Wednesday, March 29, 2023

BDF’s Lieutenant-Private relationship was ‘incest’ not romance

In their basic nature, metaphors are highly effective rhetorical devices that aid the enterprise of putting a point across in a vivid manner. Imagine then how titillatingly effective one that plumbs the depths of Sigmund Freud’s psychosexual theory would be.

Before the Gaborone High Court is the case of Tlhabang Thapisang and Kozondu Uariua, an unmarried couple whose ill-starred romance is eerily reminiscent of Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” and was the reason they were both discharged from the Botswana Defence Force. However, in a dramatic turn of metaphor last Tuesday, the forbidden-romance angle of the story instantly calcified from Romeo-and-Juliet to Oedipus-and-Jocasta. Oedipus is the regicidal little pervert in Greek mythology who kills King Laius and replaces him in both the matrimonial bedroom and on the throne. Only, he doesn’t know that the man he killed is his father and the queen he inherits is his own mother, Jocasta.

In the description of an army lawyer, Advocate Abel Motaung (guest-starring in this matter as a point-man on BDF culture) Lieutenant Thapisa was a mother to all soldiers who were junior to her. Among her sons was Uariua who held the rank of private. In a variation of this point, Motaung, who holds the rank of Major, spoke of a “parent-child relationship” between seniors and juniors in the army. Within this context, BDF’s High Command saw Uariua not as a young man madly in love but as a sexual deviant who couldn’t restrain the worst impulses of his Oedipal Complex. Worse, his mother played along. To millennial ears, Motaung’s submission would have put “ew” in “court news.”

But don’t throw up just yet because if cold hard facts are reintegrated into the evidence, the Romeo-and-Juliet analogy still retains authenticity. Motaung was only talking in terms of fictive kinship because Thapisang and Uariua are not related by a single drop of blood. However, when Justice Dr. Zein Kebonang quizzically introduced “incest” in question form, it became evident that Motaung had succeeded in evoking the Oedipus-Jocasta imagery.

To recap the sequence of events around the case: some time in 2012, the couple is hauled before a disciplinary hearing at the Sir Seretse Khama Barracks where both are stationed. The charge is that the couple is engaged in an “inappropriate relationship” which contravenes the army’s Policy on Fraternisation and Sexual Harassment. Both are found guilty. She is fined 40 days’ worth of pay and when the matter is reviewed, the fine is increased to 45 days. Uariua is sentenced to 40 days in prison.

In her affidavit, Thapisang says that two years later, she received a letter from the BDF Commander, Gaolathe Galebotswe, notifying her that “as a result of conduct I had already been tried, convicted and sentenced for”, he intended to discharge her from the army. In the estimation of the BDF, “this kind of conduct is by no means in line with military traditions and customs. It greatly compromises command and the senior-subordinate relationship expected in the military with a potential to result in a state of disorder and render the organisation dysfunctional and this conduct can’t be tolerated in the BDF or any disciplined organisation for that matter.”

Motaung made clear the fact that BDF has what one might describe as an official romance red line which puts officers (those holding the rank of Second Lieutenant to Lieutenant General) on one side and non-commissioned officers (those holding the rank of Private to Warrant Officer Class 1) on the other. He launched into his submission by explaining that the world over, armies have an entrenched culture of discrimination. Bringing the point closer to home, he said that BDF is set up in such manner that officers are separated from non-commissioned officers in terms of its Policy on Fraternisation and Sexual Harassment.

“This separation is observed in everything,” said Motaung adding seconds later that romance was in the “everything” category.

Even within the officer class, some form of romance is prohibited. Motaung explained that while a Brigadier can have a relationship with a Second Lieutenant, such relationship would not be allowed if they are in the same unit or regiment.

On the other hand, relationships across the red line are strictly forbidden even when the parties involved are not in the same unit. Motaung said that it is customary in the BDF to deploy NCOs from unit to unit, which condition would create complications when a couple dating across the romantic red line has to work together.

“We want to avoid a situation where the commander will be limited in deploying non-commissioned officers,” he said.

The army lawyer was keen to stress that an intimate relationship across officer classes would compromise command “which is the basic instrument by which the military functions.” Even worse, the subordinate may not recognize the authority of officers who hold any rank between his own and that of his lover. He didn’t say this but Uariua would hypothetically have been inclined to not recognize the authority of a Warrant Officer because he was romantically involved with a Second Lieutenant. Apparently, the army considers it extremely important that “subordinates should feel the subjection of their seniors” – a loaded statement which set off a ripple of bemusement in an otherwise sombre courtroom when Motaung made it.

The couple’s lawyer, Othusitse Mbeha sought to characterise the dismissal of his clients as grossly unfair pre-emptive punishment because the breakdown of good order that the Fraternisation Policy was designed for had not occurred as a result of their relationship.

“They were dismissed on the basis of an assumption,” he told the court.

Elaborating on the latter, Mbeha said that there is no mention of any incident of command being compromised as a direct result of this relationship. In seeking to demonstrate the irrelevance of this policy, the lawyer cast it in the mould of a solution looking for a problem. Giving the Botswana Police Service as an example, he pointed out that other disciplined forces in the country which, like the army, place as high a premium on good order, discipline and command, had not adopted the Fraternisation Policy. That notwithstanding, such forces have never ever descended into a state of anarchy even as their officers continue to date across officer classes, Mbeha said.

He further argued that his clients were not aware of this policy when they joined the army and that they were never made aware of it.

“You can’t subject yourself to something that you are not aware of,” he said.

“Fitness” was a central issue in the commander’s decision to dismiss the couple and in court, Mbeha raised a question about the fairness of the process that led the commander to such decision. He argued that a fitness test was never carried out to determine soldierly adequacy or otherwise on the part of his clients and that being in a romantic relationship cannot make one unfit to be a soldier.


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