Deconstructing national security: The case of Botswana

Botswana’s Directorate of Intelligence and Security (DIS) commenced operations on the 1st April, 2008, succeeding the short lived Security Intelligence Services (SIS) which had succeeded the Special Branch in April, 1998 (Botswana Government 2008b).

The Special Branch (SB) was inherited from the British colonial state. The functions of the DIS include investigations, gathering, coordinating, evaluating, correlating, interpreting, disseminating and storing information for the purpose of detecting and identifying any threat or potential threats to Botswana’s national security (Botswana Government 2007). On the surface these functions of the DIS are consistent with the functions of intelligence and security organisations around the world. But when the DIS Bill came before parliament, there were much anxiety and negative reactions from civil society, parliamentarians and politicians across the political spectrum, including even those from the ruling party.

This anxiety and negative reaction were fuelled by newspaper reports about how the DIS would be used to hunt, destroy or at least neutralise the opponents of the leader of the ruling party.1 These fears and perceptions are not far-fetched. Though formally a liberal multi-party democracy, Botswana is in effect a one-party dominant state in which the ruling Botswana Democratic Party (BDP) has been in power since March 3rd 1965, following what appeared to have been an arranged handover by the departing British colonial state officials (Mogalakwe 2003). On the 16th of October 2009, Botswana went to its 10th general elections since independence. As usual, the general elections were won by the ruling Botswana Democratic Party (BDP), for the tenth time in a row. Although the ruling BDP won about 53 percent of the popular vote, it got away with 79 percent of the seats in a 57 seat parliament, thanks to country’s first-past-the-post electoral system.

In a one-party dominant system, the interests of the ruling party and those of the state often get intertwined and interwoven and the lines of demarcation can get blurred (Giliomee and Simkins 1999).

For example, in 1998, the current president of Botswana, General Ian Khama resigned his command of Botswana Defence Force (BDF), and overnight became the vice president of the ruling party and the country. Although section 3 of the Botswana Constitution gives citizens freedom of conscience, of expression and of assembly and association, any exercise of these freedoms not in support of the ruling party often leads to blacklisting, marginalisation, and can attract negative vetting, especially to boards of state owned companies and in diplomatic postings.
The fears about DIS should be put in a context: the meaning of ‘national security’ is not always obvious or self-evident, but is socially constructed, and therefore constitute a contested terrain that should not be taken for granted. ‘National security’ is not something objectively present or absent, but a reflection of the views of those in power.

As Pascal (quoted in Berger and Luckmann 1967 p 5) once said “...what is truth on one side of the Pyrenees is error on the other.’ As a social construction, ‘national security’ can also be deconstructed, to reveal ambiguities, assumptions and contradictions inherent in its meaning. According to Abercrombie et al (2006 p 96), ‘Deconstruction brings about a reversal of the overt and official meanings of a text in favour of a subversive reading”.2 For example during the Cold War both the USA and the USSR supported unpopular regimes around the world, all under the guise of national security interests. Apartheid South Africa, Nazi Germany and Israel have all justified their excesses and gross human rights violations in the name of national security, and in Zimbabwe, the opposition leader, Morgan Tsvangirai, has been branded a national security threat by a senior military officer.3 Deconstructing the concept of ‘national security’ is significant, especially in the African context, because, as Knightley (1986) points out, insecure leaders have always used spies, but more for internal security rather than to gather information about external enemies or threats.
This article starts by contextualising the concept of ‘national security’, examines national security in the African context, and developments in Botswana’s ‘national security’. The article draws attention to the absence of proper and effective oversight mechanisms that can ensure political neutrality of the DIS, and guard against the ever present temptation by politicians to abuse state resources to serve a domestic political agenda (Born and Leigh 2007). The article argues that unless there are proper and effective oversight mechanisms, the DIS is insulated from political interference and pressures, and the meaning of ‘national security’ given limited, narrow and unambiguous interpretation, the DIS can easily degenerate into a regime security agency concerned with internal political ‘enemies’ of the regime. The result will be unnecessary and unwarranted intrusions into the lives of law abiding citizens and undermining their constitutionally guaranteed political and civil liberties, as it has happened in most other African countries.


The concept of national security seems to have derived from a socially constructed and essentially Western concept, the ‘nation-state’. The concept nation-state is a couplet that consists of the concepts ‘nation’ and ‘state’. The ‘nation’ part of the couplet is a socio-cultural notion and refers to an ‘imagined community’ or a group of people in a specific geographical area who consider themselves linked on the basis of shared culture, ethnicity, language, memories and traditions (Ashley 2008; Anderson 1991). According to Anderson, a nation is ‘imagined’ in the sense that although members of a community will never know most of their fellow members or even hear of them, in the minds of each lives the image of their community.

The ‘state’ part of the couplet is a geo-political notion and refers to the institutions that possess a monopoly of rule making and legitimate use of force and violence within a bounded territory or geographical space (Johnson 2000). According to Johnson the idea of a nation-state is based on the presumption of coincidence between the socio-cultural and the geo-political, that is a nation-state is ‘a nation governed by a state whose authority coincides with the boundaries of the nation.’ Underlying the concept of the nation-state is the idea of ‘sovereignty’, which is predicated on a double claim by the state of (a) supreme decision making authority within the territory and over the population, and (b) that no other state has the right to exercise authority, directly or indirectly, within the boundaries of a given state (Wallerstein 1997). Other salient characteristics of the nation-state as it historically evolved in Europe include (a) guaranteeing the ownership of private property and the means of production, (b) providing and maintaining economic infrastructure such as transportation and communication to connect people and increase mobility of people, goods and services (c) initiating economic, political and social policies favourable to private capital accumulation (d) supply, control and disciplining of the labour force, and last but not least (d) regulating conflict between competing interests of capital at home and abroad, by diplomacy if possible, and by war if necessary (Robbins 2002, p102).

