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Southern Africa Report Archive

Alex Vines notes that South African Defense Minister Joe Modise, earnest advocate of an expanded arms industry for his country, is stoking the arms race within the region that informs the escalating border tensions between Namibia and Botswana. Alex Vines, in this informative article on the latter hostilities, finds Modise advocating that SADC member states should build up their armies because "no right-thinking person would invest in a country that cannot protect itself"!

vol 12 no 1

Of arms and islands: The Botswana Namibia cold war
Alex Vines

Printable Version
Southern Africa Report

SAR, Vol 12 No 1, November 1996
Page 6
"Southern Africa"



Alex Vines works with Human Rights Watch in London.

A small island along the Namibian-Botswana border has become the excuse for a regional arms race. The 1 km by 3 km island in the Chobe river, known as Kasikili by the Namibians and Sidudu by Botswana, is submerged for many months of the year and is uninhabited.

The dispute is a result of ambiguity in a 1890 Anglo-German Treaty, which in part demarcated the border between the two territories. Border tensions grew in 1991 when Botswana deployed forces on the island and hoisted its flag. Mediation attempts by President Mugabe failed in 1992, resulting in both countries seeking a solution to the dispute through the International Court of Justice in the Hague. The case was submitted to the ICJ on 6 June 1996 and both countries have said that they will commit themselves to the outcome of the Court's ruling. Namibia has initially budgeted US$1.8 million for the legal battle but the case may cost Namibia up to US$18 million as the Namibian authorities are intent on hiring high-paid U.S. lawyers to help them.

On three occasions since April 1996, Namibia has accused Botswana of a military build-up over the ownership of the island and of moving its troops to control the movement of diseased cattle across the Namibia-Botswana border. The Botswana government is battling to eradicate a deadly cattle-lung disease in its North West district. Attempts are being made to destroy all 200,000 cattle in the area. The outbreak of Contagious Bovine Pleru-Pneumonia threatens Botswana's exports of 13,000 tonnes of beef a year worth about US$45 million in sales to Europe.

Namibia also complains that Botswana Defence Force (BDF) soldiers have stopped Namibians fishing in the river near the island and that tourists feel threatened by having guns pointed at them from lookouts. The Batswana have denied these allegations and urged Namibia to raise its objections through the Southern African Development Community (SADC) Joint Commission on Defence and Security.

Botswana's interest in the island may partly arise out of wanting greater access to water resources rather than the island itself. Population is increasing on the Botswana side of the border. But Batswana and Namibian military officials have also used the dispute to expand their armies and airforces. Batswana military spending has risen more than 200% since 1992 and BDF troop strength has risen from 7,500 to 10,000. There has also been increased equipment procurement. Sweden and the Ukraine won contracts in 1995 to supply training equipment, including new weapons. Botswana had also signed an agreement to purchase 50 Leopard-1 second-hand tanks worth about US$750,000, light guns and 200 troop carriers from the Netherlands.

Increasing firepower

However, the German government, as a member of the European Union, and encouraged by the Namibian authorities, vetoed the Dutch sale on July 22 on the grounds of an old agreement between Germany and the Netherlands that the tanks could only be sold to a NATO country. The BDF commander Lt-Gen Seretse Khama Ian Khama has criticized Germany, saying that Botswana had previously purchased from NATO and would get tanks from elsewhere if need be. The British firm Vickers has already approached the BDF, offering it substitute tanks to replace the failed Dutch deal. According to the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) the BDF is also awaiting the delivery of 36 Scorpion light tanks from Britain. The Vice President and Minister of Finance, Festus Mogae, visited China for five days in June which included discussions about weapons purchases. Also in June General Ian Khama was a guest of the Pentagon and visited various defence equipment factories in the United States. The BDF has already received a US$450,000 grant for training officers in the US. Between 1991 and 1993 the BDF received US$4.5 million in US grants to acquire small aircraft, field kitchens and ambulances. US companies are keen to sell more military equipment to the BDF.

Botswana is also buying 13 CF-5 fighter aircraft from Canada for US$49 million. All the aircraft have received an avionics upgrade; the ultra-modern Bephatshwa airbase was officially opened in August 1995 to cater for this expansion. (In the past Botswana's Air Force consisted of 500 people and operated only transport, executive aircraft and helicopters.)

Botswana's military doctrine was built up in the late 1980s with the consequences of the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in mind. The BDF has been developing a highly sophisticated modern armed forces to delay any potential regional aggressor until international opinion can be mobilized to support Botswana. The recent expansion of the BDF is part of this doctrine and the use of the disputed island has been a convenient excuse to push through a further increase in defence spending.

The Namibian Defence Force (NDF) is also expanding. In the past it has received British and US training but also recently signed a military co-operation agreement with Russia that will assist the NDF with training and equipment. "The agreement would increase the combat readiness of the NDF and also support the military industrial complex" of Russia, the Chairman of Russia's State Committee on Technical-Military Policy, Sergey Svechnikov, told journalists on 30 May. Fighter aircraft for the NDF's air wing are an immediate priority.

Namibia has also been looking elsewhere. When visiting Windhoek in May China's President, Jiang Zemin, also discussed areas of potential future military co-operation. President Sam Nujoma, when visiting Spain in June, talked about fisheries and arms purchases. Brazil's Avibras-Industria Aerospacial SA sold several multiple rocket launcher systems to Namibia in May.

Meanwhile, it is startling that this regional arms race appears to have the blessing of South African Defence Minister Joe Modise, who is also chairman of the Inter-Governmental Security Council for Southern Africa. He told the press in early July that SADC member states should build up their armies because "no right-thinking person would invest in a country that cannot protect itself."

Need for disclosure

Both Botswana and Namibia have attempted to procure in secret but their efforts have been frustrated by robust domestic and international press interest. Human Rights Watch believes that states should be willing to provide details about their weapons transfers and other military assistance to other countries. As a rule, if a country believes that it is in its national interest to make a particular arms sale, Human Rights Watch holds that the country should be willing to divulge the details of the sale and provide its justification. This is particularly necessary in the case of arms transfers to human rights violators, when the possibility of misuse of weaponry is high.

Recognition of the need for disclosure, or "transparency" as it is called in the international security community, led to the establishment of the United Nations Conventional Arms Register in December 1991 to promote "transparency so as to encourage prudent restraint by states in the arms export and import policies and to reduce the risks of misunderstanding, suspicion or tension resulting from a lack of information." (U.N. Document A/46/301, Report of the Secretary-General, "Study on ways and means of promoting transparency in international transfers of conventional arms," 9 September, 1991, p.11.) Nations are requested to voluntarily submit data on their arms imports and arms exports, but only for seven categories of major weapons systems: tanks, armoured vehicles, large calibre artillery systems, combat aircraft, attack helicopters, warships, missiles and missile launchers.

Small arms and light weapons are presently not part of the register. Human Rights Watch strongly believes that the U.N. register should be expanded to include light weapons and small arms, since these weapons often cause the greatest devastation among civilians.

Botswana and Namibia have yet to submit an entry to the register in its three years of operation (1993, 1994 or 1995). Israel in 1993 (covering 1992 arms trade) reported the delivery of 4 armoured combat vehicles to Botswana; no other country has registered any delivery either to Botswana or Namibia. Botswana and Namibia and the selling countries, such as Brazil, Britain, China, Russia and the Netherlands should disclose their transactions to the U.N. register. Transparency will help to reduce the misunderstanding, suspicion and tension that these sales are currently creating in southern Africa.

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