Shattering the stereotype: Botswana’s military millionaires

The unearthing of Botswana’s decades-long military build-up under President Ian Khama, as Tshireletso Motlogelwa and Matteo Civillini do in ‘Military millionaires’, challenged superficial and comfortable assumptions about the country and its leadership. Botswana was known as happy. Not too poor, it was given epithets like the ‘Switzerland of Africa’ and even had a progressive multiracial legend to hold on to: the romance between homegrown prince Seretse Khama and the English woman Ruth Williams, recently made into a Hollywood movie. Tourists, for their part, focused on desert and wildlife, which in many a travel brochure includes the San ‘Bushmen’ people. ‘Military millionaires’ shows, among other things, the military build-up, started by President Ian Khama, the son of the first president who was elected in 2008, and the rise of a securocracy – with the diamond-based funding by multinational De Beers – which would protect the wealth of the ruling dynasty, terrorise and jail critical journalists, kill protesting students and be linked to the deaths of several politicians and businessmen standing in its way. It is by working together across borders that Tshireletso Motlogelwa of Botswana’s Business Weekly and Review and Matteo Civillini of Italy’s investigative reporting project IRPI succeeded in shattering the stereotype and attracted international attention to the rise of this securocracy. By publishing on the African Investigative Publishing Collective’s ZAM online platform and in Swiss online publication Sept.info – Switzerland being a major supplier of Khama’s military – as well as in the local newspaper, they sent a signal to Western countries that had been supplying Khama’s army and to their own rulers that their behaviour would no longer go unnoticed.

Their collaboration meant that Civillini, who was in the UK at the time, could access UK foreign affairs ministry documents and company registry papers that were inaccessible in Botswana, where the government had ensured that vital arms trade documents could not be traced. Changes have certainly taken place in Botswana since the story was published in 2016. Elections were won in April 2018 by Mokgweetsi Masisi, who is now the president and is not linked to the security establishment. His election was preceded by extensive debate in the country around the dismantling of the power networks of his predecessor, a debate that is ongoing and, arguably, has already influenced the new president. Masisi has fired Khama’s right-hand man, former chief intelligence head Isaac Kgosi, and there are indications that some of Khama’s envisaged military acquisition projects will be changed or stopped. It would be too much to attribute these developments solely to one story. But the Business Weekly and Review’s international linkage on this particular one has helped to boost its role as a leading news source in Botswana itself. Its courage and professional investigative journalism has also encouraged other media houses – together with concerned citizens and pressure groups – to stand up to demand a return to democratic rule, less expenditure on arms deals and the security service, and an end to Khama’s authoritarian and nepotistic governing style.

Further reading

Motlogelwa, Tshireletso and Civillini, Matteo. 2016. ‘Military Millionaires’. ZAM
magazine. www.zammagazine.com/chronicle/chronicle-20/317-militarymillionaires,
accessed on 18 August 2018.
Motlogwelwa, Tshireletso. 2015. ‘The Diamond Connection’. ZAM magazine. Available
at: www.zammagazine.com/chronicle/chronicle-13/225-the-diamond-connection,
accessed on 18 August 2018.

Military Millionaires

Tshireletso Motlogelwa & Matteo Civillini, ZAM magazine, 31 March 2016 In 1981, a British High Commissioner warned in a letter to his superiors in London that the Botswana Defence Force (BDF) had become a ‘monster absorbing more of the country’s national wealth than can be afforded’. As could be gleaned from the first sentence in the letter – ‘I am sure you will think that by now I am paranoid about the BDF’ – his superiors didn’t take High Commissioner William Turner’s concerns very seriously. The international image of Botswana was then, as it is now, that of a peaceful, friendly country … Reports that a new ‘monstrous’ army – gobbling up close to 4% of the country’s GDP in 1980 – had been set up because of ‘pressure’ from President Ian Khama ‘through his mother [Ruth, wife of the founding president Sir Seretse Khama],’ as the High Commissioner’s letter said, did not fit with that narrative and were duly ignored. There were arguments to support heavy spending on the military in 1981. Up to 1977, Botswana had never had an army, mainly because President Seretse Khama had held a steady focus on development and preferred to spend on health and education. But in the late 1970s … apartheid South Africa and white Rhodesia had become a threat to the country’s borders. However, even though the relatively high budgets allocated to the army during those years can be understood, the need for the specific acquisitions was never explained either to parliament or public. Parliamentarians at the time ‘did not even have the required basic knowledge of defence needs to mount any type of criticism against the spending,’ confides a former Cabinet Minister. And military expert Dan Henk expressed doubts that there was ever even a point in trying to match powerful South Africa’s army. ‘Botswana’s military improvements could never match its neighbour’s might, nor could the BDF [Botswana Defence Force] deter attacks against suspected insurgent targets,’ he wrote in African Security Review in 2004, illustrating this with the example of the ‘brazen, large-scale South African raid in June 1985 against African National Congress (ANC) targets in (Botswana’s capital) Gaborone that left six people wounded and twelve dead’.

