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By Richard Moleofe
In the past years retired soldiers never looked with any anticipation toward the beginning of any financial year. But the current president has brought in some glimmer of hope into the dark pit where these men remain at the moment.
People have questioned why soldiers and their retired colleagues seem to be getting some preferential treatment when it comes to remuneration issues. I have in the past argued on this platform that soldiers generally do not enjoy full constitutional rights like any other citizen.
Soldiers have lost their liberties in the area of freedom of speech and association. The BDF Act has muted them and they clearly understand this fact. They have traded their right for participating in labour unions for nothing. The rules are the same in most countries but they do have a good trade-in for that loss of freedoms. They get paid well.
I am not speaking about military wages as an outsider. I have served Botswana Defence Force for twenty years as a commissioned officer. In those years, my focus was on the welfare of soldiers and that included their wages.
In 1993 I was doing a military course at the US Army Chaplain Centre and School at Fort Monmouth, New Jersey. This was at the time when a second lieutenant at BDDF was earning the same amount with a private in the US Army. This was at the time when the exchange rate was very favourable as 1$ was equivalent to P3.34 or there about.
At the time a private soldier here was earning as little as P600. Over the years, the buying power of the BDF soldier has been drastically reduced by inflationary effects and hard hit by the deliberate devaluation of the Pula. From April 1, a 2nd Lt will be earning the same amount as a private soldier in America.
I am aware that we are a third world country and making comparisons with the United States Army may seem out of this world. We have to emulate the best military in the world and come down to treating our soldiers as they do theirs.
When General Khama ascended to the highest office in the land, soldiers were over the moon as they anticipated a lot of goodies. It is a pity that the general never looked back at the barracks.
General Fisher who was Khama’s predecessor had several promising reforms regarding wages. It’s a pity that he was powerless to seeing them come through. But the fellow was so optimistic about seeing his soldiers receiving a pay raise and he exercised his faith by asking them to buy new wallets.
There are so many retired soldiers who remain aggrieved because mistakes were made at the time they separated with BDF. Most of them are those who served abroad in United Nations peacekeeping missions. Apparently they were paid less than half of what the UN was paying Botswana on their behalf.
Those who served in such missions are now seeking justice at the courts while others are doing it through the BDF Retired Members’ Association. The latter is seen as a useless organization that only serves to perpetuate servitude beyond the days of the barracks.
President Masisi must seek to redress the injustices that have occurred in the past decades. First of all it was a great mistake to introduce a commercial pension company to the reigns of running and conducting retired members’ pensions.
Nowhere else in the developed world do we find pensions of retired military personnel being run by a private company. Retired soldiers remain to be the responsibility of the government. Britain is one of the countries that pay their soldiers well. We have copied so much from them when we established our defence force in 1977. We even plagiarized their military act to more than ninety percent. And why didn’t we copy their welfare schemes?
Pension companies have come to this country to solve their own business problems. And when they arrived, they were glorified to look like they were bringing some redemption to the workers in this country. They had a different agenda.
In the last decade of the past century, pension companies in North America started to experience a serious slow down as their earnings drastically dropped. This was as a result of the baby boomers that were going into retirement. The pension companies needed some reprieve and for that they looked beyond their shores for solutions.
When these companies arrived here, they offered attractive pension benefits and that helped with mass migration from government pension to the new. Then in 2008 the mountain came crumbling on the workers of this country. The cause of the collapse was as a result of the global recession.
Regardless of the bait that was on the fishing line, I personally chose to remain in the old government scheme. It’s not paying a lot of money but one gets to enjoy the stability of the scheme. It is not determined by the performance of the markets in New York. But rather it is determined by government functionaries who fully understand our predicaments and our way of life in this country.
Most of the former BDF soldiers are living near the margins of poverty. Over the years unlike the average civil servant, most of them could not start a small business on the side-lines because of their perpetual absence.
Soldiers generaly spend six months at the border and the remainder of the time at base. During the six months they miss out on being with their families and they can also not respond to personal admin issues such as attending a land board meeting.
President Masisi has vowed to attend to these grievances through the establishment of an office that looks after the welfare of the retired soldier. That is highly commendable but I believe the starting point is to invoke the BDF Act which provides for the creation of a reserve force.
A reserve force will improve the security of our country and as well as improving the livelihoods of our dear soldiers. The reserve force will also help reduce the wage bill for the regular force as recruitment will be reduced.