As earlier discussed, the military has its own set of laws. All soldiers, commissioned officers, warrant officers and other rank are all subjected to the BDF Act. There are also rules and regulations under the Act that actually are a clear extrapolation of this piece of legislation and they exist to help run this military institution and I want to call them auxiliaries of military law.
There are basically two routes to choose from when one is faced with a legal issue within the military. There is the Summary Proceedings and the more serious route of the Court Martial. The later court has its cases reviewed at the High Court of Botswana. Some of the cases get overturned during this process as some anomalies are detected.
Sometimes people just think the military is too strict with too many laws. But this institution simply has laws that are mirrored by Setswana traditional law and custom. In the military, the harshest sentence is death and this can be handed down for cowardice. When grew up as boys, failure to stand up to your peers was regarded as an offence cowardice. This has helped us to stand for our personal rights in our adult life.
Military discipline is often a carbon copy of our traditional laws. Spending the night away from your official lodging is an offence as much as it is an offence to spend the night away from your parents’ home as a teenager. Since most people enlist for military service as teenagers, that transition becomes much easier if one comes from a strict home.
When one is in the military, the fact that they are now subjected to a new set of laws does not immunize them from what I would like to call public laws. There has been several cases where soldiers have been tried in civilian courts by such as in magistrate courts, the High Court and as well as the Court of Appeal.
Over the years different soldiers have committed crimes and the most prominent of these was the Marx Leepo robbery. Private Leepo was a soldier in Mogoditshane and he became very famous for the Barclays Bank heist. The man acted alone and was successful in getting over P60 000. This amount of money back in days was enough to pay salaries at BDF for three months as the lowest paid soldier was still getting P270 in 1982.
Leepo’s robbery created the country’s largest manhunt. He was heavily armed and engaged both the army and the police but was later apprehended and tried in a civilian court where he was sentenced to more than ten years in prison. This was a major criminal offence of the 1980s but many more were to follow.
It became common for soldiers to steal weapons and sell them or either use them on robberies. One soldier from Military Police went even a step further to train the robbers on his free time over the Gabane hills. He was paid a third of the proceeds from this crime. It was simple for him to know how much was taken in each robbery because that was usually announced over Radio Botswana.
During the early days of the BDF, it was easier to source live rounds than find a box of matches. During the days of Zimbabwe War of Liberation, soldiers were allowed to bring in their weapons to their residential areas. There was very little accountability and in fact this was encouraged by the leadership. At a later stage this practice brought trouble at BDF as criminal elements exploited the practice.
The biggest problem that was faced by BDF in latter years was the calibre of the people they recruited. A lot of young people who were wayward in their behaviour ended up as soldiers. I remember a group of boys that called themselves Makanyane (The Wild Dogs) at our school in the early 1980s almost all ended up as private soldiers at BDF. The young men literally terrorised the school. Building and remoulding such characters was an uphill battle for the instructors.
In the early 1990s, a syndicate of soldiers were conniving to steal from government. Known as the GPO scandal, these soldiers created companies that were largely registered and they were being paid hundreds of thousands for services and supplies that never really happened. Because the syndicate was existing within BDF headquarters, they were able to manipulate the system. They made authorizing officers pay for what the organization never received.
One cannot say a particular cadre or pool of ranks is prone to crimes. These unfortunate incidents are usually found right across the rank and file. In fact it is even worse with officers because when they steal they do that in the hundreds of thousands if not in the millions.
When the syndicate was broken, the participants were tried in civilian courts and many were convicted. It is mandatory that when a soldier is convicted in a civilian court of law, the sentence is communicated to the commander and a subsequent decision is taken to remove them service. This is usually a simple decision as the determining fact always lies in the ruling of the civilian courts.
Beyond the years of service, the most common crime committed by former soldiers is stock theft. Most of them are reduced to farmers and unfortunately, they end up burning their fingers after yielding to the temptation of being envious of the fattened animals. What is sad about the whole affair is that some of these convicts were senior in the days of their military service.