US army builds P100m facility at Thebephatshwa air base

13 Oct 2013

Botswana Government has given the American military permission to start construction of facilities inside the Thebephatshwa air base, the United States Embassy in Gaborone has confirmed.

The Public Procurement and Asset Disposal Board Chairman, Poppy John has however said her Board has neither been involved in the award nor adjudication of the contract which is overseen by Trust Building & Maintenance Construction Company.

The facilities which will cost close to P100 million will be the first known involvement of American military presence inside Thebephatshwa.

Since its inception, the premier air base, which is also a key security entry point, has been dogged by international speculation that it was a proxy American asset.

During the base’s early days there were also allegations of French involvement, all of them strenuously denied by Botswana Government.

Thebephatshwa military airbase is often adduced by international detractors including in Southern Africa and the continent at large that Botswana is an American client state.

Under pressure to prove non-American involvement the Government of Botswana has in the past conducted international media tours across the base to sell the storyline that there was no American presence inside the installation.

While no tangible evidence has ever been produced to prove the involvement of America, that stigma has however persisted.

It was on the back of such sustained perceived American involvement that to this day Botswana has continued to be derided and jibed by many states in SADC and the African Union as a puppet of the West.

“The United States, working with the Botswana Defence Force (BDF), has contracted the construction of facilities to support future, mutually-agreed bilateral and multilateral exercises at Thebephatshwa Airbase, Molepolole, Botswana,” said the American Deputy Ambassador to Gaborone, Michael Murphy in response to Sunday Standard enquiries.

Close to half a dozen military, intelligence and diplomatic sources contacted for this story said they suspected the significance of the installation could herald greater American presence in Botswana which could become a shoo-in for future transfer of the American military Africa Command (AFRICOM).

This assertion has however been dismissed by Murphy.

“We are not constructing a U.S. military base, and we are not planning to relocate AFRICOM headquarters to Botswana… This project, a direct result of Botswana hosting Exercise SOUTHERN ACCORD in August 2012, underscores the close and ongoing partnership between the BDF and United States,” continued Murphy.

He said the construction block consists administration, instructional and latrine facilities.

“These particular facilities were chosen so that if Botswana and the United States agreed to a future exercise at Thebephatshwa, the exercise will not disrupt normal BDF operations,” he said.

The American diplomat said from the United States perspective, Exercise Related Construction (ERC) will also reduce support costs for exercises by eliminating the leasing of tents or portable shelters on a recurring basis.

“There are multiple stipulations associated with ERC, but the two most notable ones are: the host nation must provide written approval for the project and the project cannot support a continuous U.S. presence,” asserted Murphy.

He also said the BDF will be free to use the facility after the departure of the American army following the completion of the exercise.

A former senior army officer is however not convinced.

He said the scale of the facilities will inevitably raise eyebrows.

“It will be interesting to see how going forward our Government will fight pressure that has always been there that Thebephatshwa is an American-related base. There is nothing wrong with BDF (Botswana Defence Force) cooperating with the Americans. It happens all over the world, but for us, geo-political dynamics are very sensitive. Our Government should be more transparent and there should be effort not to contaminate Thebephatshwa by mixing the commands,” he said.

Botswana has often been mentioned in the international media as a candidate for relocation of AFRICOM should the command have to leave Stuttgart, Germany where it is currently headquartered.

Any heavy American military presence in Botswana will conjure memories when the then President, Festus Mogae rejected gestures by the Americans in 2007 to set up in Botswana.

Mogae said at the time that he could not come up with plausible reasons to sell and justify the establishment of AFRICOM in the country.

In the middle of an explosive and often divisive national debate, together with opposition parties, some members of Mogae’s cabinet said allowing AFRICOM to set up in Botswana would turn the country into a legitimate terrorist target.