Uganda's soldier politicians

Omar D Kalinge-Nnyago
23 April 2006

The military's role in politics is not just a troubling memory for Uganda, it is a clear and present danger to democracy, says Omar Kalinge-Nnyago in Kampala

Despite Uganda's steps towards democracy, military involvement in politics remains a dangerous presence. After Yoweri Museveni's re-election in February, the seventh parliament voted to maintain the provision for ten nominated army members of parliament, entrenching the military further in Uganda's political psyche. Even in a multi-party system, the armed forces' role in politics remains risky, even suspect, and the army's pretensions to neutrality are sure to be put to the test.

The rationale for soldier representation in parliament is embedded in Uganda's turbulent history. It has been argued that soldiers intervened twice to disrupt civilian rule, in Idi Amin's 1971 coup and again in 1985, because they were not sufficiently politicised or politically educated to understand their role in a democracy. They could therefore not grasp the relationship between civilian and military authority, which led to indiscipline and rivalry.

Because the army must by default monopolise the power of coercion, the civilian population could only be victims of intimidation, physical abuse and often, decimation. It is the irony of history that should interest keen observers. In order to establish a new order in which soldiers would, according to the official story, "return to barracks", the gun was the preferred tool of the National Resistance Movement (NRM) when it waged a costly five year war that left half a million people dead in the central region between 1981 and 1986. Yet again, an army, this time a guerilla army, had established itself as a key factor in political change in Uganda. It did not go back to the barracks. It came to parliament.

Also on Ugandan political and human experience in openDemocracy:

Alexander Moorehead, "Hope deferred in Uganda" (June 2002)

Caspar Henderson, "Uganda's hidden war" (February 2004)

Richard Dowden, "In search of Ugandan democracy"
(December 2005)

Jason Parkinson, "Harriet's story: Ugandan survivor, British prisoner" (December 2005)

Richard Dowden, "Yoweri Museveni: running on empty" (February 2006)

Tristan McConnell "Uganda’s unsettled future" (February 2006)

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After their triumph, the National Resistance Army (NRA) addressed a major concern, namely, lack of discipline among armed soldiers. Ugandans sighed in relief when they stopped associating the military uniform with terror. In the euphoria that ensued, unsuspecting Ugandans seemed to forget that one "undisciplined" military rule had simply been replaced by another "disciplined" military rule.

To attain the legitimacy it required, the NRM/NRA government enlisted the support of civilian politicians and formed what was to be referred to as a broad-based government, under the single party system of the NRM. The experiment worked and is still in working – though lamentable – condition. However, recent exchanges between top military officers and the judiciary suggest that it may need some fixing in the near future.

There is no doubt that when the NRM took over, it came to establish a civilised military government, different from the old-fashioned military junta that had shamefully characterised much of the third world. Since 1986 Uganda has been a country under a "military control and civilian participation" model of public administration. In this model, when the military takes over government, it often keeps a degree of civilian participation for practical or symbolic reasons, or for both. To mask the fact that the military is really pulling the strings behind the scenes, civilian leaders may be put at the head of government.

So it is just a sedative to see civilian figures such as Apollo Nsibambi and Gilbert Bukenya in positions of authority, and to know that the president is a 'retired' general. Meanwhile in parliament several opposition members struggle to be heard, while the sitting government has ten mandatory votes in parliament, ensured by ten nominated soldiers. As the lessons of the past twenty years show, the major institution on which the current government rests is the army. The military high command could be the ultimate decision maker. Other institutions are called upon when convenient or appropriate – a meticulous public relations approach.

It is not surprising that there is growing concern from all civil quarters about the militarisation of the police in particular. Nor is it a coincidence that Uganda's immediate past and current heads of police are "serving army officers", in contrast to other countries where a retired army officer may head the police, or indeed other institutions where extensive administrative experience is required. Reports of soldiers masquerading as policemen in police uniform abound. In other vital areas like the media, there are unconfirmed but credible reports that the 'mighty' Media Centre is indeed a military outfit with perhaps an unsuspecting or even willing civilian head.

The Ugandan military's self-importance has also grown over the years. In a recent radio interview, when asked on which side the army MPs would be voting in a multi-party parliament, army spokesman Major Felix Kulaigye replied: "on Uganda's side". So other members of parliament would be voting for their parties, not Uganda? He did not explain whether independents would be voting for another country. His answer was absurd and simple, but with grave implications. Does the army believe that one cannot belong to a political party and also remain Ugandan or patriotic enough? Is it thus the army alone who can sufficiently be Ugandan? Matters were not made any clearer when he confessed that the army had celebrated at the Chieftaincy of Military Intelligence (CMI) headquarters when one particular candidate of a political party was elected as president in February.

In his speech on retirement from the army shortly before the 23 February elections Salim Saleh, the President's brother, vowed "to (politically) fight and defeat the multi-partyists". Perhaps he has not yet heard that the National Resistance Movement Organisation to which he belongs is a consenting multi-party organisation.

When a nation's military holds views on patriotism and democracy as skewed as these, it is not unreasonable to be afraid of a possible military intervention at some point when the "civilian participants" in their government take their "democratic theory" too far. For democracy to take root, the role of the army in Uganda's politics should be reconsidered.

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