Gaborone – Opposition political parties in Botswana have petitioned the Swedish parliament and its government in an effort to block the government’s planned purchase of Gripen military aircraft from that country.
This comes at a time when observers have warned Botswana that its decision to procure the Gripen military planes could spark a regional arms race.
A coalition of opposition parties – the Umbrella for Democratic Change (UDC) — has written a letter to the Swedish parliament protesting Botswana government’s planned military spending.
The petition is titled “Botswana arms race in the midst of poverty, massive unemployment and social inequality”.
In a petition signed by UDC president Duma Boko, the parties together with civil society pleaded for the Swedish Parliament not to approve the sale of these fighter jets to the government of Botswana as it was not in the national interest to do so.
“Our position is that military spending must be kept to the barest minimum, and Botswana’s meagre resources should be used to build better infrastructure, such as water and electricity supply, in order attract foreign investment, reduce poverty, unemployment, social inequality and reward labour productivity, especially in the public sector,” writes Boko.
He further stated: “According to the more recent National Development Plan (April 2017-March 2023), Botswana is planning to spend about fifteen (15) percent of its GDP on what is labelled ‘Territorial integrity’. It is estimated that about half of this will go towards the acquisition of the ultra-modern Swedish mode Gripen JAS 39 fighter aircraft, manufactured by SAAB.”
Boko cited his “reliable sources” as saying that Botswana intends to acquire between eight and 12 Gripen military aircrafts.
“The Gripen JAS 39 aircraft is an ultra-modern and very advanced fighter, even by European standards that military aviation experts say the Botswana Defence Force neither needs nor can afford. Critics have questioned the wisdom of this intended military aircraft, especially fighter jets such as the Gripen, pointing to the BDF’s immediate needs in anti-poaching, border security patrols and peacekeeping operations on the continent,” said the opposition leader.
According to Boko, while nobody was against BDF modernisation, various experts argued for a multi-role lighter aircraft rather than the Gripen, even the T-50.
“But it is also important to note that not only the BDF in general, but its soldiers in particular, have much more relevant and even desperate needs. It is common cause that in many cases BDF men and women lack such basic supplies as new boots and socks, let alone decent accommodation, and live permanently in tents,” he said.
Boko added: “Our position is that military spending must be kept to the barest minimum, and Botswana’s meagre resources should be used to build better infrastructure, such as water and electricity supply, in order to attract foreign investment, reduce poverty, unemployment, social inequality and reward labour productivity, especially in the public sector.”
He said it was clear that Botswana as a country cannot afford “this kind of military spending”.
Boko argued that this was because the country faced serious challenges of unemployment, poverty and extremely poor social and physical infrastructure and poor services delivery.
“Botswana is not facing any direct external threat and the cost of purchasing and maintaining a fleet of high tech and advanced jet fighters is prohibitive as evidenced by the experience of South African Defence Force. This will be an ill-advised spending in the face of more compelling national priorities,” he said.
He said the impending revision of the SACU revenue-sharing formula would see Botswana’s share – its second largest revenue source after diamonds – decline significantly. Boko said diamond sales, which contributed a third of the country’s GDP, had lost their sparkle, declining by up to 30% in market value over two years, according to a Standard & Poor report published in December 2015. Boko said last year, Debswana, a 50/50 venture between the Botswana government and De Beers, closed its Damtshaa diamond mine, adding woes to an industry that has shed up to 30,000 jobs.
But Minister of Defence Justice and Security, Shaw Kgathi, has since 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.
He said the role of the BDF — in response to the changing global security landscape, which entailed cyber warfare, terrorism, and poaching that individually and collectively called for new strategies and readiness for responding to such threats at national, regional and international levels – had 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. A group of peace researchers from Uppsala University in Sweden have also 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.