Victorious NRA soldiers led by Gen. Museveni (C) march to take over Kampala in January 1986. FILE PHOTO

Should the army be actively involved in politics or should it just keep apolitical? Would soldiers be justified to kill citizens in the interest of national sovereignty?
Then under what circumstances should the army act – say to quell civil unrest birthed by political contest between the government in power and opposition activists – as it happened during walk-to-work protests, without appearing partisan?

These and many other questions are pertinent today as the UPDF observes Terehe Sita, the day 31 years ago when now Gen. Elly Tumwine, ignited the National Resistance Army (NRA) guerilla war with the first shot in an attack on Kabamba Barracks.

The five-year conflict took lives of thousands and wreaked havoc, particularly in under-developed Luweero District, its epicentre. NRA’s was a liberation struggle, its founders and commanders argue, against extra-judicial killings by security forces and to free the population to enjoy every fundamental rights and freedom in dignity.

Twenty-six years after helping President Museveni capture and retain power, Uganda’s military that says it has transformed into a modern army, the Uganda People’s Defence Forces, finds some of its elements embroiled in ignominy of lawless conduct that NRM would like to assign only to soldiers under previous regimes.

The unpunished shooting dead of some 50 civilians during the September 2009 Buganda riots and last year’s opposition-led walk-to-work protests stripped the army of elegant claims that it is accountable. Not when it allows itself to be summoned, and or deployed, as an attack dog to prop up the government in power that fails the people it purports to serve for purely political indiscretion, argues FDC secretary-general Alice Alaso.

Ex-army commander Mugisha Muntu and his successor, Gen. Aronda Nyakairima, crossed swords last week when the former offered unsolicited counsel to serving UPDF generals to be “wise” and eschew being buried with the corpse like the proverbial fly.

The statement, which understandably left Gen. Nyakairima lamenting, yet too late, serving under Maj. Gen. Muntu, is potent, political analysts say, because no Ugandan army has outlived the regime it installed. Thus if UPDF sticks around after Gen. Museveni goes, it would evidently have come out of age as a truly national army.

A US think-tank, however, noted last year that the violent crackdown by security organs on peaceful demonstrators in Kampala proved the ruling government has turned “semi-authoritarian”.

The colonial outlook of armies
The April/May 2011 disturbances were in moments of high stakes because mass uprising had toppled some North African governments and street protests pressed panic buttons in Uganda, DR Congo, Ethiopia and Cameroon, attracting whips and shootings by armed forces. Such brutal interventions show just how the military’s reluctance, and in some cases refusal, to accept civilian authority remains a missing piece in Africa’s democratic transition, according to a January 2012 security brief prepared by the Washington D.C.-based Africa Centre for Strategic Studies.

The tragedy is that Africa’s contemporary armies, like the political class, are imbibed from their colonial predecessors, whose pre-occupation was keeping in charge and controlling resources at whatever cost.

Dr Mathurin Houngnikpo, the centre’s academic chair of civil-military relations, observes that: “The shooting of unarmed civilians clearly indicates that some security sector leaders in Africa continue to see their role as defending the regime in power rather than the constitution…”

The amended 1995 Constitution requires of the national army, among other things, to be non-partisan, disciplined and subordinate to civilian authority. That principle in May 2010 worked well in Nigeria, a country previously prone to coups d’état.

The designation of Goodluck Jonathan at the time to succeed Umaru Yar’Adua, who died of natural causes, strained North-South relations based on a gentleman’s agreement on rotational holding of the presidency and as political honchos bickered, army Chief of Staff, Lt. Gen. Abdulrahman Dambazzau’s proclaimed: “We are military professionals and we are determined to remain so. Nobody, no matter what, no matter the effort, will drag us into it.”

So Jonathan became President, moving on to win an elected term. Would UPDF do the same?
Speaking during the 2011 Terehe Sita celebrations in Soroti District, 12 days to a presidential vote, Gen. Nyakairima said: “As you can see in this new Uganda, power belong to you (civilians).” “We in the military and the uniform are your servants.”

But two months later after the general elections when a section of opposition activists who contested the ballot results and took to the streets over, among other reasons, soaring costs of living and demanding government action, they found themselves unwanted guests, whipped and or shot at, by security operatives, some ironically deployed on Gen. Nyakairima’s orders.

The UPDF said it was invited by an overwhelmed police force, and acted swiftly to avert bloodshed. In the region, Kenya offers lessons on how things can spiral out of control when soldiers keep to the barracks during civil unrest.

More than 1,300 people died there and thousands displaced in ethnicised backlash of the December 2007 Kenyan poll, lending credence to argument that a proactive military intervention is necessary.

That the army should play a key role in the political process, as the UPDF and its predecessor NRA have done, has been highlighted by Herman Lupogo, a retired general of the Tanzanian People’s Defence Forces that helped topple Idi Amin. He had headed a TPDF brigade into Rakai District during the liberation war.

Presenting a paper at Hotel Africana in Kampala on November 7, 2003, on “The role of the military in political transition in Africa: The Uganda case”, Maj. Gen. Lupogo argued that the army uniform was despised as a “badge of separation and intimidation”.

Joining the armed forces, he said, was equivalent to self-expulsion from civilian life.
The reason: most African armies at independence relished the trappings of colonial perks; were blindly efficient and aloof to political changes around them. Put another way, political supervisors (mis)used soldiers at will.

Costly engagements
The same is being said of President Museveni, who sent the UPDF into DR Congo in 1997 before a parliamentary approval, and a case of itchy officers who pillaged Congolese gems during the invasion, has Uganda saddled with a $10b (Shs24 trillion today) debt to Kinshasa awarded by the International Court of Justice.

Uganda’s frontline support to Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), to which Khartoum in return financed and armed Joseph Kony’s LRA, resulted in immeasurable suffering in north of the country. Yet it is these regional military interventions, the latest being in Mogadishu, that have over the years strengthened Museveni’s hands in dealing, sometimes ruthlessly, with domestic opponents. Why? Because he has charmed some Western powers by doing their bidding – in the process, and according to his opponent, allowing him to get away with much indiscretions.

Thus, the UPDF is, in a way, the tool with which Uganda scores its diplomatic points. It keeps peace at home and has fought and defeated 25 different rebel groups since 1986, military spokesperson Col. Felix Kulayigye said.

A paper on British Intelligence and Covert Action in Africa, Middle East and Europe since 1945, prepared by Jonathan Bloch and Patrick Fitzgerald, says Kabaka Mutesa made a discreet approach to the British, asking for military intervention to “oust Obote but Obote heard of the plot and immediately took action”.

The British together with the Israelis allegedly later conspired in 1971 to overthrow Obote, introducing an era where politicians live and lead Uganda by using the army that turns to topple them.

In celebrating Terehe Sita in Kasese today, officers will, according to Col. Kulayigye, recognising the contribution of Rwenzori region residents to the “NRA struggle and the 1996-2001 fight against Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) rebels”.

With a theme of, Reflection on how far we have come, the 31st observance of the army Day the religious would say should give commanders and foot soldiers of the bi-service Force soul-searching on whether their allegiance is to Uganda, or just the commander-in-Chief.

By Tabu Butagira, Daily Monitor

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