By Masimba Tafirenyika
Is the United States about to use a new military base in southern Africa to replace Zaire’s Kamina airfield previously used by the US military to supply UNITA with arms?
At a time when the Cold War has ended, many in the sub-continent are concerned at the regional Implications of trying to accommodate the strategic interests of the world’s only “superpower.”
Mmegi, a Botswana weekly paper, reported last year that about 105km north west of the Botswana capita), Gaborone, near the small town of Molepolole, construction of an air base estimated to cost 2 billion (US$1 billion) has reached an advanced stage and is scheduled to be completed in two years. Other press reports, for example, Janes Defence Weekly, said the cost would be US$350 million.
The phases, according to Mmegi, comprise a main air base in Kweneng West about 30km outside Molepolole, and smaller ones at Chobe and Okavango.
The total cost of the base is equivalent to 20 percent of Botswana’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP). New African magazine reported in April that the government intends to recoup much of the cost of building the air base by leasing it to the US Air Force.
The contract for the scheme, code-named “Project Eagle” was won by a French company, Spy Batignolles, with a South African company, LTA, as its main subcontractor. LTA is the construction subsidiary of Anglo-American company. French military companies are also expected to supply military aircraft and equipment to the Botswana Defence Force as part of the deal with the government.
It is also reliably understood that companies tendering for the project had to sign a confidentiality clause with the Botswana government. The fact that the project is shrouded in secrecy and its military nature has naturally raised a few eyebrows in other countries of the region.
During the 1980s Botswana suffered a series of military attacks by the South African Defence Force (SADF). As a result the completion of the air base will mark the development of the BDF air wing into a, small but fully fledged air force.
The US administration has, of late, shown much interest in Botswana. In 1991 the US built a new relay station for Voice of America transmitters along with the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) electronic eavesdropping facility at Selibe-Pikwe, in the north eastern part of Botswana, after the destruction of the old station in Monrovia during Liberian civil war in 1990.
In January this year the US held joint military manoeuvres with the Botswana forces. The field exercises, code-named “Operation Silver Eagle” and involving 200 US airborne troops brought in from Europe, was one of the largest ever seen in Sub-Saharan Africa.
Political analysts in southern Africa view the latest encroachment of the US military in the region as being necessitated by US policy-makers to distance themselves from facilities in Kenya and Zaire. However, some observers in the region agree that the US government has no immediate plans to close its naval and air force facilities in Kenya and Zaire despite the current political upheavals in those countries.
Several reasons have been given for the current US interest in southern Africa, particularly in Botswana. Among them is the suggestion that the US has drawn up contingency plans to use the Botswana air base for direct military intervention in South Africa if needed.
The Bush administration is uncertain and worried about the policies likely to be followed by a future black-ruled democratic South Africa. To support this argument, political observers have pointed to the US insistence that South Africa reduce expenditures on its arms industry.
According to the Harare-based Zimbabwe Institute on Southern Africa (ZISA), the US is also putting pressure on the country to abandon its satellite launch programme because it could be converted into a missile programme.
Washington has also extended its arms embargo against South Africa while also putting pressure on Israel to abandon arms co-operation with South Africa.
Furthermore, “the US intervened recently to force Saudi Arabia to abandon a massive arms contract it was about to sign with South Africa, to prevent Saudi Arabia from becoming more independent of the US and to ensure that the South African armaments industry is starved of business.”
The US government has not confined its military links to Botswana alone, but has also extended them to other countries in the region.
Press reports quote diplomats in Harare as saying the US has been hunting for a place to station units of their forces in southern Africa and that they had Botswana, Namibia or Zimbabwe in mind. Countries close to South Africa would be preferable so as to closely monitor events inside that country.
Robert Jackson, the second secretary at the US embassy in Harare, told a recent seminar on “Peace and Security in Southern Africa” that his country’s idea of “holding war games with southern African countries was a way of promoting friendship rather than warfare.”
On 9 March this year the Zambian government and the US signed a military agreement under the American Assistance Programme which provided for the training of military personnel in technical and professional fields.
Jackson told seminar participants that the agreement with Zambia was not for the provision of arms but uniforms and planes for anti-poaching activities.
In May, IO senior US military officers and government officials from the US National War College visited Zimbabwe on “a tour intended to reinforce links between the armed forces of the two countries.” The group later left on a visit to Botswana and South Africa.
The choice of Botswana was a carefully-thought out plan. The country is politically stable, centrally located and sparsely populated. Its free market economy is one of the most prosperous in Africa.
Relations between Botswana and Washington have always been excellent. This was confirmed by the president of Botswana, Sir Ketumile Masire, when, addressing graduates in June 1989 at Ohio State University, he said “the strong ties between the US and Botswana are based on a shared set of fundamental values: a belief in democracy, freedom of expression, human rights, the rule of law, and a strong emphasis on the private sector as the engine of growth.”
The hope that the end of the Cold War will result in demilitarization especially in countries where hostilities have reduced economies to near collapse may be realised in some regions. But that may not be true in southern Africa. Whatever intentions US policy towards the region may be, it still remains cause for concern to the people of southern African who have known no peace in the past two decades. (SARDC)
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