Building vibrant and tolerant democracies
Lauded as a ‘shining example of democracy’, Botswana is one of the few countries in Africa that has never experienced a military coup. I recently studied a paper by Dr Naison Ngoma, a senior researcher at Institute of Security Studies in South Africa titled, Coups and Coup Attempts in Africa: Is there a missing link? In the paper, Ngoma talks about how Botswana, Namibia and Mauritius have never had military coups or even coup attempts – although he doesn’t go into detail about why not.
I may not know the reasons why Mauritius and Namibia had never had military coups, but I think I know why the same is true of Botswana.
Some people have speculated and arrived at the untested conclusion that the country has not had a single coup because of our stable democracy. They argue that in a stable democracy everyone understands his or her role – with the army knowing that their job is to protect the country while politics is for the politicians. Perhaps.
Others say it is due to the fact that the Batswana hate the thought of war or even confrontation and so Botswana is a peaceful country. And maybe they have a point.
But I think the real reason is that Botswana’s political leaders understood the potential danger from the military and sought to keep it under tight political civilian control from the very start. Indeed – and this might be one of the most important factors – after gaining independence from Britain in 1966, the Botswana government did not immediately set up a military force. In fact it took ten full years until the Botswana Defence Force (BDF) unit was established.
According to McGowan, 75 percent of the military coups attempts in Africa between 1966 and 1970 were successful. I believe that our independence leaders saw this happening and decided that it was too risky to set up a military force that could later topple them.
And when they finally decided to form the BDF in 1976, I am sure that the president and his advisors must have asked themselves the following questions, ‘Who should lead the BDF?’ ‘Who can be trusted?’
And who did President Seretse Khama choose to lead the new force? General Mompati Merafhe from the Botswana Police. And why? Well I am positive it had something to do with the fact that Merafhe was from the Bangwato tribe – and the paramount chief of the Bagwato was none other than President Seretse Khama. The two men just happened to be relatives as well!
Merafhe would never have dreamed of toppling his Kgosi kgolo (Paramount Chief), especially as his deputy was Seretse Khama’s son, Ian.
Meanwhile, Vice-President Sir Ketumile Masire, senior cabinet ministers Colin Blackbeard, Sethomo Masisi and Kebatlamang Morake also had sons in the BDF. All of this reduced any chance that the military would rise up against the civilian government to almost zero.
In the late 1980s and the 1990s, we started to witness the militarization of politics, most notably with army men like Merafhe and Ian Khama joining the ruling Botswana Democratic Party (BDP). Some of these officers still have connections, friends and loyalists in the army to this day. BDF is their baby and it is close to impossible – considering the connections they have – within the BDF for army officers to attempt to topple them.
And it’s pretty obvious why there is no chance of a coup now. The president is Lt Gen Ian Khama and his deputy is Lt Gen Mompati Merafe. Needless to say most army men and women remember when they were their army commanders and revolting against them is simply not an option.
According to US Air War College Professor Dan Henk in his study of the BDF, published in the Africa Security Review in 2004, “Khama’s service spanned the formative period of the Defence Force’s evolution, and despite his retirement in 1998 to enter politics, he continues to have a close connection with Botswana’s military."
In conclusion, the chance of Botswana ever suffering a military coup – like Mali, Guinea Bissau and Madgascar, to name just a few recent examples – is very slim. And this is almost entirely due to the fact that the political leaders are in total control of the BDF.ShareThis