Return of the jet fighter

• BDP, UDC MPs reject jet fighter deal • French jet fighter Mirage 2000 enters race – unconfirmed sources • Gov obsession with defence condemned • MPs fear an arms race • “BDP would have lost if it pledged to buy air assets”-Letsholo

Return of the jet fighter

The fighter jet is dead, long live the fighter jet deal. Just when Batswana were breathing a sigh of relief that the Swedish Gripen fighter deal had crashed, they woke up this week to news that another cash guzzler was on the horizon and in full flight. In its wake condemnations and threats have ensued. The fighter jet deal on which government is set to pour billions of Pula in this financial year has received outright condemnation from MPs across the political divide.

The ruling party Botswana Democratic Party (BDP) backbench together with the entire opposition from the Umbrella for Democratic Change (UDC), Alliance for Progressives to the Botswana Patriotic Front said they would reject the proposal by the Finance Minister Dr Thapelo Matsheka to bankroll the acquisition.Presenting his Budget Speech recently, Dr Matsheka announced that a substantial part of the budget will be channelled to the Ministry of Defence, Justice and Security to acquire air assets. However MPs immediately expressed rage at the suggestion, with wide criticism from the public, opposition and even a big group of the ruling party’s own MPs.

When contributing to the debate on Monday MP for Sefhare-Ramokgonami Dr Kesitegile Gobotswang spoke of the need to reject the fighter jets. “We will reject them. They have been rejected before,” he said. “This parliament will not trigger an arms race.” Gobotswang said government should rather be concerned with the dilapidated state o schools and water shortage in the country.Then came in outspoken backbencher Member of Parliament for Francistown West Ignatious Moswaane who did not mince his words. Moswaane said he wants nothing to do with the Gripens (fighter jet purchase) but rather called on the state to tackle pressing matters like unemployment. He wondered what difference the buying of fighter jets will make in the lives of Batswana.

But the MPs were not done. On Wednesday, youthful MP for Kanye North Thapelo Letsholo who is slowly building a profile as an independent minded legislator seized the opportunity to slam government for its obsession on military expenditure. “You have heard from many of us that we are not in agreement with the budget provision attributable to air assets for the military. I ask the Honourable Minister to please reconsider it because in my humble view, Botswana should not budget for any military equipment purchases now and at least for the next five (5) years,” said Letsholo. “The only provision should be for the maintenance of existing equipment.”
The budding BDP MP explained that he is not aware of any risk to the country’s national peace and security that required government to buy new military equipment. “If there is a risk, the Honourable Minister should clearly state it. Otherwise, I find it difficult to accept this budget.”

Letsholo is of the view that the only red flags that point to the most serious risk for national peace and security is unemployment among Batswana youth who he said, are not just without jobs but most ominously are “ broke and depressed.” He came close to blaming his party for breaking election promises argued that the party won the elections on a platform of reforms among them the promise to not spend limited finances on defence. “I can bet on my last Thebe that if we had pledged to buy more air assets for the military, we would not be the governing party today.”
In conclusion, Letsholo noted that it will be unfortunate if parliament adopted a budget that gives priority to military assets at the expense of jobs and public services.

Matsheka proposed granting defence P8.56 billion recurrent budget. “Expenditure on security should be viewed as national insurance, provision of adequate national security and maintaining the rule of law are critical for national development and doing business, hence the sizeable allocation”, he argues. The ministry also got a development budget of P1.9billion which according to Matsheka, “The bulk of the proposed budget will go to the Botswana Defence force for air assets, vehicles as well as defence and communication equipment.”

Meanwhile defence sources say yet another jet fighter has joined the dogfight to what will be the country’s biggest single procurement of military equipment. The fighter jet has taken various permutations in the last decade from former President Ian Khama and former defence Minister Shaw Kgathi’s South Korean T-50, through the Swedish made Gripen. This week former Minister of Wildlife Tshekedi Khama told parliament he believes the Botswana Defence Force has turned to the French fighter the Mirage 2000, by the manufacturer Dassault. TK himself may be a recent political outsider but remains a defence procurement insider. Various defence sources say the BDF have abandoned the Gripen deal, a position they took almost to the day Masisi became president.
The leader of Opposition in Parliament MP Dumelang Saleshando said the budget leaves a lot to be desired on the issue of defence spending.

“The downside of he (Matsheka)’s speech was that it demonstrated that this was still the old BDP as it demonstrated traits it did under former presidents. Development budget, second highest expenditure, (goes to) Ministry of Defence, Justice and Security….They may be coming with a new name for it, but it’s still gripens,” he said. “They were trying to give us an impression that it was the former regime which pushed for these things (Gripens).”