SADC Militaries in the eye of the storm

25 Mar 2019

By Richard Moleofe

The description of the disaster that has hit Mozambique and Zimbabwe is of unprecedented proportion. The effect of cyclone Idai has gone beyond the disaster of 2000 that hit Mozambique with such awesome force that it is still unforgetable.

A time of disaster such as this is a time when the military should show its worth. We have seen this happen with the South African Air Force in 2000 during the floods in Mozambique as the Limpopo valley started swelling as it received much water from upstream.

This was in the year in which a woman had to give birth on top of a tree. This birth became the highlight of the operation to save many lives from the floods. The South African Air Force took all the credit for the dramatic tree rescue. The men and women in the SAAF became celebrities overnight and flew their flag much higher than that of the host country.

Later in the years, SADC militaries came together to create a noble coalition of the region’s air forces. The idea was to train together and share experience and challenges. For that to effectively happen, they agreed on a memorandum to hold combined exercises bi-annually.

The first such exercise was held in Zimbabwe and was code named Exercise Hungwe (Blue Crane). Blue is the colour of all air forces. Later in 2015, the exercise came to Botswana and was code named Exercise Blue Okavango and was held in the Ngamiland District where the Okavango Delta is found.

The idea behind the exercise is to check on the preparedness of the forces on their readiness to deliver on their mandate. In the case of the Botswana exercise, they were delivering humanitarian aid to the “disaster stricken” population in the Ngamiland area.

Angola, Botswana and South Africa were in the lead as they are the three biggest air forces in the region when considering their airlift capacity. The relief aid was hauled from as far afield as Gaborone. I live right on the flight path on the approach to Sir Seretse Khama International Airport and I witnessed this unusual air traffic first hand.

Reality has struck now and we should be showing off our military capability in the hour of need. SADC has a military office in its headquarters in Gaborone and yet we don’t see the desk officers pulling a workable plan for execution in the field.

We needed to be seeing Exercise Blue Okavango replayed as humanitarian aid is getting distributed to those who need it. With over three hundred dead in the two affected countries, help from outside is required more than it was the case in the 2000 floods.

I would want to believe that it is the politicians who are holding back the military from acting. I fail to think of any other reason why the military should not be doing what they have been practicing for all these years. One would come to appreciate why they say politics is a dirty game because the men and women who have been endowed with decision making powers are seating and watching like it’s a football game.

This is the worst humanitarian disaster to ever hit our region in the last one hundred years. Regional countries should be showing great solidarity to the two victim countries

Angola has also been hit by significant flooding this month as nineteen people have lost their lives in the Benguela and Zaire provinces. They are most probably taking care of their domestic problems before they can offer help to others.

But what prevents Botswana from taking part in such a humanitarian relief exercise? For years now, Botswana has been off the grid in terms of our participation on the international arena with our military. We are only seated on the old laurels of Operation Restore Hope in Somalia and UNOMOZ in Mozambique.

Mozambique is a familiar territory for Botswana Defence Force. Through the defence pact signed between Botswana and Mozambique, our military has been given access to train in that country for different scenarios including the current prevailing one. Mozambican troops have also been trained by BDF instructors in Botswana.

The current Masisi administration must reckon that our participation in such humanitarian exercises gives us more publicity as a country than we can ever ask for. Instead of paying millions of dollars for someone to brand our country, we can get better publicity through our participation in running a relief and rescue operation.

As I write, there are people who are going to spend a night over some roof top. They will remain cold, hungry and probably sick because no one sent a helicopter for their rescue.

BDF has such tremendous capability when it comes to airlift. Like I said, the only countries ahead of us are Angola and South Africa. The two are currently involved in the rescue missions and the distribution of aid to where it is needed.

But why are we playing fiddle while Rome burns? Our military has lost the culture of participating on the international stage. More than three quarters of those who were part of the previous operations have since retired and there hasn’t been any continuity but rather experience has been allowed to slip through our fingers.

With three Hercules Charlie 130 large transport planes and several smaller transporters, we should be on the case of World Food Program ferrying food aid from Rome. We actually need very little budget for the entire exercise because this UN body is mandated to pay any transporter they engage

BDF Air Arm has a total of eighteen serviceable helicopters and that number includes the two VIP ones. We can afford to dedicate half of that number for humanitarian rescue and relief in Mozambique.

After the long and protracted civil war in Mozambique, the country focused on developing critical areas such as health, education and the improvement of infrastructure. They did not have the luxury of having disposable income to improve their aging military equipment.

Richard Moleofe is a security analyst