It was one Saturday afternoon on December 15th 2019 when Qatar Airways finally made its debut landing in Botswana. This was a signature to the fact that they were here to mark the start of a long relationship with Botswana, a country under similar geographical circumstances.Qatar is a country that is still reeling under some diplomatic crisis as several Arab countries have either severed ties with her or downgraded relations. This is a total number of fifteen countries and Qatar is finding herself with her back against the wall. The country is accused of all sorts of trivial things but nonetheless the sanctions are biting.
According to the Chairman of the Qatar based National Human Rights Committee, the restrictions placed on Qatar are much worse than the Berlin Wall. Geographically we find ourselves in similar circumstances and we cannot run away from that fact. Botswana has to prepare for such inevitable circumstances in future and the current world crises caused by the Corona virus pandemic comes in as a great lesson to us.South Africa has developed its immaculate infrastructure over the years of racial segregation in that country. They knew very well that one day they would come under sanctions of some sort. What made them open to sanctions was their system of governance. In our case, what opens our country to future blockade may be our political stance which is often veering off from the Pan-Africanist approach common in this part of the world.Our neighgbours have often viewed us with suspicion and as a country we have done everything we can to satisfy their doubts. With such a view in place, our country needs to work so hard at preparing for the worst situation. In fact the current crises are sufficient training to show us how worse the situation can get at some point.Botswana needs to improve her air and land infrastructure.
For instance, the country is still solely dependent on a single rail line cutting across the eastern sector. The 888km railway was built by the British South Africa Company in 1890 and that still remains to be the heart throb of railway infrastructure in Botswana. The only significant changes to this line has been the addition of a 120 km piece that leads to Sua Town where the soda ash mines are found. The other piece is a 63 km stretch that leads to the copper and nickel town of Selebi Phikwe. Just recently the government has published tenders for another piece of rail that leads to Kazungula to link Botswana with Zambia on the new magnificent raid/road bridge over the confluence of the Chobe and the Zambezi rivers. This new rail line connects to the Sua Town line.While I highly recommend an expanded railway network that will include the Trans Kalahari rail and the Beira to Selebi Phikwe connection, there is an even greater need to develop our air transport capabilities. With the current Corona crisis, trucking goods into the country has become a very dangerous undertaking. The best way out for us is trucking by rail and air freight.About twenty years ago, Uganda took a very tough decision to reduce trucks from their roads.
This was aimed at reducing road traffic accidents which were mainly driven by the presence of trucks on the roads. This was an unpopular decision by government but it paid off handsomely. One diesel locomotive is able to carry along a load of about twenty four abnormal trucks while only consuming fuel for three trucks.Turning our reliance on rail transportation would actually help in reducing our energy import bill which is relatively high for a small economy such as ours. The shift to rail use will not only save the country money, but it will also help in reducing the risk of relying on truck drivers who are currently a threat to Botswana.Truck drivers have had the highest turnover when it comes to testing positive for Corona virus. They have complained about the treatment they receive at the border and have threatened Botswana through an industrial action, something that they did albeit at a small scale. A story carried on City Press (page 8, May 31st) of South Africa titled “Botswana Bites the Hand” is a good warning and we need to start working on new strategies to combat this national threat.Three years ago I made my point when discussing the need to develop our airlift capability as a country. My argument was that if we are able to afford different air assets, then we are capable of developing our military to be able to become our salvation in the hour of need. Currently BDF has a small fleet of three Lockheed C130 Hercules based at 10 Squadron, Thebephatshwa Air Base.
In fact there is an urgent need to increase them to twelve and an additional of a further two Airbus A400M transport planes. Logisticians will agree with me that with that size of a fleet we can easily satisfy the needs of this country for anything that needs to be flown in. By the time Qatar was slapped with crippling sanctions, they had already developed their aviation industry to be the finest in Middle East.Once we have taken out the need to import food into the country by measure of growing it ourselves, it will become much easier to fly in other necessities such as medical supplies and other related products. We are still a small population and reaching self-sufficiency in food with the level of moisture content in our soils is highly achievable.We certainly need to take a leaf from how Israel has grown its agriculture with poorer soils and with much less moisture content. They have a population of 8.6 million and this is almost four times the population of Botswana. They are equally at odds with their whole neighbourhood. Through air capability, Qatar was able to set up a state of the art dairy industry within two months and became a net exporter of dairy products.