Gaborone – Botswana opposition parties and the civil society are racing against time to stop the planned purchase of multi-million pula Gripen fighter jets from Sweden by the government, which observers say is likely to trigger an arms race in the region.
On Wednesday, coalition of opposition parties, Umbrella for Democratic Change (UDC) president Duma Boko, revealed that they have informed the Swedish Embassy in Gaborone that they would demand all information relating to the envisaged purchase of Gripen fighter jets by Botswana.
Reports indicate that the fighter jets will cost the southern African country 14-16 billion pula ($1,6 billion).
President Ian Khama has made it clear that Botswana would go ahead with the procurement of the Gripen fighter jets, dismissing calls to stop multi-procurement that is likely to spark an arms race within the region.
Boko said following a letter that they had written to the Swedish parliament protesting the Botswana government’s planned military spending, they decided to make a follow up by engaging the Swedish Ambassador to Botswana, Cecilia Julin, explaining to her their intentions.
Boko said Swedish law provides that once a third party demands information, officials who are the custodians of that information must respond within a reasonable timeframe, failing which those officials would be prosecuted by that country’s information ombudsman.
“We have told the Swedish ambassador that we will be invoking those provisions of the Swedish law to demand information relating to this particular transaction. We will be furnished with information within a reasonable time because Swedish law says information that is not classified must be furnished,” he said.
Boko added: “That information, in respect of this transaction, we will get from Sweden. Here they will not give us that information; the aim here is to conceal information, they never tell the truth. But there is a way to get that information and that is approaching Swedish authorities.”
Boko said they would deal directly with the Swedish ministry of defence.
“We will ask for this information and we have assured the ambassador that we will do, and when we do the obligation is on the ministry to give us that information,” he said.
“We just wanted to let the nation know that we are still hot on the heels of this transaction and others. So we made it clear to the Swedish ambassador that we will invoke those Swedish provisions in their laws to lay our hands on this transaction.”
The petition titled “Botswana arms race in the midst of poverty, massive unemployment and social inequality” was written early this year by UDC but it has since emerged that Swedish authorities are yet to respond to it.
In the petition signed by Boko, the parties together with civil society, pleaded for the Swedish parliament not to approve the sale of the fighter jets to the government of Botswana, as it was not in the national interest to do so.
He also warned that since the country did not need to buy of such expensive military equipment, the deal has the potential to trigger an arms race in SADC.
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 SADC region.
He said the role of the Botswana Defence Force — 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.
Early this year, international peace researchers warned Botswana to reconsider its decision to purchase the Gripen fighter jets from Swedish manufacturers, saying the move could trigger a regional arms race.
A group of peace researchers from Uppsala University in Sweden 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.
The researchers argued that 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.