In the space of a few days last week, Uganda’s minister of Defence, Dr Crispus Kiyonga, and then President Yoweri Museveni, suggested that that if Parliament continues to give the Executive headaches, the Uganda People’s Defence Forces (UPDF) might be tempted to step in and stage a military coup.
The outcome a military coup could be terrible, yes, but it’s happening would not be out of character in Uganda.
The surprising thing is that Museveni and Kiyonga acknowledged the possibility in the way they did. That is because it represents a sharp move away from the story on which the ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM) and Museveni have justified their monopoly of power, and having the army represented in Parliament where they have 10 MPs.
The story is that the UPDF is the “People’s” army, and when as the National Resistance Army took up arms to fight the Milton Obote regime in 1982 as a rebel force, and thousands of peasants died in that war, it was to hand power back to the people. That is what made the NRA war a “revolution”.
That power was exercised through the Resistance Councils, later Local Councils at the lower levels; by the National Resistance Council, which later became Parliament at the national level; and the NRM leaders at the executive level. The UPDF’s place in Parliament was, as Museveni used to say, as the “eyes and ears” of the peasants and progressive intellectuals who lost their life in the cause.
For the UPDF to have to stage a coup, would mean the gulf between it and the “people’s organs” it brought into people to exercise power had grown so wide, it needed to break that social contract. In short, what Museveni and Kiyonga are saying is that the “revolution” is over. That is truly remarkable because it would be a formal break from the revolutionary history.
In reality, of course, the revolution ended 15 years ago, but the government maintained the narrative because it was a piece of fiction that still gave it some legitimacy.
Next question then, is why would a coup not be surprising? First, Uganda is a country where there has no leadership transition through the vote – all regime changes have been either through coups, or armed rebellion. It has only a post-independence history of changing government violently, and not a single case of democratic transfer of power. It is therefore more likely to revert to character.
Secondly, and more importantly, it is meaningless to brandish the threat of a coup to cow Parliament and critics, because the transition of power from the military to elected representatives in Uganda has been messy, and not happened as neatly as it has in Ghana, for example. It remains “unresolved business” and will have to come to a head one day.
The NRM rules largely as a military party. A few days ago it ended its annual retreats of Parliamentarians and senior leaders. Like is the custom, the dress code at the retreat is military uniform for EVERYONE (except if you are too small or too big to find a fit). President Museveni himself, every time he is faced with a crisis or his government is losing an argument to the Opposition, quickly jumps into his military fatigues, straps an AK47 across his chest, and stares them down.
Indeed some scholars have argued that Uganda didn’t democratise. That the NRA still rules as an armed movement, but did two things: It formed the UPDF to create a semblance of a conventional army; and dressed up the NRM rebel movement in civilian garb.
Which leads us to the next and last question; why did the NRM, and particularly Museveni, need to “civilianise”?
Because in this way, it can collect “democracy rent”. Every form of rule has its side benefits. An Idi Amin-type military dictatorship, or the “revolutionary” and one-party rule of the NRM had its pay-off. There was little bureaucracy, so things got done quickly.
If you got a contract, even you bribed for it, you would be sure to do the job and collect on your inflated invoices. There were few, and even then embattled, independent media outlets to stick their nose in the story. And the courts did not have the “democratic” space that they fluked in the 1995 constitution to make independent rulings, so the possibility that you could go to court to challenge the awarding of a contract and get a fair judgement was nearly zero.
Unlike today with over 100 independent FM stations, TV channels and a Parliament where MPs defy the president, things were easier – even for the corrupt.
The problem is that in Africa (as opposed to Asia) donors, local and internal investors, don’t trust that system, so they put in less money, and you have lower private sector wealth created. This means the government collects fewer taxes, has less donor money, and therefore fewer resources for patronage.
Whereas a corrupt chap in the old regime had an easier time, he had little to steal. Democracy opened the money tap and brought big money (the democracy rent), but also intrusive journalists and independent MPs.
In the old regime, the government had to control people through a vast security mechanism, which it didn’t have enough money to pay for. With democratic rent, it can control the people through patronage. By sharing some of it with the security agencies, it gives them a subjective and selfish reason to protect the political order.
With a military coup, Museveni and NRM would lose the vast democratic rent. And the security establishment would have to base its loyalty to the state on ideology, not bread and wine. Uganda is a country where the grandchildren of the president have to be born abroad in some fancy European hospital, because as the Big Man said, he does not trust the country’s doctors.
It is a country where the lifestyle of the leaders needs the vast rent that its fledgling democracy produces, and they can no longer get the army to accept to “eat ideology”. It’s clear – between maintaining a façade of democracy and reverting to military dictatorship – which is the sweeter and more rational deal for Museveni & Kiyonga Inc. – the latter.
Would they give still give it up? Yes. The great Greek writer Euripides said that “those whom the gods wish to destroy, they first make mad”. It was true in ancient Greece over 2,500 years ago. It is true in Uganda today.
-A shorter version of this article was first published in The Daily Monitor, Uganda at http://www.monitor.co.ug/OpEd/OpEdColumnists/CharlesOnyangoObbo/A-coup–democratic-rent–and-the-curse-of-Euripides-in-Uganda/-/878504/1672520/-/11bhr5gz/-/index.html.