Reading commentary about the role of the military in Ugandan politics, one train of thought claims that it has always been civilian politicians who brought the army into the political equation in order to settle power struggles and thereby guarantee their hold on power.
Former President Apollo Milton Obote is cited as the initiator of this trend when it is claimed he used then Army Chief of Staff Idi Amin to establish his own political dominance over the country.
The rule of Former President Paulo Mwanga, Obote II, Gen. Tito Okello and finally the National Resistance Army continued the trend of military rule.
The professional military’s true and only role is protecting the country, its borders, its people and their property. So, in summary of the Uganda Peoples Defense Forces Act and Military Code of Conduct, the primary job of the army is the security of Uganda.
Uganda has had four main military rules, the government of Field Marshal Idi Amin, the Military Council with civilian Paulo Muwanga, the Gen. Tito Okello Military Council and finally the NRA with now General (ret) Yoweri Kaguta Museveni. And just like Idi Amin, all promised to bring back civilian rule at some stage and hold democratic elections.
So what were their reasons for extended military rule when they did it?
By constantly attacking governments with armed resistance, their opponents gave the military justification to rule.
Even if we say that any of the military councils were lying about returning the country to democratic civilian rule, all the insurgency against these governments were sufficient reason for the military to maintain control over the country.
If there were no such threats, there were no other justifications and this is one reasoning that all military and security planners are aware of.
It is only after the establishment of the 1995 constitution and a referendum thanks to pressure from the IMF, World Bank and kind donors insisting for democracy, human rights and market economy reforms, that Ugandans themselves finally got a chance to usher democracy into this country.
We should remember to thank them for the peaceful environment they have fostered by pegging political and economic change to their generosity.
In the most recent referendum of 2005 we were asked “Do you agree to open up the political space to allow those who wish to join different organizations/ parties to do so to compete for political power?”
47 % of us got up early, lined up and voted “Yes”. The symbol on the ballot paper was a tree.
To date, I still wonder what democratic credentials any Ugandan would claim if we had said no multiparty politics in that referendum.
After the promulgation of the 1995 Constitution, military officers retired so as to become eligible for the now powerful and lucrative civilian government positions and only a handful of parliamentary seats to-date remain with the army.
The military being in parliament should mean that they found security grounds that warrant their presence in legislating Uganda.
So if that threat in parliament could be eliminated, then there is no reason or need for the army to be in politics. Maybe let us first find out what that threat actually is.
Many have claimed that the army is simply delaying its exit from politics so as to keep enjoying the benefits of being out of the barracks and therefore try to maintain its political relevance and dominance.
They argue that there is simply no military threat to the lives and property of Ugandans in a democratic legislature because Members of Parliament are elected by the people and whatever legislation is passed, is done through voting.
But then we have to stop and study the progressive nature of efforts to democratize our politics and professionalize the army while bearing in mind the pressure exerted on government to establish full democracy.
The desired result of these efforts should be prevention of military interference in future civilian rule and achieving democratic political stability within civilian rule.
Isn’t that the real aim of democratization?
Uganda has reached that stage of democracy where elections are held and even results contested in courts of law. The final stage of the process is the peaceful handover of power from one civilian outgoing president to a newly elected civilian president. Several countries in Africa have reached that stage including South Africa, Tanzania and soon Kenya. As for Uganda it is still a huge question mark where anyone of us wonders “What will it be like?” or “Are we capable of that?”.
It is only after crossing that line that we can call Uganda a mature democracy. Because the day it happens, nothing will happen.
It is true that the opposition parties have played their role in this process by remaining steadfast to the rule of law without resorting to rebellion when defeated. That is a telling sign for any keen observer.
We might want to recognize this important democratic point so as to encourage the spirit of reason and justice over violence and war.
Because the military would need only one armed threat, real or perceived, from any opposition to justify a massive military comeback.
With that in mind, let us all be aware that armed rule is only just a stone throw away.
In the meantime the army is obviously heading the police force, the presidency, the judiciary, education and some other government institutions in the form of retired officers who still respond to military orders.
And the day we see political and military restraint as democratic strength, then all the retired officers could now really retire and maybe supply their now defunct uniforms to second hand clothes dealers. And the serving army could happily return to the barracks. Isn’t it?
Idi Amin’s son