How has the Botswana Defence Force (BDF) evolved and developed since its creation in 1977? What is its current state in terms of professionalism, capabilities and reputation? This article from African Security Review describes the evolution, role and key characteristics of Botswana’s military establishment. It argues that Botswana has created and developed a small but highly professional military establishment.
At independence in 1966, Botswana had no army, depending instead on a police force with roots in the colonial era. In 1977 it created a military, which has since become a capable, well-educated and self-disciplined force that attracts some of Botswana’s most talented young people. The BDF is the government’s institution of choice for addressing the most pressing security issues and has performed sterling service in regional peace operations. The BDF emphasises professionalism and service, and enjoys a high level of respect in the nation as a whole. Given the generally poor reputation of armies in Africa, this is a notable achievement.
In 1977 the BDF numbered only 600 men and lacked the training, equipment and experience to confront the forces of its belligerent neighbours. Since then the BDF has developed into a capable, professional defence force:
- In the 1980s, the BDF expanded to 6,000 personnel, acquired better equipment and began to develop productive relationships with foreign partners. However, acts of indiscipline and an inability to protect the border tarnished the BDF’s image.
- In the 1990s, the BDF grew to over 10,000 personnel and saw substantial increases in its firepower and mobility. It took part in peacekeeping operations throughout Africa and undertook new roles in Botswana itself.
- By 2004, the BDF had grown to just over 12,000 personnel and had an air arm capable of providing effective aerial support. The BDF is generously funded and has been able to realise many of its infrastructural and equipment priorities.
- Aspects of the BDF’s organisational culture, including discipline, education and competent leadership have enhanced BDF capabilities. Operations since the 1990s have brought good publicity and military service carries substantial prestige.
- Progressive economic policies and regular multiparty elections tend to mask ruling party dominance and a strong executive. Control of the military is concentrated in the office of the president, while the legislature plays little role in military oversight.
- The executive and the military have a peculiar obsession for secrecy. This applies not only to important issues of operations and equipment acquisitions, but also to mundane and innocuous matters. This secrecy is codified in law.
- Observers believe that essential security-related decisions are made by a small group of senior officials close to the president, with limited outside consultation. This inner circle includes the past and present commanders of the BDF.
- The benefits and prestige that accrue to the BDF are responsible for a degree of elitism, particularly in comparison to the police force. Use of the military for internal security may hinder the development of police capabilities and lead to controversy.
- There are unverifiable rumours of political factionalism in the BDF. However, the BDF officially discourages political activity within the force and whatever political differences may exist remain unseen to outsiders.