Botswana needs a new national security strategy

When speaking to a local radio station last year, former Defence Minister Dikgakgamatso Seretse emphasised that Botswana was in the midst of a National Security Strategy Review. What raised questions at the time was the fact that the public and particularly the media were not aware of this major project around our security apparatus.

It would be totally extravagant for any government to make such an important review without committing all other stakeholders who matter in the equation. I am aware that this review would include agencies such as the intelligence, prisons and the police. But allow me to restrict myself to the military for now even though I will touch others in the not so distant future. This is where most of the country’s financial resources are spent every year.

Botswana Defence Force has literally evolved over the years from its very humble genesis. Earlier Botswana became the only independent republic in Southern Africa in the strictest sense.

In 1965, Rhodesia declared itself an independent state and this was to the exclusion of all its African inhabitants. Botswana was equally declared an independent state the following year after a thorough democratic process and the Rhodesians somewhat took this as a deliberate provocation and challenge to their existence.

Eleven years later, Botswana had very little options but to settle for a standing army. This decision was arrived at because the security environment had become increasingly challenging for a new country. With various challenges and destabilising factors, Botswana set up the most basic of all armies in the world. BDF was conceived as a ragtag army.

Botswana’s primary security needs at the time were to create an army that could repel the marauding Rhodesians and their South African friends who supported them in every way because of their identical white supremacist evil doctrines.

Because Botswana’s army was created in haste, some para-military police unit known as Police Mobile Unit was transformed into what is now known as BDF. The army numbered to some two hundred and fifty individuals which in infantry terms it became a company with five platoons.

The BDF grew exponentially in order to meet their security obligations. In 1980, Rhodesia fell off from the list of rogue neighbours as Robert Mugabe’s ZANU PF took over power. Soon the independence honeymoon was over as the two liberation movements in Zimbabwe came head to head in twisted battles that were characterised by bloodbaths. The internal conflict was defined along ethnic lines as the Shonas took on the Ndebeles in the south.

BDF was back at it again as they had to constantly pursue intruders and as well as protecting the swelling refugee population from Zimbabwe and other neighbouring countries. Zimbabweans had literally inherited all arms and ammunition from the previous colonial army of Rhodesia. These were superior weapons as they included armoured cars with an assortment of high calibre weapons.

This is a synoptic view of Botswana’s military origins and its history. In earlier years the troops were recruited from anyone in the population who had gone to school and attained a Standard Seven certificate.

The troops were deployed with little training because of the high demand to have them on the borders of the republic. At the time some recruits who were primary school dropouts managed to earn themselves employment with their sisters’ certificates which to some extent helped to save face in repelling the intruders. The literacy rate was of course at unparalleled dimensions and the situation at the time demanded action.

How this military was kitted was often according to the likings of those in command. There was no planning on what equipment was necessary for the defence force. This military organization often survived on donations. The Nigerians donated a rifle named Smirnoff while the USSR made a kind donation of Armoured Personnel Carriers in BTR and BDM. Later in the life of the organization, the Americans donated several Surface to Air Missiles (SAMs).

While the BDF was growing in terms of the human resource, it was also accumulating somewhat sophisticated weaponry into its inventory at all levels. The Americans more than doubled their offer on training BDF officers in US military facilities. This came as they wanted to overtake their rivals the USSR which had in the past offered similar opportunities albeit in smaller quantities.

In all accounts, BDF is not a big military organisation but the level of its growth is largely unaccounted for. Most of what has now become of the organisation is as a result of trial and error. BDF has grown to become a very opportunistic animal. It has largely armed itsself through some impulsive decision making processes.

Wars of liberation are over and we still remain with a standing army. The question is; do we still have a need to maintain a military machine? In order to answer this important question, we will need to take into account three things in this whole equation.

Do we need to reduce the size of our military or maintain it at the current level or still, do we need to prop up the numbers. Whatever answer we may arrive at, we still have to account for personnel and equipment. The size of any military does not count on its soldiers or its equipment in isolation of the other.

This begs the question of creating a sound doctrine for our military which will inform its growth in both the employment of personnel and the procurement of military hardware. In this series I will tackle the issue of developing a military doctrine for Botswana, something that in my honest opinion has long been overdue. That will be enveloped in the entire debate of a National Security Strategy.

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