Wednesday, January 22, 2020

BDF Commander retains top NCO under controversial circumstances

Having reached the statutory retirement age, the Force Sergeant Major (FSM) of the Botswana Defence Force (BDF) should have retired in December last year. However, he is still in post and has the commander, Lieutenant General Placid Segokgo, to thank for that.

The year-end session of parliament ÔÇô which marks the beginning of the parliamentary year, passed an amendment bill to the BDF Act. The amendment revises the retirement age for soldiers above the rank of Lance Corporal ÔÇô which includes the FSM. Soon thereafter, Segokgo authored a circular dated December 21, 2017 in which he notified BDF members about both the legislative development in parliament and his decision “to permit those whose retirement ages will be affected by the new Act and were due to compulsorily retire between 01 December 2017 and end of February 2018 to serve until 31 March 2018.” The circular notes that this dispensation is being implemented “in anticipation that the president will assent to the Bill soon.”

Sunday Standard learns from BDF’s Acting Director of Protocol and Public Affairs, Colonel Fikani Machola, that through this dispensation, some 32 soldiers who qualify will continue to serve and that the processes of making the bill into law are still to be completed.

“There are members of the BDF [who] include the FSM, who were supposed to have served during this period,” says Machola adding that this development is in line with the BDF retention strategy.

All of that seems perfectly legitimate except that some members of the BDF see the Commander’s decision as problematic from top to bottom and, beginning with the timeline, offer a scalding assessment of it. These members’ version of the story is that less returning his uniform, the FSM had actually resigned on December 15, 2017. This would mean that when the Commander formally announced the dispensation in question, the FSM was already out of the army and should never have benefitted from it. As evidence that the FSM was well and truly on his way out, he had collected part of his terminal benefits ÔÇô which are known as “enhancement” in BDF language. There is suspicion that December 1 as the start date for the temporary extension of stay was designed to cover the FSM, who had reportedly advertised his willingness to stay on, and that the 31 other members are merely collateral beneficiaries of a dispensation that was tailored for one individual.

Another point that has been made is that the Commander has displayed active bias against another group of recently retired soldiers. In anticipation of the bill gaining  passage in parliament and being assented to by the president, these members (some of whom reached retirement age as late as November last year and would have benefitted from the new Act) also sought permission to stay on but were rebuffed.

Government employees, BDF members included, typically get paid in mid-January to ease the financial burden occasioned by the festive season. The 32 members received their salaries late, after everybody else had been paid. In confirming the late payment, Machola explained that “reinstatement is a complex process that requires time.” On the other hand, Sunday Standard learns that some members of the high command – who have as high a level of aptitude to examine this issue, are unhappy with Segokgo’s decision. When January salaries were processed, Segokgo was away on leave. It is alleged that there was deliberate foot-dragging in authorising the salaries of the 32 holdovers by the relevant high command officer who is said to look askance on the decision to retain the men.

At least for one BDF member who holds the rank of Regiment Sergeant Major (RSM), this development is said to have had adverse career consequences. On the understanding that the FSM was on his way out, a process to replace him from the ranks of RSMs was initiated. On December 15, a replacement had been identified and would have been appointed hadn’t the Commander decided to retain the FSM. In terms of the BDF Act, it is the Commander who appoints the FSM. That a process to replace the FSM could have been undertaken and its outcome not complemented with the Commander’s endorsement would seem to confirm the theory that the high command is not marching in lockstep on this issue.

In a set of questions that it submitted in writing to the BDF, Sunday Standard had asked Machola to be as “elaborate and precise” as his stock of knowledge permitted. However, the response ÔÇô which didn’t deal with each issue separately and basically reiterated the substance of the December 21 circular, fell short of providing a full accounting of all the relevant facts. The generality of the response enabled BDF to sidestep the questions of whether the FSM had drawn his enhancement, whether a new FSM had been identified, whether the Commander turned down the requests of other retiring members who had wished to stay on, whether the January 2018 payment of 32 members was made late because their retention had not been budgeted for and why the Commander decided on December 1, 2017 as the effective of the dispensation in question.

Another unanswered question related to whether in making a decision with budgetary implications on the basis of anticipating particular action by the president, the Commander had acted within his legal authority. Constitutionally, historically and an issue’s importance notwithstanding, there is no definite time period within which presidential assent occurs. That largely has to do with the level of presidential discretion in the assenting process. The motion to detribalize the constitution by recognizing all tribes (which sought to defuse a serious national security threat) was not acted upon for close to a decade. BDF cannot be unaware of this historical perspective. Botswana’s constitutional arrangement makes no provision for a complementary jurisdictional relationship between the president and the BDF commander with regard to bills passed by parliament. The latter is the reason why some BDF members believe that the Commander’s action may come dangerously close to usurpation of powers that ordinarily reside outside his office.

The most senior non-commissioned officer, the FSM reports directly to the Commander. The irony of it all is that the FSM in question is described as being bone and marrow an exceptional soldier who is hugely popular with the troops. That notwithstanding, his exit would not have caused any operational disruption because a replacement was eagerly waiting in the wings.