Exactly a year into his retirement, immediate past Botswana Defence Force (BDF) commander, Lieutenant General Gaolathe Galebotswe sits with Mmegi Staff Writer, ZOLANI KRAAI and reflects on his life and times in the military, in the final instalment of a two-part special report
One issue that captured newspaper headlines during General Galebotswe’s tenure was the court action over the so-called “missing spy equipment”. The essence of the matter smacked of a power struggle within the highest offices of the military and the intelligence agencies.
The matter, initially kept under wraps within the BDF, blew out into the public space after two BDF personnel filed an urgent application defending themselves against allegations from the army that they had stolen sensitive equipment over a period of about six years. The BDF had convened a Board of Enquiry and intended to call the then Permanent Secretary to the President,(PSP) Eric Molale and intelligence chief, Isaac Kgosi.
The Board of Enquiry was eventually dissolved and an out of court settlement hammered out with the soldiers, ostensibly to minimise the damage the BDF and intelligence community were suffering as a result of the exposure.
Military analysts speaking on the matter alleged that the case revolved around bad blood between Galebotswe and one of the accused soldiers brigadier general, Peter Magosi.
Today, Galebotswe says the first thing to understand is that the equipment in question was not “spy equipment”.
“It was not a spy-equipment but normal military intelligence equipments. I came to know about the disappearance after taking over the reins from my predecessor.”
He explains that after the equipment was reported missing, someone had to be accountable being the man at the helm of the unit, Magosi. The latter, he says, would have to go and carry out investigations and then take appropriate action.
Preliminary investigations indicated that it turned out then outgoing commander, Magosi (then colonel) had not handed over the equipment, and that according to him (Magosi) he had given the equipment to his subordinates.
“Since Magosi then was a senior officer, some processes had to be applied to address the matter and I found it appropriate to appoint a Board of Enquiry to investigate him.
“The Board then allowed Magosi to seek legal counsel if he chose to do so. “The BDF would have appointed one for him if he so desired.
“The process went ahead and Brigadier Magosi was affected as the accounting officer, as well as the then Permanent Secretary to the President, Eric Molale and Directorate of Intelligence and Security director-general Isaac Kgosi.
“Molale and Kgosi were affected because Brigadier Magosi had said he had lent some of the equipment to the DIS and some to the PSP.
“It is common knowledge that sometimes you have to control high profile meetings hence you would need intelligence equipment to manage the sensitivity of the discussed issues. There was nothing wrong with that,” Galebotswe says.
Galebotswe says he personally asked Molale and Kgosi about the missing equipment and made them aware that their names were implicated in the matter.
According to the former commander, the two conceded that they, at separate times, borrowed the equipment from the BDF. Molale, Galebotswe recalls, revealed that the equipment was actually operated by the BDF personnel in a classified meeting. Sergeant Dzikamani Mothobi was among the personnel operating the equipment in the classified meeting, Galebotswe says.
Molale, according to Galebotswe, had returned the equipment and was prepared to testify in the Board of Enquiry, as was Kgosi.
“In no time, hell broke loose. Brigadier Magosi took the matter to court through his lawyers. He had his own reasons for doing so, and to me it was rather surprising.
“Magosi’s lawyers had initially intended to bypass the Board of Enquiry procedures and wanted to take statements from witnesses, prior to the sitting of the enquiry, which was not proper.
“In fact Mothobi is the very one who knew exactly where the equipment was.
“The BDF decided to withdraw the matter from the courts after advice that we should be cautious of the conspiracy issues that may arise.
“Even today, as far as I know, the equipment has not been found.”
The matter still rankles the former commander.
“If the proceedings of the Board of Enquiries had succeeded, the findings would have not been made public.
“I was disappointed that a senior officer would operate outside the Board of Enquiry, a process that he knew very well and which he knew was transparent,” Galebotswe said.
The former commander agrees with government’s decision to list governance and security as a budget priority in NDP 11. Critics of the move say billions of pula are being spent in veiled procurement of military hardware, while competing social needs such as health, education and poverty alleviation are under-funded.
The national debate over military expenditure reached a crescendo earlier this year, when government pressed on with efforts to spend billions of pula on high-tech gripen jets from Sweden, arguing that the current fleet was obsolete and decrepit.
Galebotswe reveals that he was among those who advanced the choice of gripen to President Ian Khama. The President, Galebotswe says, operates on the advice of BDF commander, the defence minister and the Defence Council, among others.
“In terms of procurement of what we wanted, I was the chief advisor to President Khama and I would have not discharged my duties well if I ill-advised him.“We agreed upon the models of jets to buy,” Galebotswe says.
According to the former commander, President Khama, as the Commander in Chief never overruled him in terms of procurement of equipment of any sort, including the jet fighters. Galebotswe also says Khama stated that the BDF needed to modernise its defences.