The Treaty of Westphalia is regarded as a historical landmark in the beginning of the process of ‘nation-state’ building. This process was given further traction by the industrial revolution and the advent of industrial capitalism which legitimised the ‘nation-state’ as the centre of the national economy, a process that was consolidated after the French Revolution of 1789 (Robbins 2002). According to Robbins, the French Republic was the pioneer ‘nation- state’, and was constructed through social engineering, to deliberately create a homogeneous French society. According to Buzan (1988), Western nation-states have reached a certain level of social cohesiveness or ‘synthesis of state and society’ with a widely accepted idea of the state which is expressed in stable governing institutions, to the extent that even a change in government or regime will not produce changes in the configuration of these institutions (e.g. change from the Republican to the Democratic parties in the USA or from Labour to the Conservative party in Britain).

This cohesiveness revolves around the acceptance of certain forms of cultural, economic and political organisations as core national values that have to be defended from an external enemy (Azar and Chung-In 1988). But Abercrombie et al (1980) posit that this apparent cohesiveness of Western ‘nation-states’ is due to the ‘dull compulsion’ of economic relations and the coercive nature of law and politics. Another critique of the national value system approach comes from Nagengast (1994) who argues that in Western nations the state ensures conformity through a vast array of institutions and activities that, taken together, help determine the range of available social, political, ethnic and national identities. According to Nagengast the ideal [nation-state] is the one in which the illusion of a single ‘nation-state’ is created and maintained, and resistance to the illusion is managed in such a way that profound social upheavals such as political revolutions and coups d’état are unthinkable for most people most of the time.

National security as a concept gained prominence in the United States after World War II, when in 1947 the United State Congress passed the National Security Act that established the National Security Council and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). The CIA describes its mission as collecting information that reveals the plans, intentions and capabilities of America’s adversaries and provides the basis for decision making and action, and provides timely analysis that provides insight, warning and opportunity to the president and other decision makers charged with protecting and advancing America’s national interests.4 According to Johnson (1996), moving ahead without looking ahead can prove to be the greatest risk of all, and to be able to better protect and effectively advance the vital interests of their own people, leaders in every nation try to seek the knowledge and fore-knowledge of the world around them. According to Johnson:

A prudent awareness of the dangers and opportunities that confront a nation can be achieved only through painstaking collection of information about key events, circumstances and personalities worldwide. This gathering of information, followed by its careful sifting, lies at the heart of ‘intelligence’ as that term is applied to affairs of state (pp. 1-2, emphasis added).
If in the Western context, national security was seen predominantly as an external vulnerability which was military in nature and arising from outside the borders of the nation- state, how appropriate or applicable then can the concept of ‘national security’ be to the African situation? Have the African ‘nation-states’ also achieved similar levels of cohesiveness or consensus on ‘core national values’ that require overarching national security framework? Available evidence shows that most African ‘nation-states’ still lack the requisite consensus on the core national values, typical of Western nations. A brief historical overview will suffice. In 1884, some 236 years after the Treaty of Westphalia, 134 years after the British Industrial Revolution and 95 years after the French Revolution, some of the powerful European nation-states gathered at the now infamous Berlin Conference to lay the ground rules for dividing the African continent amongst themselves.

In the process of carving or dividing the ‘African pie’ amongst themselves, the European powers imposed a Westphalian form of state on their ‘colonial possessions’, with territorial boundaries just drawn arbitrarily and cutting across the ‘nations’ on the ground and dismembering established ‘states’. The effect of the imposition of the Westphalian form of ‘state’ was to divide pre-existing African ‘nations’ into several ‘nations-states’ or to amalgamate different nations into a single nation-state. At the time of independence the new African rulers found themselves holding on to a state with several ‘nations’ in it, a good example being Nigeria (Chazan et al 1999, Ayoob 1995; Buzan 1991; Buzan 1988). In other words, colonialism created ‘nation states’ with serious birth deformities as there was no coincidence between the ‘nation’ and the ‘state’.

Most importantly, that overarching characteristic of the nation-state, the supreme decision making authority, is still in contestation in several African nation-states, as instanced by many incidents of armed opposition to the central authority in countries like the Democratic Republic of Congo and Somalia, and leading in some cases to the emergence of the so-called failed states. The post-colonial nation-state is still characterised by lack of internal cohesion and social exclusion, and its failure to deliver on the promises made during the anti-colonial struggles has led to a crisis of expectations and raised questions about its legitimacy (Ayoob 1995). As a result the new rulers put more emphasis on defending the ‘state’ of which they are now in charge, rather than the ‘nation-state’, and questions about the legitimacy of the regime are securitised and presented as national security threat, when in fact the threat is to the regime itself (Azar and Chung-In 1988). When this happens political parties and civil society activists become the natural and obvious scapegoats and targets of securitisation process, as seen recently in Zimbabwe under Robert Mugabe. According to Ayoob (1995), it is often difficult to disentangle issues of state security from those of regime security in the Third World. He argues that the concept of security in the Third World context goes beyond traditional Western pre-occupation with external military attack, and remains firmly rooted in the political realm. That is to say, national security as it applies to the Third World is state-centred and must be understood primarily ‘in political terms and in relation to the challenges to the survivability and effectiveness of the post-colonial states and regimes, rather than the ‘nation- state’ (Ayoob 1995).
Department of Sociology, University of Botswana, Botswana

Last modified on Wednesday, 31 July 2013 16:13

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