Monday, May 27, 2024

From PMU to BDF, The Genesis of an Army

On 27th April 1977 a law was passed by Parliament of Botswana allowing the creation of the country’s military. This date has remained so special to the founders of this military establishment so much that the 27th of every month was declared payday back in the day.

However, what many in this country are not aware of is the fact that a military kit had already been in existence since 1964. This is the year that marked the formation of what was officially known as the Para Military Unit of Botswana Police. This was an outfit created to challenge the neighbouring military incursions into Botswana especially from the Rhodesian forces.

For political reasons, the PMU became known as the Police Mobile Unit after independence because someone’s son was not yet ready to assume authority at the helm of this organization. It had to have no association with the military by name lest people (law makers especially) would challenge government to elevate it to a full military force. In fact Phillip Matante (a Francistown legislator) was the first one to challenge government for this transition but he failed. You all have to read between the lines here.

The PMU had two fully fledged companies that were ready and able to execute all military duties as required at the time. One company was based in Gaborone while the other company was based in Francistown. The works of these companies were military by nature and they did very little police general duties. Their concentration was based on patrolling the borders of the country and responding to any military incursions by our white neighbours.

The PMU was military in every sense of the word except for their colour of their vehicles which remained white like those of the regular police. The PMU trained its soldiers extensively and their measure of discipline was highly regarded in the police force. It is recorded in the Annual Report of the Commissioner of the Botswana Police of 1975 that a recommendation was made that all police recruits should be routed through this unit before they can be assigned general duties. The morale of these young men was much superior to the rest.

It was this recommendation which was approved that made the PMU an elite unit like what is now known as Special Forces in today’s army. The discipline and morale of the young lads at PMU was very high and unlike regular police, they recorded less incidents of disorderly behaviour.

The interesting part came at the time of transitioning from being a para military unit to becoming a defence force. After the passing of the BDF Act on the floor of parliament on 27th April 1977, there still was no army to show except a piece of legislation paving the way for the creation of such.

During my days with Botswana’s military, there was a cohort of both officers and men who were known as the Eight Zeros. This simply meant that their force numbers began reading with an eight and followed by a zero. These were revered as the ancestors of Botswana’s military and their word was regarded as a treasure trove of wisdom.

These officers and men always boasted of being the brave ones who raised their hands when the call to build BDF was alarmed to defend the country. During my interaction with several of them especially during their years of service, I came to learn that only 138 officers and men volunteered to transition to the new military establishment.

There were far more people in the PMU than this paltry number but there is a reason why most chose to remain with Botswana Police Force. The most outstanding issue was the issue of the new military laws. Not many were willing to be subjected to what was brought along with the offer.

Assistant Commissioner Mompati Merafhe was immediately appointed as the Commander, Botswana Defence Force with his deputy as Brigadier Ian Khama. They toured the country addressing members of the PMU and offering them the opportunity to choose between the BDF and the BPF. The new act had automatically dissolved the old PMU and all those choosing to remain with BPF would be reduced to general duty police officers.

For an unknown reason, General Merafhe put much emphasis on the disciplinary charges that were espoused in the new BDF Act. He read to them sections such as those addressing the extreme misconduct in the military. The sections were read aloud and some carried extreme sentences such as death by firing squad. Other sections dealing with military misconduct such as disobeying particular orders carried sentences running into years of incarceration.

For many, the address by General Merafhe was a turning point in their choice of career. Many decided to remain with their previous employer and did not want to wade into an unknown territory. However, there were those who plunged into the deep-end of the unknown and according to their narration, it paid off. One of the issues which was equally a turn off in the infamous speech was the detail that those who would be joining the BDF as non-commissioned officers would right away lose their entitlement to claim subsistence allowance better known as night out allowance.

Government had calculated ahead of time that if non-commissioned officers would be allowed to cash in the claim, sooner or later the state coffers would be depleted. The bulk of the military was by design going to be those below the rank of Warrant Officer Class One and hence the tough decision. The design of the new military was for them to be preoccupied with border patrols and would be gone for weeks and months.

Instead government put in place a more general allowance known as commuted allowance to address the needs of these soldiers. The allowance was P30 a month, quite a paltry amount compared to the amount they were entitled to during their service at PMU. One of the men who transitioned at the rank of warrant officer and later retired as brigadier, Bathoen Maseko suggested to government that they be allowed to take groceries from stores at freewheel and that should be charged to government.


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