“I agree that Botswana needs to prioritise pressing national issues and needs with regard to infrastructure development and provision of social amenities to address unemployment and others, but the country should also invest heavily in military capacity.
“I also believe that the conditions of service for soldiers needs attention, but it would
“Soldiers’ conditions of services revolve around giving them appropriate and modern military equipment which will eventually build their confidence when the need to retaliate in military operation arises,” Galebotswe stresses.
On the question of how the BDF procures this equipment, Galebotswe says when he took over as commander, he got rid of a culture where agents would knoch at the commanders’ door and promote their equipment.
“That had to stop,” he says.
“Procurement is not the prerogative of the commander of the BDF. Procurement has a structure and it is not ad hoc.
“Procurement structures are in place now and working well. These structures involve the BDF, the defence minister and the permanent secretary.
The minister presents to Cabinet as well as the Defence Council.”
He adds: “While I was the commander, I stopped the middlemen who are also called agents, from calling the shots. Agents are only needed when you need more information about certain equipment.”
Critics of military expenditure have consistently said no threat exists that would justify the amounts being spent on equipment. To this, Galebotswe digs into his own experiences.
When he was still new in the army, apartheid South African forces conducted raids into Botswana in the mid-1980s. The former commander especially recalls the June 1985 raid on Gaborone which killed 12 people including women and children.
Galebotswe had gone for an instructor’s course abroad and felt very strongly that his country has been violated.“The defence force was also directly violated and obviously one would feel very embarrassed for not protecting one’s people,” he says.
“In 1985, the BDF was only eight-years-old and could not be compared to the South African Defence Force which had experienced Special Forces and seasoned soldiers.
“We were not only in our infancy in terms of age but also in terms of equipment. We could not have matched them, and that is a reality we need to understand.” Similarly, Galebotswe remembers taking part in a study on the Lesoma Ambush commissioned by former BDF commander, General Matshwenyego Fisher. The Lesoma Ambush took place in 1978 when Rhodesian soldiers attacked the BDF personnel as well as liberation rebels from Rhodesia, killing 15 BDF soldiers, a teenager from Lesoma and one rebel.
Galebotswe had an opportunity to interview retired Major General Motang who he says informed him that the BDF would not have been able to match the Rhodesian army’s might.
“With regard to some critics that government spending on the BDF is unnecessary, during the Cold War, more countries were strengthening themselves as the era was also described as a threat.
“Even after the Cold War, countries could not sit back as if there were no longer enemies.
“Threats always surface even in peaceful and politically stable regions.
“Even though threats are currently not visible, it is still important to address certain military capabilities.
“Military preparedness is essential not because the enemy is nearby but because there is need for consistent capacitating of the army.
“One may say our expenditure is extreme but we are living in a volatile world and anything can happen. Conflicts can arise anywhere and there is a need to recognise the changing political landscape and economic dynamics of our region.”
The former commander switches to life after the military. Galebotswe has hopes of playing an advisory role in the country’s ongoing anti-poaching initiatives.
The former commander was among soldiers who pioneered the BDF’s entry into anti-poaching in the late 1990s, a time when poachers had nearly wiped out the country’s rhino population.
The north-western districts, near the Caprivi region were particularly affected with combatants of Namibia’s liberation war and South African apartheid forces all operating in the area.
South African forces, stationed near the area used to cross over into Botswana to poach, while intimidating and harassing professional hunters.
“The poaching groups wiped out the rhino population in the area, with the last rhino killed in 1997 in the Linyanti.
“Two poachers were killed and that is when the BDF became involved in anti-poaching operations. Hunters Africa approached the BDF Commander and told him that poachers were coming with weapons of war.
“We went to the area and found rampant poaching being done mostly by armed groups from Namibia and locals on the other side of the border, who were being paid to poach,” he said.
At that time, the soldiers restrained themselves to the rules of engagement as defined by the BDF.
“When the poachers resisted, they would be shot because they were armed. The BDF soldiers would use force to defend themselves,” he explains.
“The shoot-to-kill policy comes into effect when a poacher endangers the lives of soldiers or those in the inter-agencies who are in the operation.”
The hard line policy did not go unnoticed and Caprivians told their government that the BDF was using lethal force in anti-poaching.
At that point, the Namibian military had not yet become involved in anti-poaching, but has since established itself as well. “I was personally involved in anti-poaching operations, dating back to 1997 and I knew what was going on, on the ground,” he says.
Several former top military leaders have retired into politics and some had expected Galebotswe to follow the same route.
However, he says in his 32 years of military service, he never disclosed his political interests and sympathies.
“I know of one BDF general who declared his political affiliation during his tenure but I never wanted to venture into the political arena, even indirectly. As of now, I am into intensive farming,” he says.
Although he does not forswear future political involvement, he is unwilling to share his thoughts about the political environment in Botswana, preferring rather to focus on farming.