Thursday, April 25, 2024

The Botswana Defence Force should not become a military wing of the BDP

In almost all proper democracies, the military is subordinate to civilian government. This is so in spite of the fact that in most cases the military is a well resourced powerful institution that always receives monumental patronage from the political leadership. For instance, on a yearly basis the Botswana Defense Force (BDF) gets a bigger chunk of public monies, a scenario that makes many soldiers believe that theirs is an untouchable institution that deserves special treatment. Whereas the civilian leadership in Botswana has constitutional superiority over the military, it has always respected the territorial space of the military. In return, the military pledged its loyalty to the constitutional authority of the civilian leadership. Suffice it to state that since the military is subordinate to the civilian leadership, it has a duty to obey instructions, legitimate or unlawful, from the civilian leadership, in particular, the state president who happens to be the commander-in-chief of the army.

For instance, in 1994 the then president Ketumile Masire commanded the army to shoot and kill protesters during the riots over the suspected ritual murder of Segametsi Mogomotsi. What this tells us is that whilst Botswana has one of the highly disciplined and professional army, it is possible that those who have the power to assign it to perform some tasks may at some point in time use such powers to pursue personal interests. To the extent that the military gets instructions from the political leadership, it is by and large a political institution and thus is undoubtedly a part of the political order. The BDF Act confers unlimited powers on the President of the republic to among others assign to the army any task that he/she deems fit. This is in addition to a section of the Act that gives the President power over regular and reserve forces. On the basis of the provisos, it can be argued that when the state president appoints the head of the army, his decision is largely informed by political considerations. It must be remembered that the Botswana Democratic Party (BDP) top brass has on many occasions repeatedly reminded everyone that they do not run the country with the opposition. Thus, the Head of State as the appointing authority may not desire to appoint a commander who is sympathetic to his (Head of State) nemesis because, to a greater extent, the ruling party uses the army to run the affairs of the state. Over time this style of recruitment based on a network of patronage ensures that there are very strong ties between the military top brass and the state president who also dabbles as the BDP president.

Loyalty by the military to the state president also translates into loyalty to his political organisation, the BDP. At the risk of over-simplicity, it can thus be inferred that this symbiotic relationship has diluted the professional integrity of the BDF by making it look like a military wing of the BDP. It is no surprise therefore that a lot of generals have been given top positions at strategic state departments. The rationale is to formalize, solidify and seal these strong ties between the army and the ruling government in a manner that keeps away opposition parties from befriending or cohabitating with the army. Appointment of senior officers is therefore an important area for patronage. Zimbabwean president, Robert Mugabe has done this with the precision of an experienced top class gynecologist which explains why army chiefs have been unapologetic in their public support for him. One Brigadier recently told the Independent newspaper that the Zimbabwean army could not be separated from the ZANU PF. The recent impasse between the Government of Botswana and public sector unions over a salary hike demands us to pause and introspect on some of our key institutions whose role and neutrality in politics has been taken for granted. Whereas the BDF top brass has vehemently denied it, it is widely believed that the BDF has been put on red alert so much so that ordinary leave applications have been frozen to ensure that the officers are on active standby. Ordinarily, their readiness wouldn’t raise any eyebrows since the military has been called upon on numerous occasions to assist in maintenance of law and order and other such civilian friendly interventions like helping in emergencies occasioned by natural disasters.

However, recent protests in the Arab world that have sown seeds of regime change the world over, require us to critically appraise the extent to which the BDF pledges loyalty to the nation rather than the state president or his political party. The rationale of such an appraisal is not only intended to question the neutrality or professionalism of the BDF but also to interrogate its close ties with the ruling BDP and implications of such on party politics and possible change in government. Clearly circumstances are changing and so are institutional relationships hence the need to constantly evaluate our key institutions to ensure that they remain accountable, relevant and credible. What signals do we get when the military is placed on standby during a peaceful and legal strike that could be effectively patrolled by an untrained ageing night watchman armed only with his walking stick? Who between President Khama and me has the power to command the army to warm up and put on combat gear? Certainly the BDF has adopted high moral and professional standards and it would be cruel to dismiss them as political quacks of the BDP but the influx of former army commanders and generals into the executive has had a major impact on civil-military dynamics in Botswana with the potential to erode public trust in our army. The conduct of the state president and his deputy’s terrorist language ÔÇôtwo former commanders of the BDF who have successfully cultivated a cult personality in the army- and their brazen dislike for open dialogue is not compatible with the expectations of people in a free society and is a litmus test for the army’s professionalism and loyalty to the collective than the individual. It is common knowledge that armies, as guardians and the sole power of political regimes, have been used to thwart legitimate political change in many African societies. President Khama has wronged a good too many people in his own party, in the public service, in the army and entirely everywhere including powerful men beyond our borders. He is thus alive to the fact that far too many people are baying for his blood and could use the civil servants’ strike to bring him down. He is certainly engulfed by fear and insecurity hence his decision to put the army on red alert during a peaceful and legal strike by mature peace loving government workers whose only weapon has been liberation songs laced with humorous lyrics. It is common knowledge that the current Head of State and commander-in-chief of the armed forces was at some point commander of the BDF and so is the Vice president of the Republic of Botswana. These two – the first and second citizens still command considerable respect at the barracks to the extent that junior soldiers still treat them as their immediate bosses. If you factor in the reality that Botswana’s current political system is modelled on personal leadership of president Khama, the whole scenario becomes grotesque. Quite simply, the state has become the exclusive property of the president who has unlimited powers in entirely every sphere of society. Bearing in mind that military power is at the disposal of the all too powerful state president, by virtue of him being the commander-in-chief, and that state institutions have become subordinate to him, the future of Botswana looks completely bleak.

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