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Botswana's Race to Arm

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.

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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. If there ever were renewed hostilities between the two countries, Botswana's 10,000-strong force would be no match for South Africa's 100,000 soldiers.

South Africa's Air Force has wanted to update its equipment, and Botswana has accelerated its efforts. They would be able to defend against sophisticated tanks. But of what use will tanks be along its borders, or in its towns? The Botswana Defense Force's only known combat is against animal poachers and illegal border-crossing immigrants.

Botswana does have an ongoing border dispute with Namibia, with whom it shares both a long sandy western border and a riverine northern border. It is at the very tip of the northern border, almost at the point on the map where Namibia, Botswana, and Zambia meet, that Botswana and Namibia have been contesting a tiny island, usually occupied by grazing hippopotamuses.

Botswana's military has a hut there. Namibians set foot there regularly. Both sides patrol by boat, but the Chobe River washes the island from all sides and, in the wet season, floods it. The island's only potential riches are from ecotourism, and only then episodically. Botswana's latest military purchases have aroused skepticism, particularly since the rest of southern Africa will now have an excuse to spend scarce funds on guns rather than butter.

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Foreign Minister Theo Ben-Gurirab of Namibia has condemned the Botswana purchases as "provocation." President Sam Nujoma of Namibia flew to Germany to try to persuade the Germans to persuade the Dutch to cancel the tank sale. Washington is worried, too, and needs to speak strongly to its one-time ally and client.

*Robert Rotberg is president of the World Peace Foundation in Cambridge, Mass.

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