Sunday, September 27, 2020

Botswana faces a BDF takeover

A few months ago Tlokweng police officers found themselves saddled with a very difficult case. Two villagers walked into the charge office and filed a complaint that they had been assaulted by a Botswana Defence Force (BDF) patrol team.

The two young ladies were staggering home from Ingwae bar in Tlokweng after a weekend binge when they were accosted by gun toting camouflages. One of the ladies who related how they were kicked and pummeled with fists says the last thing she remembers before passing out was a blur of camouflage uniforms jumping into a jeep leaving her laying prostrate on the ground. The case never saw the light of day.

Police stations in Gaborone and surrounding villages have been receiving a lot of such complaints lately. BDF officers who, in the imagination of some Batswana, are trigger happy brats have become objects of fear and loathing. This was summed up in a Botswana Guardian headline nine years ago screaming “If they did not do it, then who did it.” The Guardian “whodunit” story pointed to BDF fingerprints on the charred remains of a suspected diamond dealer found inside the wreckage of what used to be a luxury vehicle.

If, however, there was any one incident that brought the mood into sharp focus, it was a report earlier this year that a patrol team of BDF officers and special constables amused themselves by forcing some Zimbabwean illegal immigrants to have sex at gunpoint.

Spooked by vaulting crime statistics and emboldened by the BDF success in their anti-poaching policing that started in 1987, government did not think twice about deploying the camouflaged officer to police the streets of Botswana.

Observes Dan Henk, Associate Professor, Department of Leadership & Ethics, US Air War College: “One fascinating thing about the BDF anti-poaching mission is how primal it is. The most effective counter-poaching technique has been the combination of ambushes and foot patrols by small, stealthy, disciplined teams backed up by rapid reaction, helicopter borne forces. This pits small groups of determined men against each other in an environment that would be familiar to mankind’s Neolithic ancestors. The BDF has made use of very skilled trackers recruited from Botswana’s hunting and gathering societies. Technology might provide marginal advantages, but success is based on the most ancient of military attributes: teamwork, perseverance, endurance, patience, discipline, extreme environmental awareness and ability to apply extremes of violence on a moment’s notice.

This deployment of army personnel was a novel development that ramified into law enforcement, requiring the establishment of a new BDF relationship with Botswana Police and Department of Wildlife, “and early relations were problematic.”

Later in the 1990s the BDF, Botswana Police and Wildlife Department created a joint Operation Committee in Kasane to coordinate anti-poaching activity in northern Botswana. By 2004, interagency coordination had settled into a functioning routine. The BDF now works effectively with other agencies. Police and game officials are included in anti-poaching operations planning, and police accompany at least some anti-poaching patrols.
This cooperation between the police and the army has now snowballed out of the Okavango wilderness into the streets of Gaborone and surrounding villages. The primal instincts that helped the BDF succeed in the Okavango Wilderness are however believed to be responsible for some of their blunders in the concrete jungle of Gaborone.
Ten years since the first camouflage Land Rover truck started patrolling the streets of Gaborone and neighbouring areas BDF has moved visibly into mainstream policing: Green berets man roadblocks, mount searches for illegal immigrants, police the wilderness for poachers, arrest crime syndicates and represent the longest arm of Botswana law. Dan Henk, in his research paper, “Biodiversity and the military in Botswana” details the BDF spy network employed to fight crime syndicates. “The BDF reportedly has developed an external agent network that can provide early warning of poacher syndicate activity.” Henk says he was told how BDF agents in neighbouring countries have successfully pitted competing syndicates against each other, “profiting by the criminals’ eagerness to eliminate their rivals.”

Residents, however, still barricade themselves behind high steel gates and are afraid to walk the streets at night and the BDF still holds a tenuous and complicated spot within the ranks of crime prevention corps.

University of Botswana lecturer, Mpho Molomo in his research paper “Civil Military relations in Botswana’s Developmental State” observes that, “strong arguments have been presented against deploying the military in civilian or police type operations on the grounds that it would lead to praetorianism. First the military is not trained or equipped to deal with civilian operations. Their involvement in such operations opens up the possibility that they can use excessive forces, which would undermine their image and credibility. In fact, there are already disquieting allegations of assault, torture, and killings of suspects under interrogation by the military intelligence unit of the BDF.”

