By Mpho Tebele
GABORONE – International peace researchers have warned Botswana to reconsider its decision to purchase Gripen fighter jets from Swedish manufacturers, saying the move could trigger a regional arms race.
However, Botswana’s Minister of Defence, Justice and Security, Shaw Kgathi, defended the country’ s high military expenditure, following accusations by the opposition that it could spark an arms race in the Southern African Development Community (SADC) region.
Now a group of peace researchers from Uppsala University in Sweden have joined the chorus in condemning Botswana for acquiring a fleet of advanced fighter aircraft saying this may trigger a regional arms race, with other neighbouring countries likely to follow suit, with detrimental consequences for everyone but the arms dealers.
At present, the researchers observed, Botswana was not facing any direct external threat and it was unclear why huge sums of money must be invested in the acquisition of advanced fighter jets.
“Whereas the need to protect the country’s tourism industry, combat poaching and monitor the flow of refugees previously were indicated as reasons, none of these problems can be solved with advanced fighter jets,” the researchers said.
The Swedish researchers further observed that the arms deal with Botswana would worsen economic and democratic development in the country, undermine regional security and mar Sweden’ s reputation in Southern Africa.
They also condemned the campaigns by the manufacturers of the Gripen fighter jet, Saab, in Botswana, saying the move was in direct conflict with Sweden’s foreign policy goals.
The researchers said last year a high-ranking Swedish delegation, led by Defence Minister Peter Hultqvist, toured Botswana.
According to peace researchers, Johan Brosché, Kristine Höglund and Sebastian van Baalen, Botswana is facing major economic problems. Over a fifth of its population of two million people lives in abject poverty and subsists on less than two US dollars a day, despite the country’s large diamond resources. They said that the billions to be invested in fighter jets would undermine efforts to curb unemployment, and fight drought and corruption.
But Kgathi defended the high expenditure by the Botswana Defence Force (BDF). He said the role of the BDF in response to the changing global security landscape, which entails cyber warfare, terrorism, and poaching that individually and collectively call for new strategies and readiness to respond to such threats at national, regional and international levels – has been evolving accordingly.
“It is against this background that the need for a well-resourced and well-trained defence force, with a high state of readiness to defend the nation remains a priority,” he said. According to Kgathi, the BDF has since 2015/16 embarked on the acquisition of key defence equipment, which comprises military hardware and mobility assets that would serve to improve its effectiveness and capability.
“With the evolving security landscape, security threats have increased. These threats include, among many others, border security, cybercrime, internal and transnational organised crime, poaching and terrorism. In order to address them, collaborative effort among relevant stakeholders has been considered paramount and essential,” he said.
Kgathi said the BDF’s commitment to providing national security was premised on a number of initiatives that would be undertaken over the coming years.
“These will include development of modern and effective capabilities to deter potential aggressors, implementation of effective counter-terrorism strategies, effective and efficient operations in cyberspace, as well as provision of aid to civil authority in conducting of humanitarian and disaster relief,” he said.
As its strategic policy objectives, Kgathi said, the BDF intends to bridge the existing security and capability gaps through the acquisition of defence systems, communication systems and mobility assets, which will enable the BDF to undertake operations that are both defensive and offensive in nature; and to undertake training necessary for responding to the hybrid of security threats.
“The expectation is that such efforts will assist in improving the BDF’s operational capability and enhance mobilisation time, which is a key element in the efficiency and effectiveness of any army and in promoting the morale of the workforce,” he said.