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  • Says Parliament should be involved in fighter jets purchase
  • Describes BDF as a mere monument
  • Reveals that fighter jets were not Khama’s but the army’s idea
  • Says BDF air wing is a complete shambles, cannot defend Botswana

TEFO PHEAGE

Former Commander of Botswana Defence Force (BDF), Lieutenant General Gaolathe Galebotswe, partly blames the Minister of Defence Justice and Security for not doing enough to engage Members of Parliament on the arising need to procure fighter jets in order to improve national security and enhance the BDF’s readiness.

In an exclusive interview with this publication this week, General Galebotswe ascribed the air assets controversy to failure to engage parliament meaningful and timely, “the issue of military air assets should have been tabled and addressed better, perhaps first by engaging Parliament through the relevant committee to make MPs appreciate what is at stake.”

General Galebotswe posits that MPs were never taken on board, though they are expected to debate, qualify and support this. “It should be done through the Parliamentary Committee on Intelligence and Security, which is the right structure. At some point former defence minister Ramadeluka Seretse asked this committee to allow him to be the one to present to them as an equal instead of the BDF commander, and he was allowed,” he says.

For this, he says, Seretse was dead on point because commanders are technocrats. “Commanders are not politicians and so have limitations on how to engage and to what extent with politicians,” he noted.

The minister, he said, should do this also as a member of the Defence Council. “The Minister of Defence should always brief his colleagues and take them on board,” he added.

According to Galebotswe this is not the first time MPs are not fully engaged on military issues. “It goes way back. At some point when we went to Lesotho, there was an uproar with our MPs complaining that they had only heard through CNN that we were in Lesotho on a peace-keeping mission. The late General Mompati Merafhe was having exchanges with the late Paul Rantao on the issue and General Merafhe responded that they could not take MPs into their confidence because they could tell the enemy.”

The retired army commander took the opportunity to warn that due to the reluctance to fund the military and modernise it, the BDF has turned into a mere monument that is “extremely vulnerable” and “unready” to perform its primary mandate of protecting the territory of Botswana and Batswana.

General Galebotswe was a part of a cohort that alerted the government to matters relating to force modernisation and air assets which are currently a hot potato for the government. He he likened the frustrations of the BDF to that of a helpless man who has surrendered to fate.

“The BDF is going through a rough time,” he emphasised. “We could be having an army that is not fit for the purpose due to its unreadiness. In this rough terrain you always have to maintain a certain level of readiness for ‘just in case’ purposes but I am afraid the BDF is lagging behind while repeated efforts by the army to sensitise the powers that be about this seem to be falling on deaf ears. We proposed force modernisation, including air assets or fighter jets. It was not General Khama who was behind procurement of Gripen fighter jets, as many were led to believe. It was the BDF’s idea following a thorough security assessment. A decision was taken by the BDF that we needed to conscientise our principals that it is no longer profitable to keep the current assets or fighter aircraft. Operation and maintenance costs were high and not sustainable.”

Resistance to army procurement flows from a general view that Botswana has more urgent problems like unemployment, among others, than the need for military modernisation, especially in peacetime. General Galebotswe differs and considers this a rudimentary way of analysing national security. “That’s not how we plan in the military,” he said. “That nothing will happen is pathetic, to say the least. What if it happens? The military would be the laughing stock. National security is a priority among other priorities like education, poverty, unemployment and so on. The BDF ‘s fighter capability is compromised at the moment.”

“An example of the 1978 Lesoma incident in which 17 Batswana, 15 of whom were soldiers, were killed in an ambush by the then Rhodesian regime should have been a wake-up call for us,” he said. “But we have relegated that to history and the debate about our readiness at that time has turned into mere academic exercises. In short, we have learnt nothing. We thought we were fine with a makeshift army thinking we were not a threat to anybody.”

What would it take for the army to get what it deserves, we asked? “There is not enough education or political will to inform the nation about what we are faced with here,” came the response. “Some politick with it. Some speak against it due to ignorance. Most do not even know what they are talking about. I may be biased towards the military, but what I know is that we are living in a volatile environment where you may never know where and when your next attacker will come from. Should that happen, you should know that we are not ready. The BDF will soon become irrelevant, if it is not already.”

The government has been having a headache to accede to BDF demands in the midst of resistance. Just last week, the government once again refuted that it was buying fighter jets for the BDF in response to the growing criticism. The Gripen fighter jets became something of a reprise for General Galebotswe, returning to the subject several times in the course of our interview with him. At this juncture, the purpose was to explain their versatility and multiplicity of roles, including non-military tasks like emergencies and disasters. They were chosen, he said, also for their economical fuel consumption, suitability for training and cost-effective maintenance as neighbouring South Africa had Gripens too. Hence the BDF was a part of the 2017 Swedish trip to negotiate and assess the Gripen fighter jets.

General Galebotswe, who is now a member of an opposition party that is against the idea of procurement for the BDF, noted that he was aware of his party’s position on the matter. “They know my views on this subject,” he said. “We cannot always see things from the same angle. I may be biased towards the army, but I am certain that all these positions, if well considered, are equal in measure.”

According to him, the BDF – like any other public entity – deserves to work in an enabling environment with the necessary resources to achieve its mandate. In 2017, the Umbrella for Democratic Change (UDC), the party that the retired general has joined, authored a 10-page document titled “Botswana’s Arms Race in the midst of Poverty, Massive Unemployment and Social Inequality” as a petition to sway the Swedish government against selling the fighter jets to Botswana.

“Botswana’s first three presidents, Seretse Khama (1965-1980), Quett Masire (1980-1998) and Festus Mogae (1998-2008), although all determined to safeguard Botswana’s territorial integrity and national sovereignty, always put diplomacy above military might,” the petition read. “President Quett Masire in particular ruled Botswana when its territorial integrity and national sovereignty were most at risk from minority ruled South Africa, Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) and South West Africa (now Namibia). When Botswana was in dispute with Namibia over a part of its territory, Masire did not resort to a military solution but took the matter to the International Court of Justice for adjudication.”

Meanwhile, according to Stockholm International Peace Research (SIPRI), Botswana’s military expenditure jumped from US$ 292 million in 1998 to US$ 377 million in 2008 to US$ 436 million in 2015. Even so, General Galebotswe insists that Botswana needs to go into an extensive modernisation programme for the army as soon as yesterday because the BDF has for far too long depended on outdated handouts most of which are now unsafe to use. “Thebephatshwa airbase was the only modern type of military investment that we ever saw in this country which was a modernisation exercise,” he noted in the interview. “But Promises were made and never met because the airbase remains an empty structure which does not have the necessary military equipment except old aircraft. The airbase only has the vintage aircraft and ground equipment most of which have had to be refurbished.”

He adds that the other problem is that Botswana does not have the national security framework which looks into policy, resource allocation and execution challenges like these will continue to haunt the nation.

At any rate, the general noted, Botswana does not exist in isolation and should contribute to regional and continental security, hence the need to have the right equipment. “We are a member of SADC and AU standby forces and they look to us to contribute what we have,” he pointed out. “The policy framework is that an attack on one is an attack on all and we have to contribute certain capabilities in peacekeeping and peace enforcement, which can entail fighting.”

Asked about what Botswana contributed in the past, an “infantry battalion” was the answer. An infantry battalion is the first level of command that includes assigned staff supporting a commander. The battalion can deploy rapidly, execute early entry operations, and execute missions to the full spectrum of operations. It can conduct effective combat or other operations immediately upon arrival to assist in prevention, containment, stabilisation, or resolution of a conflict.

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