Wednesday, September 23, 2020

A soldier of misfortune

The March edition of the Botswana Defence Force newsletter ÔÇô “In & Around” -is a parade of all five retired Major Generals. Four of the veterans, Major General Oitsile, Major General Pheto, Major General Motang and Major General Thokwane cut quite a dash in their colourful ceremonial uniform.
A jungle green military tunic with sleeves rolled all the way up to the biceps marks out Major General Pius Mokgware as a man who would be more at home down in the trenches than in the cushy embrace of an air-conditioned office. “I prefer the Jungle green because as the ground forces we can be called to go into service anytime and we always have to be ready,” says the expelled commander of the BDF ground forces. Major General Mokgware is not just feeding me a PR line, far from it. His colleagues say you are likely to find him sleeping under a canvas tent at a border post than in an air conditioned bedroom at the army barracks.

As he leans back against his chair to recount stories of privation and starvation from border patrols, the clean shaven middle aged man in a khaki shirt and chinos is immediately transformed to a gun toting soldier all decked out in Jungle greens. “I slept under tents with other soldiers. We had to pool pennies to buy food because provision would usually run out before the end of the assignment.”
Major General Mokgware who says things like: “A soldier is a centerpiece. He should have proper accommodation and proper clothing. The welfare of soldiers is of paramount importance” was dubbed “the social worker” by his colleagues because of his passion for soldiers’ welfare. All that changed earlier this year when BDF Commander, Tebogo Masire, summoned him to his office and hauled him over the coals for speaking out on soldiers’ welfare.”
As it turns out, the BDF has arrived at reality check point. With the army command’s attempt to keep soldiers happy in rough shape, officers’ welfare is like a big elephant in the living room that no one wants to talk about. Trust in the army leadership is at an all time low and their failures are being felt by men patrolling border posts with guns slung over their shoulders. Infantrymen are straining their leashes demanding that the BDF leadership should address their welfare. The army leadership promised to increase soldiers’ salaries and improve their working conditions following fires that ravaged the country and memorandums threatening to break the railway line and derail passenger trains allegedly written by disgruntled BDF members early last year.
By mid last year, BDF members told Sunday Standard that their patience was running out because the army command was dragging feet in honoring its promises. The BDF Protocol & Public Affairs officer, Second Lieutenant Patrick Mfaladi, told Sunday Standard that, “the matter is internal and confidential. But for your benefit you may wish to know that the BDF is addressing the issue.”

Further complicating the issue, the army commander Lt Gen Masire was due to retire in June and the two front runners to fill his shoes were Major General Mokgware and Deputy Commander Major General Tiroyamodimo. The army ground forces were, however, still smarting after Major General Tiroyamodimo was made deputy commander ahead of Major General Mokgware who is his senior. The curious appointment sparked tension in the army command which was already presiding over a restless infantry.

So when on 6th January 2010, Mokgware convened a meeting of the Formation Commanders to motivate them to up their productivity and address soldiers’ welfare concern, the army command read a sinister motive into the whole crusade. That Mokgware wanted to incite a mutiny.

The army commander immediately commissioned a board of inquiry made up of Brigadier Morake, Colonel Nkele and Colonel Segokgo to investigate the motive behind the meeting where Mokgware was accused of lambasting the army high command for failing to address soldiers’ welfare. The board of inquiry interviewed some army members and seized the “Flight to Phoenix” motivational DVD which Mokgware played during the meeting. The DVD had been given to a number of permanent secretaries who attended a productivity motivational seminar organized by the American government sometime last year.

The BDF commander subsequently called Mokgware on January 22nd and advised him to retire immediately. He warned him that he would be meeting President Lt Gen Ian Khama over Mokgware’s poor working relationship with the deputy commander. Mokgware refused to jump. The result was a letter dated 9th February 2010 signed by President Lt Gen Ian Khama which reads: “In exercise of the powers vested in me by regulation 4(4) of the Botswana Defence Force (Office Regulations) I have decided to retire you from the force with immediate effect. You will be entitled to your terminal benefits as provided for under the law. Let me take this opportunity to thank you most sincerely for the many years of service to the Botswana Defence Force.” This marked the end of an illustrious career of a soldier who was among the first officers to be awarded the duty code medal. He got the medal as Lt Colonel ÔÇô before the current commander Lt General Tebogo Masire and his deputy Major General Tiroyamodimo.

The president does not advance reasons for forcing Mokgware into early retirement. A stronger case, however, can be made for keeping Mokgware in the army: At fifty he is the youngest Major General ever to be retired from the BDF. He is also the most educated. An accountant by profession and also a member of the Association of Accounting Technicians Major General Mokgware also has a Masters Degree in Strategic Studies, Bachelor of Business Administration, Diploma in advanced Finance Management, Diploma in Resource Management and Certificate in Finance Management.

Some BDF watchers, however, maintain that the army is all a parade of smokes and mirrors and things are not what they seem. There are even fears that findings of the board of inquiry may have been cooked to support allegations that Mokgware was inciting a mutiny. As commander of the ground forces, Major General Mokgware was a wild card. While most BDF officers rose up the army command with Botswana Democratic Party (BDP) cards in their pockets, Major General Mokgware and former BDF commander Lt Gen Matshwenyego Fisher are among a few who did not take up political party membership cards. Major General Mokgware’s position is further complicated by the fact that his late father was a Botswana National Front (BNF) activist.

Mokgware maintains that he never lambasted the army high command. He explains that he understands his influence in the army and would never say or do anything that would be seen to be inciting a mutiny. These are not just the ranting of a spurned commander who is trying to overplay his influence. Far from it, Major General Mokgware knows that if he ever crossed his wires, the whole army would go up in flames. As commander of the ground forces he had influence over two thirds of the BDF armed forces. “The ground force is the backbone of the BDF,” he says.

Major General Mokgware’s influence is further captured in the March edition of the BDF newsletter:” Unlike in other sister African countries, with such a number of high ranking retired officers, there could be splinter insurgency groups and maybe have the country divided into parts.”

Now that he is outside the BDF administration, much of the criticism – and there is plenty more to come with the growing interest in the story ÔÇô is being deflected away from the army command.
The BDF told newspapers this week that they have had to give officers back the money they had contributed towards Major General Mokgware’s farewell party because he had turned it down.
Major General Mokgware on the other hand gives a different explanation:

“Baatweng called around the 30th March and told me that General Masire wanted to organize a party to bid me farewell. He said the commander had asked that I should choose a suitable date for the farewell party between the 7th and the 8th of April. I told him that I was still going to think about it. He called again two days later that they were still waiting for me to give them a suitable date. I told him that I was confused because retiring officers are never given a choice between two dates; they are always given a blank cheque to choose a suitable date. I also pointed it out to Baatweng that in the history of the BDF, retiring officers never have farewell parties during week-days; they always have farewell parties on weekends. Worse still the dates proposed for my farewell party were on the eve of the planned BDF pass out parade. Soldiers usually camp on the eve of pass out parades and are not allowed to party. I raised this with Baatweng and asked him to relay my concerns to the commander. To my surprise, a few hours later I started receiving calls from concerned BDF members saying they had been told by the command that I had turned down the offer for a farewell party.”

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The Telegraph September 23

Digital edition of The Telegraph, September 23, 2020.