BY THOBO MOTLHOKA
The Minister of Defense, Justice and Security Shaw Kgathi has distanced the government from prior plans to purchase Gripens fighter jets for the Botswana Defense Force (BDF).
Delivering his Ministry’s Speech to the Committee of Supply in parliament on Thursday, March 21st Kgathi sought to “dispel the notion” that Botswana ever desired to procure Gripen aircrafts for the BDF.
He said that while there was an urgent need to replace the BDF F5s most of which have been grounded due to obsolescence, no decision had ever been made relating to the type of aircraft that would replace the F5s.
“We are still searching for appropriate and affordable aircraft,” Kgathi said. Speaking to the Sunday Standard on Friday Kgathi denied there was ever any intention by the government to procure the Swedish fighter jets despite visits by himself and former president Ian Khama to the country in relation to the aircraft.
The Gripen deal was widely believed to be Khama’s idea. “All that talk about the impending purchase of Gripens was just unfounded rumors,” Kgathi said.
“I have also visited France and Korea in search for suitable aircraft and no decisions have ever been made about procuring Gripens. Both the Koreans and the Swedish have been here in Botswana to make presentations.”
The Minister however said his government remains committed to ensuring that BDF is provided with commensurate defense capability to support its Ground Forces, the Air Arm, Logistics, and all other functional units.
“Particular interest under this commitment relates to the procurement of air assets.”
Botswana’s obsession with military acquisition sparked a backlash following then President Khama’s visit to Sweden in 2017 to negotiate a multibillion arms deal involving the Gripens.
Swedish media outlets reported at the time that the two countries had already struck an arms deal and Khama was there to seal it.
Khama had joined Kgathi who was in Sweden for a whole week to familiarize himself with different models of Gripens. Speaking to the Sunday Standard this week Kgathi dismissed as unfounded, allegations that his refusal to authorize the procurement of the Gripens was the real cause of his broken relations with Khama.
Former President Festus Mogae was one of the biggest critics for the envisaged procurement of the Swedish fighter jets, calling Khama’s intentions to carry on with the multi-billion deal a boyhood dream.
“Ian Khama has just tried to fulfil his boyhood dream with Gripen fighter jets. The country does not need them. When Ian Khama was my vice president, he would fly our own aircraft,” he told Swedish media in 2018.
Talks of the planned acquisition of JAS Gripen C and D from Sweden began in 2016 and looked set to be completed when Khama visited Sweden the following year. Botswana recorded the third highest percentage increase in military spending between 2014 and 2017 under Khama’s tenure.
Military spending grew by 60 per cent in the same period as part of several military procurement programmes involving France and Switzerland, according to a 2018 Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) report.
Botswana was Africa’s biggest spender on French military hardware in 2016 as revealed by the French defense Ministry. As part of its military shopping spree, Botswana bought Ôé¼304.2 million (about P3.6 billion) worth of military hardware from France alone in the same year.
Botswana was not only the biggest customer of French military equipment, the report said, but its expenditure was five times the combined expenditure of Africa’s five biggest spenders on French military artillery.