GABORONE. — Botswana is inching closer to hosting a United States of America military airfield, fresh reports have emerged.
This is not the first time that the southern Africa country, which is the current chair of the regional bloc SADC, is linked to the US military projects. Speculation was rife in the 1990s that Botswana was hosting a United States airbase
The US embassy in Gaborone this week confirmed that plans are at an advanced stage to set up a military airfield in Botswana.
There are claims that with the planned military airfield, a heavy American military presence in Botswana is also anticipated.
Sunday Standard was unable to establish whether the anticipated mini-airbase would be built inside Thebephatswa Airbase or at a different location in the country.
In 2013 both the Botswana Defence Force (BDF) and US embassy denied speculation that the construction of a military facility bankrolled by the US Department of Defence to the tune of P100 million inside Thebephatshwa Air Base could in future become a doorway for America’s Africa Command (Africom).
Responding to Sunday Standard queries, US embassy spokesperson Ephraim Keoreng said,
“Any construction will depend upon the future availability of funding. These projects may focus on either airfield or support infrastructure necessary to move, train, lodge, and feed soldiers.”
The latest American military project has reignited speculation that Botswana is now a step closer to hosting Africom. There are even claims that the anticipated mini-base is expected to be under the leadership of Africom.
The outgoing commander of US. Army Africa Maj. Gen. Darryl Williams told the United States based military publication, that the American army will soon be responsible for a fifth security location site (military airfield), “slated to be stood up soon in Botswana.”
“We have very austere, lean, lily pads, if you will, all over Africa now,” Williams said.
Keoreng added that “based on the excellent cooperation in 2012 and our strong bilateral partnership, the United States would like Botswana to host Exercise SOUTHERN ACCORD again.”
“If Botswana does host another exercise, the United States will examine additional construction projects to support participants,” said Keoreng.
Reports indicate that Africa is the only continent in the world that remains without permanent US military presence, though several bases with American troops are dotted across various regions.
Botswana will join other four African countries that are currently hosting American military airfield and the American army will be in charge of the mini-airbase.
William is quoted as saying that of those four security locations in Africa, the American army is the caretaker for four — in Senegal, Ghana, Gabon and Uganda.
Despite both Botswana and the US denying an agreement on hosting AFRICOM is nigh, analysts say Botswana has not done enough to dispel these fears.
The Southern African Development Community (SADC) and the African Union (AU) have since made it clear that they do not want a permanent US military base on the continent.
But reports indicate that there have long been suspicions that Botswana and Liberia are amenable to hosting the unit. Reports indicate that Africom is presently domiciled in Stuttgart, Germany, but is actively seeking a base in Africa. A military advisor told the US Congress last year that Africom would get its African home.
William said the planned military airfield and others in Senegal, Ghana, Gabon and Uganda are part of Africom’s response to increasing the American army posture and the “responsiveness of the US. military on the continent of Africa.”
He explained that these sites typically don’t hold US. troops and are sometimes used during training exercises. “But if needed or if there’s a likelihood of a potential challenge, the sites allow the US. military to stage up to 300 soldiers or Marines for a short-period of time,” he said.
“We can stage (them) so they can surge to an event,” he said. “They enable readiness on the continent, they’re in a position where we can respond better on the continent are able to react quicker.” The cooperative security locations are part of “increasing our presence in Africa,” Williams said.
“We’ll go in an exercise there, use the facilities, make sure they’re up to speed in case we need them,” he said.
Under the leadership of Africom, the military now has cooperative security locations so it can more quickly respond to contingencies on the continent, Williams said.
According to Williams, these locations, which are austere, low-maintenance sites, sometimes just an open but secured field, were set up after the 2012 attack on the American diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya.
Asked if the planed military airfield will be a separate project from the ones that were reported to have been built at Thebephatswa air base in 2013, Keoreng said “Facilities were constructed at Thebephatswa Air Base as a result of the Botswana Defence Force (BDF) hosting Exercise SOUTHERN ACCORD in 2012.” He added that “These facilities included administration, instructional, and latrine facilities to be used jointly by participating soldiers during future exercises.”
BDF is yet to respond to the questionnaire from the Sunday Standard.
In 2007, Botswana’s then President, Festus Mogae, said it had not taken a final position on the matter “because we don’t know what the animal (AFRICOM) will look like”.
Prior to that, according to leaked diplomatic cables from the US Embassy in Gaborone, Botswana gave Washington the green light to explore the possibility of establishing an AFRICOM base on its territory.
A cable sent by America’s Ambassador in Botswana, Katherine Canavan, to the US Secretary of State in Washington in October 2007, shows senior embassy officials met then Vice President Mompati Merafhe to discuss the matter. Canavan said Botswana and other unidentified African countries were being considered for hosting elements of AFRICOM.
“Recalling the earlier receptivity towards the AFRICOM concept, the ambassador sought to confirm Botswana’s current sentiments and whether the country would be willing to receive a technical assessment team in the near future,” the cable said. It said Merafhe “appeared genuinely interested” and wanted to know how many American troops would be based in Botswana. Five days later, according to the cables, Merafhe said Botswana was not averse to the idea of hosting AFRICOM and that Mogae was “favourably disposed”. — Sunday Standard (Botswana)/HR.