Both Molomo and Henk believe that they deployment of the BDF in policing activities have reduced the government’s incentive to take the difficult measures necessary to strengthen the anticrime capabilities of the Botswana police.
It’s thus not surprising that although the Botswana police are still struggling to keep pace with high crime rates, they continue to receive less financial support compared to the BDF. For example, in the 1996 budget, out of a total of 209 million that was allocated to the Office of the President for development expenditures the 12 000 men strong BDF received P145 million while the police received only P45 million. This trend has been repeated in successive budgets. In 1997, out of a total development budget of P282 million, the BDF and police claimed 64% and 28 % respectively. In the 2001 budget the BDF received 66% of the P638 million Development budget. In 2003 the BDF received P415 million while the police was given only P145 million; in 2004 the BDF received P391 million while the Botswana Police Service received P120 million; in 2005 the BDF received P300 million while the Botswana Police service received only P100 million and in the 2006 budget the BDF was given P310 million while the police took only P181 million.

The trend is, however, expected to get worse before it gets better. As the country’s crime rate continues to rise, government agencies seem to be turning further away from the police and closer to the army.

The Botswana Vision 2016 council issued a press statement last year complaining that “armed robberies, burglaries, house breaking and theft, car hi-jacking, violent attacks and murder including so called passion killings have turned our country into a haven of criminal activities in the mode of the Biblical Sodom and Gomorrah. Businesses, families and individuals are being robbed of their hard earned assets and lives willy-nilly.”

The press statement further went on to say, “the council, whilst calling for the effective and efficient equipping of law enforcement agencies, more especially the police, would like to commend the relevant authorities for initiating the joint patrols between the Botswana Defence Force and the Botswana Police.”

Even scholars like Henk hold up the BDF anti-poaching operation as a success that may redefine Africa’s civil-military relations. “There is a literature of civil-military relations in Africa. Much of its is gloomy on the contribution that the military establishments can make to the well being of African societies, or even about the capacity of African armies to effectively persue legitimate state security concerns. Botswana seems to be exceptional in this way as well.”

Spurred on by such praises, Vice Lt Gen President Ian Khama, who has a strong military background, is expected to give in to the impulse to build on the alleged army success and increase the BDF role in public and wildlife policing when he takes over as president.

Henk argues that “no discussion of politics, military affairs, or conservation in Botswana can avoid a discussion of Seretse Khama Ian Khama. His prominence and continuing interest undoubtly will influence the use of the military in Botswana into the foreseeable future. He used his position both in the military and later in national politics to support an environmentalist agenda.

When the BDF was created in 1977, the Sandhurst ÔÇôeducated Ian Khama was appointed its deputy commander with the rank of brigadier. He was twenty fours years old at the time. Twelve years later in 1989, he acceded to the command of the BDF with the rank of Lieutenant General, a post he subsequently held for nine years. Khama’s service spanned the formative period of the BDF’s evolution, and he played a definitive role. The military involvement in antipoaching in the late 1980s was almost certainly a Khama initiative. Given the ambivalence towards conservation in the country as a whole, it is entirely possible that absent Khama, the BDF would never have been committed to this role.”

Khama’s likely future as president will have significant ramifications for Botswana’s military, a fact amplified by the peculiar nature of civil-military relations in the country. That peculiarity has, nonetheless provided the government with the political space to commit its military to anti-poaching and public policing without fear of public backlash.

Henk further observes that “considerable power is concentrated in the office of the president. This has very specific ramifications for the employment of the military. In the military’s founding legislation, the president was designated commander in chief, with the prerogative to select the defence commander and promote all officials above the rank of major. The president was also authorized to deploy the military in whole or in part without consulting anybody. The Act did not create a ministry of defence delegating that role instead to the Office of the President. Nor did the legislation specify any particular role for the national assembly in the oversight of the military. No mention was made of a legislative role in allocating funding or employment of the force.

“The most perceptive observers of national politics in Botswana believe that essential security-related decisions are made by a small group of senior officials that are close confidantes of the president, with limited consultation outside this circle. Significantly this group includes the past and present commanders of the BDF.”

The fear of a BDF takeover under Khama is not helped by the growing number of former army officers in the Botswana Cabinet. This includes Foreign Affairs Minister, Lt Gen Mompati Merafhe, Wildlife and Tourism Minister Kitso Mokaila, Labour and Home Affairs Minister Maj Gen Moeng Pheto, and Lands and Housing Minister Dikgakgamatso Seretse.


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Sunday Standard September 27 – 3 October

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