoted as saying.
They got to work. Mr. Masire and Khama formed the Botswana Democratic Party, and Mr. Masire became the first minister of finance and the first vice president.
About a year after Botswana became independent, the De Beers company made a mining discovery on the eastern edge of the Kalahari Desert that gave the country the glittering hope it needed: diamonds.
But Mr. Masire and Khama saw to it that De Beers did not simply plunder Botswana’s resources, as many big companies had historically done in Africa. Instead, De Beers and the government entered into a 50-50 venture.
Today, diamonds are as synonymous with Botswana as cigars are with Cuba, accounting for more than 60 percent of the country’s exports.
Mr. Masire and Khama leveraged the newfound wealth to add schools, improve health care, build infrastructure, and modernize farming. The development helped Botswana maintain stability through droughts and a slump in diamond prices in the 1980s. Tourism began to flourish, especially wildlife tourism.
Laura Alfaro, a professor at Harvard Business School who interviewed Mr. Masire in 2002 for a case study she co-wrote called “Botswana: A Diamond in the Rough,” said that unlike leaders who “want to build palaces and statues,” Mr. Masire said, “’No, I’d rather build schools.’”
“It’s a simple country, but he was not ashamed of that,” she said.
Botswana achieved the highest annual economic growth rate in the world and reached middle-income status among nations globally. As surrounding countries struggled with violence and corruption, Botswana became a model, often referred to as “the African exception.”
Not everything was rosy. One delicate challenge for Mr. Masire was opposing apartheid in neighboring South Africa while depending on the country economically. When South African guerrillas from the African National Congress set up a base in his country, he looked the other way. But in 1985, after South African forces raided Gaborone, destroying buildings and killing civilians, Mr. Masire was forced to eject the ANC.
Another challenge in the 1980s was the rapid spread of the virus that causes AIDS. Although the government provided free treatment, Botswana continues to have one of the highest rates of HIV in the world.
Inequality between the rich and the poor also remained vast, despite Mr. Masire’s efforts to increase access to education, giving Botswana one of the highest literacy rates in Africa. Abdi Samatar, author of “An African Miracle” (1999), a book about the development of Botswana, said in a phone interview that Mr. Masire had been unusual among leaders for his humility and his recognition of his country’s shortcomings.
“He was a man who carried a big brain but who spoke softly and walked softly,” Samatar said. “He was a different kind of politician than I have seen anywhere else in the world.”
Quett Ketumile Joni Masire was born in Kanye, Botswana, and spent his childhood as a herd boy but excelled in academics, winning a scholarship to the Tiger Kloof secondary school in South Africa.
In 1946, after both his parents had died, he earned a teaching certificate and worked at the Kanye Junior Secondary School to support his younger siblings. When he saved enough money, he bought a tractor and taught himself dry farming.
In 1958, he married Gladys Olebile Molefi, who died in 2013. They had six children, who survive him.