Botswana's Race to Arm

By Rotberg, Robert | The Christian Science Monitor, August 13, 1996 | Go to article overview

Botswana's Race to Arm


Rotberg, Robert, The Christian Science Monitor


A perplexing and wasteful arms race is under way in southern Africa. Instead of a much-vaunted, post-apartheid peace dividend, nations are buying rather than shedding weapons of war.

Surprisingly, Botswana, Africa's longest-enduring democracy, is leading the way with massive purchases. Neighboring South Africa and Namibia are considering retaliatory responses, and Zimbabwe and Zambia, also neighbors, are growing anxious.

For reasons that are difficult to understand, Botswana's Defense Force recently ordered 13 second-hand, American-made F5 fighter aircraft from Canada; 40 surplus German-manufactured Leopard battlefield tanks from the Netherlands; and 36 British Scorpion tanks. The three purchases, plus other military equipment, will cost about $150 million. Botswana's annual military budget is about $192 million, an increase of $70 million in three years.

Botswana, thanks to gem diamonds, is one of Africa's wealthiest countries, with a total gross domestic product of about $4 billion, and a per person annual GDP of about $2,700. But Botswana is mostly desert, with a population of about 1.4 million; sheep, goats, and cattle outnumber people. But it also has large pockets of poor farmers. The Bank of Botswana claims that 45 percent of the country's population lives below the local poverty datum line.

Botswana's Defense Force has consisted of an Army numbering about 7,500. It is expected to grow to 10,000. The head of the Defense Force is Lt. Gen. Ian Khama, the son of Sir Seretse Khama, Botswana's first president. During the last decade he has managed to increase the size and fighting power of his tiny country's military might.

Although Botswana was hammered hard by white South Africa in the 1970s and '80s, it now has no known disputes or controversies with its large, powerful surrounding neighbor. Nearly all of Botswana's food and fuel imports, and its beef exports, reach the settled parts of Botswana through South Africa. …

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