Questioning the bulging BDF leadership

Botswana Defence Force (BDF) is a modest military machine which is well trained and somewhat sufficiently resourced.

This military organisation has exercised itself professionally in their past international assignments and in many ways excelled beyond expectations of their Western counterparts. These assignments included UN Peacekeeping role and different joint military exercises.

For any military organisation, it is the leadership that matters the most. Leadership pilot the ship in the direction that they would like it to go. It is the leadership that navigates through calm and rough seas and we all expect them to succeed in that role.

The BDF leadership arises from very humble beginnings. At the time of its inception, the organisation only had two general officers, Major General Mompati Merafhe and Brigadier Ian Khama. Even then this was rather an ambitious rank structure but served the organisation right because it met the needs of the organisation and it was also anticipatory of future growth. 

The BDF leadership has now grown beyond what many had anticipated in the 1970s. Right now there are too many general officers and yet there is an old English adage, “too many cooks spoil the broth.” Right now BDF boasts of one Lieutenant General, four Major Generals and eighteen Brigadiers. For the size of this military organisation, this is totally ridiculous in the least of terms. BDF is modest in size. I cannot in any way discuss their numbers here because I would have gone overboard in terms of the organisation’s secrecy code.

As I was once one of them, I am sworn to secrecy and I know very well that BDF’s numbers are not for public consumption. This is something I had always found difficult to understand but in a military organisation you have an obligation to comply with orders whether you understand or not.

And what is BDF doing with such a large number of generals? Simplified for your understanding in everyday civilian terms, in other sectors of the civil service, it converts to one Permanent Secretary to the President (or Chief Justice), four Permanent Secretaries and eight18 Deputy Permanent Secretaries. Below these Generals are several Colonels who are equally remunerated as directors.

Taking into account the belt tightening crusade, it seems BDF is nowhere near answering this call. In simple terms, BDF is fat at the head like a puff adder, one of the deadliest snakes in the continent. It is amazing that in less than 40 years of its existence, the military organisation has earned itself an inverted pyramid in its structure where there are more in the leadership than those whom we can refer to as foot soldiers.

BDF has undergone several restructuring programmes in its lifetime. One of the key and meaningful restructuring exercises was in 1988 when a decision was taken to move on from operating with companies and graduated to battalions.

This transition earned BDF the biggest ever Officer Cadet intake which exceeded 120 trainees. At the time this was an indication that the organisation was experiencing a healthy transitional growth.

At the time, the BDF desperately needed this growth because of several factors. The role of the military organisation was consistently challenged by the wild South African Defence Force which had unleashed what they termed Total Onslaught on their neighbouring forces. SADF had actually visited BDF several times in those years thus prompting the strengthening of Botswana’s defence force. At one point, SADF poked BDF in the eye by taking the battle to its main barracks.

In May 1986, two heavily armed French made Puma helicopters landed inside the perimeter fence of Sir Seretse Khama Barracks where the BDF headquarters is based. This was a serious humiliation to the military and the political leadership of Sir Ketumile Masire. This SADF operation earned a renowned newspaper journalist Mxholisi Ace Mxhashe a deportation for asking Major General Merafhe embarrassing questions.

During this era, President Masire’s government had experienced the best economic growth ever. So in this case there was some excess fat from the belly of the economy and that was turned to buying military hardware and increase in the number of troops. This was a necessary evil when taking into account the level of threat at the time.

Retired Brigadier Albert Scheffers is one officer who has spent most of his years at BDF headquarters working tirelessly on restructuring the organisation. It is unfortunate that his brains were put to waste as some of his elaborate plans ended up in the nearest dust bin upon the arrival of a new command. Some of these exercises which were adopted have had a very short lifespan and proven expensive for no real tangible gain despite the fact that they were genius.

In any organisation, the restructuring exercise always comes at a cost. Two identical organisations that have branded themselves as perpetual restructurers are Botswana Defence Force and National Development Bank. What has interested me in the years past is that every one of NDB’s restructuring exercises has always been followed by a retrenchment.

Does BDF need some form of retrenchment at this stage? In answering the question in a general way the answer is no. But when one gets to be very specific, the answer would be a loud yes! BDF needs to shave from the head. Ironically, one of the significant changes that have been put in place since my departure five years ago has been the growing of hair.

Haircuts are now few and far between and this is affecting business in the local hair salon shops including the ones within BDF premises. 

Of course BDF needs to restructure at the top and I am seriously objective about setting out my opinion on this issue. A thorough investigation on where to cut off the fat would intelligently inform the decision makers on this matter. Unfortunately some of the changes that BDF has seen in the past have been based on either patronage or on some pinch of vengeance against some individuals.

Setting off on a positive note, BDF needs to advance its commander from the rank of Lieutenant General to that of General. This may sound contrary to what seems to be my thesis on this opinion piece which is about cutting down the spending. This would make this man the highest paid civil servant in the land. The BDF commander holds a lower rank as compared to his peers in the southern Africa region. When meeting with them, he needs to feel at par with his colleagues.

This change would leave BDF with one General with a Lieutenant General as deputy. This would allow for one Major General as Ground Forces Commander and one as Air Arm Commander. Then a provision for a few Brigadiers mostly commanding operational units would be necessary. Otherwise the bulk of the staff working at BDF HQ should be left as officers at the rank of colonel.

BDF would then need to shave off a lot of brigadiers and maintain half of what it currently has on its payroll. Some of the positions held by these general officers could simply be held by colonels. A good example here is with three brigadiers’ positions that could just be bundled into one.

The head of the Command and Staff College which is basically a premier university for Botswana’s military could oversee both the Force Training Establishment (FTE) and Training and Doctrine (TRADOC) and the other two could be relegated to the rank of colonel.

All the three exist for one purpose; training. Even then they need to review the idea of TRADOC. It’s an idea borrowed from the US military. And do we have a military doctrine as a nation? Allow me to discuss this issue another day.

The topic discussed here has been prompted by the request made by the BDF Commander. When addressing the Parliament’s Public Accounts Committee he asked the public to engage his organisation on such issues. And for the coming weeks we shall delve on matters surrounding our defence and security.

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