Monday, September 28, 2020

A star sprangled career

So, what is it like being the country?s number one soldier? If you believe the man in question, except for the insignia he wears on his epaulette, there has not been much of a change from what he has been doing since April 1, 1998, when he was appointed number two to Lieutenant General Matshwenyego Fisher, the immediate past commander of the Botswana Defence Force. The explanation he offers is that the make-up of the BDF is such that the commander and his (so far, it?s been a male-only club) deputy work together.

The reality, though, is that the change has been much more symbolic than elevation in rank, the three stars on his official car?s plates and the title ?Commander? ? shortened in the true military tradition to CDF.

He points out that in operational terms, the change is in the level of responsibility; having to set targets and goals ? and motivating his charges to attain them. But most importantly, the buck stops at his desk, and that means more accountability.

It?s been just over five months since Lieutenant General Tebogo Carter Masire was appointed BDF?s commander, the fourth in the institution?s history. Next month, the army celebrates its 30th year of existence. And it?s an interesting little detail that this year also marks the third decade in uniform for the man at the helm.

Masire was among the group of 17 young men who joined the infant army at inception in 1977, thereby becoming the first class of officer cadets. Together with Albert Scheffers, Bruce Rakgole and Jwagamang Seduke, Masire formed the quartet of the army?s first pilots.

Out of the class of 1977, only four ? Masire himself, Brigadier Nelson Modiko, Colonel Ngconde Lukashi, and Colonel Badirile Mooketsi ? remain in service. Having risen to the pinnacle, Masire is without doubt the most successful from that group. He calls it ?a rare occasion and privilege? to be the first commander from the first intake. By the look of things, he is likely to go down as the first and only commander to have come from that group.

At a short ceremony to mark Fisher?s symbolic hand over of command to Masire, the new commander made the most far-reaching policy pronouncement to have ever come out of Sir Seretse Khama Barracks when he announced the recruitment of the first cadre of women into the BDF. In just one sentence, he ended what he called ?our 30 years as a prestigious men?s club?. It took intense lobbying and heated debates to open the barracks? gates to women.

When he made the statement last year, Masire intimated that the women?s recruitment would start by March. However, in today?s interview with FPN he indicates that adverts would be published in April.
The significance of that statement, coming on the eve of his ascent to the military?s highest office, could not have been lost.

?It was significant that I make the statement on the day,? he says. ?People were doubtful, so I wanted to commit myself.?

He says ?most probably? the first cadre of BDF?s women soldiers would be officer cadets ? and then recruit for the lower ranks at a later stage. The plan is to send them for training to friendly militaries that have a history of training women.

He is reluctant to discuss the contentious issue of where to deploy women. Even in countries with a long tradition of women in the military, there is reluctance to deploy them in the battle zone. Masire points out that deployment being a policy issue, he will be guided by the Defence Council. But his feeling is that it might make sense to first concentrate the women?s roles in professional jobs such as human resource management, information technology, and nursing. But even with this view, he underlines that in the military, one is a soldier first, and a professional later.

?They will have to go through military training, and be posted to units that are professional-oriented later,? he says.

Opening the barracks to women brings a new set of challenges to the BDF. Chief among these is fraternization within the ranks. The military is very sensitive about romance in uniform. In his countrywide tour of BDF bases, Masire has been warning (and reminding) his men about the likely consequences of sexual intimacy with juniors. He explains that the army will mount a major campaign to raise awareness within its ranks about issues such as sexual harassment.

He says the code on sexual relationships is very strict when such liaisons involve senior officers and their juniors ? and he calls that ?a complete no-no?.
?Generals have lost jobs because of that,? he says. ?Such an act attracts automatic dismissal.?

There has been speculation that the BDF commander might be elevated to a four-star general. Masire says if this were to happen, it would have to be preceded by an evaluation exercise. In fact, there is going to be a Strategic Defence Review that will determine the force structure, force design, and defence policy. Masire says this will be a major exercise that will reshape BDF as it marches into the future. He points out that if the outcome of the review is that the commander be made a four-star general, ?I am sure government will accept it?. With Zambia having recently elevated its chief of armed forces to full general, in the region Botswana remains with Lesotho, Swaziland, and Namibia with defence force chiefs at the rank of Lieutenant General.

Clearly, this is not something that Masire loses sleep over, pointing out that some countries? militaries are led by two-star generals.

?Israel?s chief (of the armed forces) is a three-star general, yet the Israel Defence Force is the most active and battle-hardened in that part of the world,? he says. ?Even when we attend international meetings, it?s not about rank, but the position that one holds. There is no question of being undermined just because you are a three-star general, and the man next to you wears four stars. You are duly recognised as chief of the defence force.?

He is equally not convinced about the need to have the air arm stand on its own as an air force, with its own command structure.

?We don?t see any benefit in that. If we were to go that route, it would only be a bureaucratic move. Performance wise, there are no constraints in the current structure. Some people would argue that the air force would have its own budget. But the reality is that there wouldn?t necessarily be change to the defence budget. Within the current budgetary setup, we are obviously cognisant of the requirements of the air arm, and we meet them as much as we can, balancing them with the requirements of the ground forces,? he says.
Masire, who concurrently served as BDF?s deputy commander and the air arm?s chief, notes that some countries have gone that route, but that has not changed the value and potency of their air service. He says what matters is capability.

?If you ask me if we are planning to improve capability of the air arm, yes we want it to be an air arm that can match an air force of its size. We don?t blow our own trumpet, but one American general has said that we are one of the most capable air forces he has visited on the continent. He said our maintenance of the C1 aircraft is second only to the Americans. We are an air force more than many air forces,? Masire says.

He does not believe that the current structure limits progression of the air arm personnel.
Masire is at the forefront of an educational campaign to reach out to critics of the military budget. He is encouraged by the response of some civilian guests, including people in the political leadership, at the closing ceremony of the recent training exercise in Shoshong. He says they were so overwhelmed that some immediately pronounced that they now appreciated the expenditure on the armed forces. Masire argues that the argument that Botswana?s military expenditure is excessive ?is just a perception?.

?Until BDF has come to your assistance, you won?t notice it. People don?t realise that as a nation, we need to have certain capabilities, whether in the police service or BDF. Internationally, such capabilities are put with the defence force. These are necessary capabilities, unless someone wants to tell me that we don?t want to have the capacity to evacuate people in times of natural disasters, or to be able to contain the outbreak of Foot and Mouth Disease. If we don?t need those capabilities, then we would be a unique nation indeed. But if we do, then we have to put them with a unit that will be able to mobilize them at short notice. We are investing money into something that we will need at a given time,? Masire argues.

The legacy that Masire wants to leave behind is an army that is even more professional such that everything is so well-laid out those systems run smoothly. His tenure as commander will see more emphasis put in developing non-commissioned officers and other lower ranks ? men, in army-speak. He says while these are good soldiers operationally, they are not confident in defining policies and implementing them.

?When you visit other defence forces, and see how confident and articulate everyone is, you realise our men still need coaching,? he explains.

Masire is the first BDF commander to have shared his retirement plans with the nation in his first days in office. He has indicated that he has no wish to serve beyond the army?s retirement age of 55. He echoes the sentiment in this interview.
?Come 2010, I will inform the president that I want to retire,? he tells FPN.

What if the commander-in-chief requests him to continue holding fort?

?I would take orders. I am a soldier, I do what I am told,? he responds. (FPN)

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Sunday Standard September 27 – 3 October

Digital copy of Sunday Standard issue of September 27 - 3 October, 2020.