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Big Arms Buildup - In Botswana?

Tussle over scarce water may lie behind dry African nation's shopping spree.

Even when its neighbors were convulsed by violent struggles, the rich, landlocked desert republic of Botswana was always a pleasant, sleepy place to live. Why is its democratic government now engaged in one of the most rapid military buildups on the planet?

Some observers have speculated that reported large arms purchases were intended as a sop to prevent Lt. Gen. Ian Khama, son of Botswana's founding president, Sir Seretse Khama, from dabbling in civilian politics. If so, they have not succeeded: General Khama resigned from the army last year to take up the deputy presidency.

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There is another, more worrying possible explanation for the arms splurge. Today South Africa, Zimbabwe, and Namibia are all at peace, and for the first time in southern Africa's recorded history the entire region - with the exception of Angola - is free of armed conflict. But for several years now Botswana and Namibia have been in dispute over the ownership of two small islands in the Chobe River. One of these, Kasikili, has been referred to the International Court of Justice in The Hague.

Shots have been fired on at least two occasions, and Namibia's president, Sam Nujoma, once publicly vowed to seize Kasikili by force if Botswana refused to honor any verdict by the court in Namibia's favor. Two years ago, his government persuaded Namibia's former colonial power, Germany, to block a proposed sale by the Netherlands of 54 German-built Leopard heavy tanks to Botswana.

The Chobe River islands are inhabited only by hippopotamuses and are often submerged during the rainy season. But analysts say their ownership could have important implications for water security in this drought-prone region. Namibia is currently considering plans to pump water from the shared Kavango River to its parched capital, Windhoek.

But Botswana has protested that this could endanger the world-famous Okavango Delta, which is responsible for 75 percent of Botswana's tourism earnings.

The notion that Botswana and Namibia - two of southern Africa's model countries - could go to war over a couple of sand banks has seemed far-fetched in the past. But, with fresh water in ever-greater demand across the globe, the United Nations has warned that control of rivers, rather than oil, could spark many of the next century's wars.

Reports of Botswana's purchases - planes from Canada, tanks from Austria, other arms from Britain, Israel, the Netherlands - have surfaced in various international publications. But the Botswana Defense Forces (BDF) was reluctant to discuss them with the media. After asking this newspaper to submit questions in writing, the BDF spokesman's office replied: "We cannot comment on your enquiry as this is a classified matter."

In the past, the government has justified the buildup by saying it inherited no standing forces at all when British rule ended in 1966. Khama told the London Daily Telegraph that "there are any number of examples around Africa where regions that have been quiet have suddenly boiled up again and spilled over with conflict. These are the things we are preparing for."

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Botswana is better able than most African countries to afford expensive equipment. Having discovered substantial diamond wealth shortly after independence, the land of 1.5 million people is ranked as one of the wealthiest countries on the continent with a gross domestic product of $4 billion and has enjoyed budget surpluses for 16 years in a row.

But, according to Jakkie Potgieter, a researcher at the Institute for Security Studies in Johannesburg, even if Botswana did face a conflict with any of its neighbors, it is doubtful the new equipment would be of much use.

"Buying tanks is one thing, but keeping them operational is another," he told the Sydney Morning Herald. "None of these deals seems to include armored recovery vehicles or tank transporters or any other backup equipment. Given the harshness of the environment they would be operating in - the Kalahari Desert - there will be huge wear and tear just moving them around."

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