they were soon up to close to 4% of GDP again in 1998 for no apparent reason. In 2014 military expenditure fell to 1.9%, but the country was still the 10th highest military spender in Africa, ranking 37 on the global ‘big spender’ list – on par with Turkey. In late 2015, Botswana taxpayers would fork out over US$75m in a ‘stimulus package’ for the purchase of six new fighter jets with accompanying systems. Botswana’s numerous military purchases over the past four decades have enriched two parties in particular: the mainly European arms manufacturers that sold the tanks, jets, armoured personnel carriers, guns, ammunition, missiles and sundry spare parts: Alvis Vickers (UK), Swiss Pilatus, French Thales, Israeli Elbit and German Steyr-Daimler and the Khama family, in particular twins Anthony and Tshekedi Khama, brothers of current President Ian Khama. The lead in this build-up was taken by Ian Khama himself, first as deputy and later as full commander of the Botswana Defence Force. In tandem with their big brother’s career, by 1989, Ian’s younger brothers, twins Anthony and Tshekedi – the latter is now also Minister for the Environment, Wildlife and Tourism – had established their company Seleka Springs as the dominant agency for military acquisitions for the country.

For decades, the detail of most of the Khama brothers’ contracts and suppliers contracting parties remained secret and out of the grasp of the Botswana public. But finally, in March 2015, opposition parliamentarian Pius Mokgware asked Minister of Defence Shaw Kgathi to state the companies which Seleka Springs represented as agents since 1989 for the supply of goods and services to Botswana Defence Force (BDF) and the Botswana Police Services (BPS). Mokgware further wanted to know details of the contracts and amounts awarded to the companies, as well as the amounts of money Seleka Springs had received. At first Minister Kgathi denied that the Khama brothers at Seleka Springs had ever been awarded tenders from the BDF between 1989 and 1998, the period whilst Ian Khama was in charge of the army. (It was then that, for the first time in Botswana history, a sitting Minister was called a liar by the parliament’s deputy speaker, who pointed out that a former minister had already confirmed just that.) Kgathi was made to retract his statement and, a few months later, indeed produced a list of contracts and their value. It was a very short list, though, and the total value of the contracts quoted – around US$10m – was almost laughably small in view of the fact that SIPRI’s arms trade register shows several known Seleka Springs deals as amounting to about US$100 million. The concentration of military power in the presidency, presidential brothers and a few other anointed friends and relatives has accompanied the growth of a Khama-led securocracy in Botswana. In 2008, when Ian Khama was sworn in as President, he immediately promoted his private secretary Isaac Kgosi to head the newly established Directorate for Intelligence and Security (DIS). Khama also gave DIS agents firearms as well as wide-ranging arrest and detention powers. The agency soon became notorious for using these powers to suppress opposition: in 2009, striking students were abducted, threatened and intimidated; twelve ‘suspects’ were shot in broad daylight.

Subsequent extrajudicial killings were not so much about social protest, but centred more on corruption, scandal and extortion around Ian Khama and his circle of close friends and relatives. Still in 2009, former Khama friend John Kalafatis was shot in public on the streets of Gaborone. It was alleged that he had tried to blackmail ‘high profile’ individuals with an incriminating videotape. In 2010, state diamond mining company Debswana’s managing director Louis Nchindo’s body was found, eaten by cheetahs, in the bush: he had allegedly threatened to lift the lid on a diamond-funding scandal from which the ruling party had benefited. On 30 July 2014, opposition leader Gomolemo Motswaledi died when his car rolled over about 90 kilometres south of Gaborone. Botswana police released a statement pronouncing it a traffic accident, but members of the opposition were and are convinced that this was an assassination. And on 6 May 2015 the offices of the Botswana Gazette were raided by Botswana government officials with an urgent warrant to search and confiscate any material used for the publication of a recent story about individuals who had used their influence in the ruling party to secure oil contracts. In the same year, President Ian Khama started to visit suppliers for new BDF jets in South Korea and Sweden. His engagement on these last deals is still ongoing.