Monday, September 21, 2020

Military involvement in civil policing is risky

The sight of armed soldiers in joint patrols with the police is now our daily bread. This domestic law enforcement role of the military commenced a while ago and is always justified by soaring crime that translates into a threat to national security.

This has set a precedence that has been maintained and is now being “intensified” under President Khama (2008 State of the Nation Address).

Military policing commenced as a necessary evil to assist the police to specifically combat violent crime, especially by sophisticated and often heavily armed criminals. The soldiers were initially tasked to complement efforts of the police ostensibly because the police are under-resourced and, therefore, have insufficient means to tackle violent crime. Thus, military policing started as a short-term measure to enable the police to grow in sophistication through the allocation of additional resources.

Unfortunately, the strengthening of the police has frustratingly lagged behind and remains a pipe dream. This has enabled the army to justify and intensify their involvement in civilian policing. Today military policing is not limited to serious crimes that have the potential to disturb the security of the nation, but covers such trivial areas as enforcing liquor regulations, council bye-laws and so forth.

It is an indisputable fact that domestic law enforcement role of the military has assisted the police in combating crimes of all kinds. Yet, as the role of the military in civil policing continues to expand unabated and unquestioned, there is a danger that this could ultimately lead to a militarized police force.

In their joint operations with the police, soldiers always outnumber police agents and in many occasions equipment used belong to the army. In many instances the leader of the patrol team is a soldier, if not by rank then at least by the mere fact of being an armed. Realistically therefore the army is the boss in an operational area that naturally belongs to the police. The military dictate terms and conditions of patrols and the handling of suspects.

It wouldn’t be surprising if very soon armored vehicles are used in patrols. And people feeling besieged by criminal gangs regularly make calls for increased military involvement in civil policing. For a nation that is increasingly agitated with crime and illegal immigration, the call for increased military policing may not be unreasonable after all.

But military involvement in civil policing undermines our freedoms and basic principles of Botswana tradition, and most importantly, it even undermines the national security it is supposed to safeguard.

History informed me that Hitler used the military to secure public order through intimidation and violence. In Botswana crime is the catch phrase that is used to intimidate and justify wide-reaching attacks on democratic rights in the same way as terror is in the US.

Commenting on the proposed AFRICOM, Lyakhovich (2007) said that ‘American troops attract terrorists like magnet attracts metal’. In the context of this discussion, it could be said that the military often attracts controversy and negative publicity like magnet attracts metal in which case then such negative publicity may tarnish the good image of the police leading to loss of public confidence and support.
Military involvement in civil policing will in the long term weaken the police by making the authorities rest on their laurels believing that though the police are indisputably under-resourced, they are ably assisted by a competent and disciplined army hence there should be no need to accord the police a special dispensation in relation to resource allocation to enable them to attain self-sufficiency in modern equipment. Invariably, this will tend to justify allocation of more resources to the army and perpetuate the status quo.

Additionally, it is not natural for armed forces to do routine police work in a normal democracy. The deployment of armed soldiers on the streets somewhat makes them ‘taste’ power and this gradually culminates in a dangerous continuation of military expansion into the civilian arena. Already we have as many former army generals in the Cabinet and a host of serving military personnel in the civil service. This is a bad precedence and could just be a step toward a permanent military presence in the civilian arena. Experience shows that once they are in, it is difficult to take them out.
By depending too much on them, we are almost telling them that they are the backbone of the country’s national security and safety which of course gives them a big brother mentality and once they reach this point, they will have an easy task of getting what they want by arm twisting the government (because we heavily rely on them for policing, humanitarian relief, disaster response and management, entertainment and the like).

I am already inclined to believe that in their joint patrols with the police, they call the shots after all they are always in the majority and boast of modern high-tech equipment such as night goggles and infrared radar. In other ways, while doing routine police work, they are not under the control and command of the Commissioner of Police for operational purposes. They account to their impulses.
Soldiers and the police are indoctrinated with radically different values. For instance soldiers on battlefields are expected to exterminate the nation’s enemy by any and all means necessary. They do not aim to subdue the enemy like the police do. It is therefore likely that soldiers doing routine policing work could conceptualize crime prevention as a battlefield where the most viable option is to annihilate the enemy (suspect). In the process of battling with the enemy the military is not obliged to obey the country’s constitution or even acquire a veneer of civilization. Their brutality and stone-heartedness is acceptable. Were the army to deal with criminals in a heavy handed manner, it is likely criminals will harden and adopt ruthless and brutal methods of attack.

The military seems to have an inherent abusive behavior which is explicitly mirrored by the horror images from the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq manned by US troops with pictures of prisoners being forced to simulate sodomy, male prisoners being stripped naked and having their male organs assaulted by female military guards.

In Botswana, we have a well documented case involving five (5) Botswana Defense Force personnel convicted for having indecently assaulted some Zimbabweans by forcing them to have sex with each other without their consent. The military also has an inherent inclination towards secrecy on the pretext that they deal with national security matters, which could lead to abuse of power and undue torture of suspects.

It is gratifying that up to this point in time Botswana is having a relatively disciplined army, but there is no guarantee that this attribute shall be maintained for a long time to come.

As patrols teams become ever bored by this routine and dire lack of action, it is likely they will begin to use suspects as play things for amusement and perhaps even take pictures of their brutality to treasure them (as souvenirs).

This essay has shown that while prevailing circumstances dictate a rush to law enforcement through military policing, it is nonetheless a big risk. It is like placing evil people in a tranquil place hoping that the tranquil environment will transform them but instead having evil triumph over humanity.

I have opined that military policing does not enhance security and democracy but in the contrary it creates fertile grounds for sophisticated and brutal criminality. Deploying armed troops to do civil policing has the potential to destabilize the country by creating a war mentality. Precisely, an intensified deployment of soldiers for civil policing will not help Botswana attain its Vision 2016 goal of a Safe and Secure nation.

On the basis on this brief, the government is implored to put in place an elaborate plan of action that will ensure that the police are sufficiently resourced and equipped so that they are competently positioned to prevent the commission of crime without relying on the army for simple logistical support. This plan of action will also elaborate a gradual phase out of military policing of the civilian arena.


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Sunday Standard September 20 – 26

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