Saturday, December 3, 2022

“Hands off the Botswana Defence Force”

Let me set off by pointing out that the military is constitutionally subordinate and receives orders from the civilian leadership.

However, in a democracy such as ours institutions have to operate within the boundaries of their respective roles. Whereas the State President is Commander in Chief of the armed forces, such power is rarely exercised except in situations of war.

Such powers give the President exclusive control over the army particularly in situations of war but the President must exercise extreme restraint in their invocation. Of course it is not uncommon in Africa for the President to command the army to shoot protesters especially in those countries where political instability is fashionable. Botswana’s former Presidents have been very modest in invoking such powers. The only instance I recall clearly was in 1994 when former President Sir Ketumile Masire commanded the army to shoot and kill protesters during the riots over the suspected ritual murder of Segametsi Mogomotsi. Perhaps the former Presidents avoided getting carried away by the excitement that accompanies the invocation of the powers. Obviously the prospects of unleashing weapons of mass destruction on unarmed civilians who use their bare hands to protect their heads could be exciting particularly if the scenes are captured by television cameras and shown live to the President as he seats on his state sponsored lounge suits. Fortunately, Botswana has not had bloodthirsty leaders and this partly explains why our army has been confined to its core business of protecting the nation. Whereas the civilian leadership has constitutional superiority over the military, it has always respected the territorial space of the military.

In return, the military accepted and pledged its loyalty to the constitutional authority of the civilian leadership. This has over the years cultivated trust and respect for each other’s operational spheres. In spite of the fact that the Botswana Defence Force (BDF) is under the Office of the President, administrative responsibility in terms of its daily operations has been accordingly ceded to the BDF high command while the Defence Council provides overall strategic guidance. This set up has made it possible for Botswana to have a highly disciplined, professional, competent, capable and visionary army that is comfortable with a civilian leadership. The military does not feel threatened by the civilian leadership in the same way as the civilian leadership does not feel threatened by the army. This scenario explains why Batswana love and feel sincerely proud of their army. This also explains why our soldiers have kept a safe distance from politics. Let me however point out that at times military takeovers are accentuated by very small things such as in instances where the civilian leadership use brutal force to quell incessant complaints by the public about corruption and other ills or where political processes have become ineffective due to such factors as constant rigging of elections, appointments based on family and other connections instead of merit and so forth. Luckily, Botswana has avoided such pitfalls. Whereas there are instances of corruption and patronage, such have not been on a vast scale to push the army to the extreme. However, of late there have been instances that are slowly brewing up and presenting the army with reasonable excuses to move more closer to politics. Professional armies hate it most when civilians unjustifiably enter their space. They hate it most when the civilian leadership meddles in their internal affairs because they consider it as overstepping their role much against the doctrine of separation of roles and responsibilities. As I said earlier, in a democracy institutions have to function within the boundaries of their respective roles. So that media reports that the state President played a key role in the forced retirement of Major General Pius Mokgware are not only worrying but scary even to a casual observer. The authorities as usual will conveniently deny that he has been forced out but the manner in which the General was retired has all the hallmarks of President Khama’s machinations ÔÇô an exact replica of his mischievous scheming that has been used against top civil servants who were sacked in the most undignified manners. The President may have the power to sack anybody for even the flimsiest of reasons and he has excelled in this regard with little resistance largely because the President’s decisions cannot be challenged in the courts. While it appears that we have accepted this wicked provision of our constitution, we nonetheless wish the President to stay away from the army. He may have been an army General years gone by, and they may have hero-worshiped him, but that was then.

Times have moved on since he gave up his uniform. He cannot claim that he still commands religious respect in the barracks because there is nothing like permanent loyalty in the real world. The President can humiliate and abuse civil servants but we plead with him to ‘let sleeping dogs lie’ in the barracks. Due to differing cultures between the army and the civil service, the reaction of the army to forced retirement may certainly be acerbic with far reaching implications on the country’s political stability. I submit that the army would not allow itself to be humiliated and bullied by the civilian leadership even if such leadership comprises of the army’s former commanders. Using constitutional powers to interfere in the affairs of the army is extremely risky especially when such interference is done to serve personal interests. In the short term, such a situation could breed indiscipline and compromise the commitment and professionalism of the army. In the long term, it could breed a politically infested army that salivates on prospects for political power and governance and we would have successfully groomed armed power mongers.

Ordinarily, encroaching into the army’s space is bound to create tension, suspicion and mistrust which could eventually metamorphose into a national security threat. It is worth noting that our army hardly ever questioned, at least publicly, decisions taken by the civilian leadership even those that hurt the military and this is not because they felt powerless but rather because they trusted that decisions taken are taken in the interest of the nation. Reports that the retired General was highly competent, well-trained and capable creates suspicions that the architect of his demise sought to consolidate their hold on the army by weakening those viewed as a threat to their sphere of influence and power base. It is suspected that they are replacing perceived rivals with lap-dog Generals. This weeding out or the purging of capable Generals could create insecurity among the army’s high command as it has happened in the civil service.

George Shaw has said that ‘a government that robs Peter to pay Paul can always depend on the support of Paul’. However, I posit that at some later stage the same government (that Paul supports so dearly) may have to rob Paul to pay James. Ultimately, everyone becomes insecure and the only viable redress would be to confront the government head-on and God knows what. The other possibility could be a mutiny orchestrated by retired military officers who could mobilize and rally behind their shamed colleague and make demands similar to those that were made by Barata-Phathi, a faction of the ruling Botswana Democratic Party (BDP) that has since formed a breakaway party. In the likely event that the dissidents get sympathy from the barracks, this tiny discontent could become a full blown rebellion. Our army has never been skeptical of the civilians’ capacity to provide the quality of leadership that can keep the country afloat even when it is known that many key positions in government are occupied by politicians who have not done a day’s honest work and who have lived off inherited life.

But it should be borne in mind that the army also has responsibility to citizens such that when the civilian leadership thrives on grotesque brutality and harassment of citizens, the men in camouflage jackets would have an excuse to take of the reins.


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