Challenged by a Swedish journalist on whether the money that Botswana plans to spend to buy fighter jets from her country couldn’t be better spent used on more pressing social developmental needs, President Lieutenant General Ian Khama sought to demonstrate how transparent the whole procurement process is.
In response, Khama said that ultimately parliament has the final say on the matter. The journalist made clear the fact she was relaying the views of “critics in your country.” Khama had a message for those critics.
“Those critics are in parliament and that is the opportunity that they have in a democracy to be able to raise their concerns and try to reverse any of our procurement plans,” Khama said at a press conference he addressed with the Swedish prime minister, Stefan L├Âfven last week.
By “those critics”, Khama was referring to the Umbrella for Democratic Change MPs who are vehemently opposed to billions of pula being used to purchase fighter jets. UDC president, Duma Boko, who also doubles as the Leader of the Opposition, has petitioned the Swedish government over this planned purchase.
To a foreign press that obviously knows very little about what actually happens in Botswana, what Khama said made perfect sense and there was no follow-up on what the UDC effort to reverse the procurement plans would come to. The situation is not as cut-and-dried as the president portrayed it. In a legislative body where UDC MPs are in the minority, their effort will not yield any positive results. Only the ruling party’s backbench can reverse this purchase because it has numerical strength. However, the backbench is itself constrained through edicts of the Botswana Democratic Party parliamentary caucus where MPs are instructed on how to vote on bills and motions that come to the floor of parliament. The backbench doesn’t generate legislation and as ruling party MPs themselves have stated in the past, all they do is “rubberstamp” what the executive has decided. In this case, the executive has decided to spend P5 billion on fighter jets and no BDP MP can publicly oppose this plan.
Another question that Khama had to tackle was in relation to whether it wouldn’t be cheaper to buy drones than fighter jets. His response was most unusual because for an issue this serious, it dripped with sarcasm. Khama suggested that it would actually be cheaper use “bows and arrows” than drones.
A former army commander and current commander-in-chief of the Botswana Defence Force, Khama brings credibility on issues of national security. However, there is another army general in the Botswana parliament who, having been part of the high command until not too long ago, also happens to know an awful lot about what Botswana needs to buy to protect itself. Speaking in parliament last year, Major General Pius Mokgware blew off the idea that BDF needs fighter jets which typically come at great cost. Mokgware, who is an opposition MP, proposed that instead of buying jets, the government should buy attack helicopters which can do as good a job and more importantly, are much cheaper.
If the Swedish journalists did read Boko’s petition, they chose not to answer what in Botswana would have been the first question on the list. Quoting extensive local media reports, the petition says that Khama stands to personally benefit from the purchase of the jets because a company he is associated with through his family (Seleka Springs) has been buying military equipment and materials for the army. With only six journalists attending a press conference addressed by two heads of state, it doesn’t look like the Swedish press takes that much interest in Botswana.