BDF goes to war, but at what cost?

Commander in Chief: Masisi has a difficult decision to make PIC: BW GOV
Commander in Chief: Masisi has a difficult decision to make PIC: BW GOV

While the Botswana Defence Force (BDF) says the debate around the Mozambican deployment is at a political stage, recent strong remarks by the Commander in Chief Mokgweetsi Masisi suggest a military decision is imminent. The President says even with the coronavirus (COVID-19) weighing on the budget, the cost of doing nothing to help will be much higher. Staff Writers, THALEFANG CHARLES, MBONGENI MGUNI & INNOCENT SELATLHWA report

On April 8, 2021, the presidential jet OK1 landed at Sir Seretse Khama International Airport just after 8pm and before President Mokgweetsi Masisi could sit behind the wheel to drive his Toyota GD6 home, he met the press in a televised media conference to update the nation, and, ‘to whom it may concern’, about his Mozambican sojourn. The mood around the President’s people was triumphant.

Even though the President knew that afternoon, that he would arrive late in Gaborone, after the curfew hours kicked in, he eagerly wanted to update the nation. The SADC Double Troika Communiqué that announced the approval of SADC intervention in Mozambique was already out. The local presidential media corps, judging from the Office of the President’s surprising eagerness to hold the briefing late in the night, were beginning to speculate that Masisi might be coming with much bigger news beyond the communiqué.

“Maybe he could be coming to order his first war commands to the BDF,” one journalist mused.

Is he coming to order the BDF to go and fight a war on terror in Mozambique?

As the chair of SADC’s Organ on Politics, Defence and Security Cooperation, a lot is riding on Masisi’s shoulders to lead the regionally endorsed response in Mozambique. At the press briefing held on the noisy airport terminal balcony, Masisi appeared charged up.

His eight-minute, unscripted statement minutes after landing from Maputo was interspersed with words such as ‘heinous’, ‘viciousness’, ‘faceless criminals’, ‘devastating brutality’ and others. He also spoke of breathing life into the SADC’s Mutual Defence Pact signed in 2003 in the spirit of “an injury to one is an injury to all”. The pact states that “an armed attack against a state party shall be considered a threat to regional peace and security and such an attack shall be met with immediate collective action”.

“Through that pact, we commit to support, withstand, repel and eliminate any threat to our peace.

“The countries of SADC are pledging support to Mozambique, material, military, logistical and others.

“This follows a very long period of commitment of heinous atrocities where people’s internal organs are taken out, people beheaded and pregnant women having their stomachs ripped open.

“The brutality is quite devastating and we have resolved to respond.”

At what cost?

The BDF says following the SADC Heads of State endorsing intervention in Mozambique recently, the actual decision on deployment to fight insurgents is still at political level. President Masisi, as Commander in Chief, will have the final say on what type of intervention is deployed from Botswana, whether military, logistics, material or even psychosocial support.

Whatever type of intervention is chosen, the issue has raised the debate of whether Botswana can afford to commit resources to Mozambique. Botswana’s coffers are threadbare, having suffered a deficit estimated at a record P21 billion in the last financial year, something finance minister, Thapelo Matsheka said was ‘not sustainable’. This financial year, another P6 billion deficit is expected and with government’s reserves depleted, the gap will be funded through domestic and external borrowings which come with interest costs. Meanwhile, COVID-19, which is almost singlehandedly responsible for the deficits, is raging on in the country, requiring greater resources for vaccines, the vaccination campaign, tests and other related expenditure.

Even with the spirit of being a good neighbour, can Botswana afford to help Mozambique out?

For Masisi, the choice is clear. The price of doing nothing to help Mozambique will be paid by the region’s citizens, including Batswana, through the spread of insurgency that “by this time next year will be right on our shores”.

“COVID-19 is always a priority just like building roads or education is a priority, but when you live in a community of states and you have fought for the liberation of the region, and you have watched this insurgency since 2017, can you stand by and watch again a faceless, stateless group of terrorists attack a sovereign nation?

“It would be reprehensible not to respond when you have what it takes to respond, the resources to respond.

“If we don’t, looking at the direction in Mozambique, this time next year it’s right on our shores.”

According to various authoritative sources, hundreds of citizens have been killed, many beheaded and displayed publicly, in the northern Mozambican province of Cabo Delgado, as Islamist insurgents have launched an onslaught to reportedly set up an Islamic state in the region. The oil-rich region has seen numerous atrocities, while the conflict has drawn in countries such as Tanzania, Malawi and Western states, even as attacks have increased.

On March 24, the town of Palma was assaulted by militants, with scores killed, including citizens from South Africa, Britain and Zimbabwe. The insurgents are believed to include radicalised Mozambican citizens, Tanzanians and Somalians, while the instability has led to the rise of local militia policing the area and often complicating the work of the over-stretched Mozambican army.

President Filipe Nyusi of Mozambique has been reluctant to officially invite SADC forces, citing sovereignty issues and the risk of spreading the conflict into the broader region. The latter is a fact acknowledged by Masisi who says the terrorists have threatened to bring the war to any country in the region that intervenes in support of Mozambique.

“So do we say no, we have a COVID burden and no money?

“In the response of various countries, they will be proportionate on what will be appropriate to respond to the threat.

“The specifics, I cannot speak to those, because it could compromise the people put in charge of this.

“If this (briefing) is being live-streamed, the terrorists are watching.

“They threatened that any state that tries to help Mozambique will also be targeted.”

Former commander of the BDF’s Ground Forces, major general Pius Mokgware says the issue of costs could be a moot point as SADC, the sponsoring agency in the planned intervention, would likely foot most of the bill.

“Usually in this situation, there’s the sponsoring country or organisation, in this instance SADC, which would fund the mission and if the UN helps, it will also support with funding,” Mokgware said.

“This is a very big exercise because they are not going for peacekeeping.

“It’s fighting those terrorists and we must be prepared to see how to help them, how to rescue them and if they are injured, how to extract them.

“We must also be aware of the tactics used by the terrorists but I believe that our soldiers, given the right equipment and support will do a very good job.”

Meanwhile, pulses are reportedly racing in the ranks of the BDF, with soldiers eager for the deployment. The army’s last external military deployment was to Lesotho in 1998-1999, although some troops have been sent to assist in peacekeeping efforts under the UN and the African Union since then.

All eyes are on Masisi as he collects advice from the military men and the budget requirements, in reaching a decision on the type of intervention, its size and when it will be offered to SADC for the Mozambique mission.

“In the not too distant future, it should be expected that SADC will mobilise its resources so that we help support Mozambique to defend its territory, its peoples, property and life.”

Editor's Comment
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