CIVIL-MILITARY RELATIONS IN UGANDA AND THE NEED FOR REFORM – LAURA RUBIDGE

Image: Juan Martin Lopez (Unsplash)

In the third week of November 2020, 45 people were killed in Uganda when protestors clashed with the military. Unfortunately, this is not an isolated incident which demonstrates the inability of the Ugandan military to protect civilians. This incident is one of many deadly events which come as a consequence of the damaged and ineffective civil-military relations in Uganda. The civil military relations in Uganda have resulted civilians unprotected by their own military, and lead to atrocities such as the deaths of the 45 people in November this year. These strained civil-military relations are not novel and will not be remedied overnight, long-term action and commitment to reform is required.

In order to understand the evolution of the civil-military relations in any post-colonial country in Africa, it is important to first understand the civil-military relations that were enforced before independence. Colonial rule is intrinsically undemocratic and coercive therefore, the military was primarily used as a tool against resistance and to confine the people under colonial rule to remain as subjects, absent of liberties and freedoms.  The use of force by the military against civilians was acceptable if it protected the colonial state.

Independence provided African leaders with a crucial choice to either maintain the colonial military tradition of narrowly protecting the state’s interest or to recreate a new military with novel institutions, doctrines and ethos focused on broader societal interests. Julius Nyerere of Tanzania was among the few leaders who opted to dismantle the colonial army and moved toward total subordination of the military. Contrastingly, elsewhere, the majority of African leaders, including in Uganda, chose to continue the colonial role of the military as a coercive tool. Milton Obote, the Ugandan independence Prime Minister, demonstrated this role of the military to protect the governing power, when he used the military to defend his position from political opponents such as the Secretary General- Grace Stuart Ibingira. This not only solidified the military’s role in domestic politics but demonstrated the consequences this has on civilians. During the political contest between Ibingira and Obote, members of the Armed forces shot civilians and were not held accountable nor punished. This demonstrates the potential danger to civilians of politicisation of the military. Obote not only utilised the military as a tool for political success, he also provided the military with more direct influence on the population for example by legislating the ability for the military to arrest and decide what constitutes evidence. 

In 1971, Idi Admin lead a coup which subjected Uganda to a “military-facist dictatorship” followed by failed coup attempts and rigged elections. This period of instability and politicisation of the military greatly undermined its ability to act as an autonomous, professional, and effective state institution.  However, in 1986 Museveni launched a 5-year guerrilla campaign gaining him power and providing the Ugandan population with hope. Museveni set out to reform the national force, renaming it the Uganda People’s Defence Forces (UPDF), emphasising the renewed focus on the military for the people and not for maintaining power. On paper, Museveni was able to solve the civil-military problematique which questions how to build a sufficiently strong and effective military to protect civilians from threats but not allow the military to grow too strong that it becomes a threat to the civilians themselves. Huntington’s liberal model has long dominated the solution to this problem, purporting that professionalising the military will lead to autonomy, neutrality and subsequently subordination of the military to the civilians, preserving their safety from the military itself. Museveni employed Huntington’s suggestion and aimed to professionalise the military. This was seemingly successful in the early 2000’s, the UDPF maintained peace and security in most of the country, participated in official peacekeeping missions and engaged in non-official interventions in neighbouring countries. Hence the first part of the problematique was resolved, the military was able to protect the civilians from threats. Did professionalising the military solve the second part of the problematique concurrently? Are the civilians safe from their own military? 

Unfortunately, despite the seeming success of Museveni’s professionalisation of the military partially solving the civil military problem, the latter half is still very much unresolved. The historical entrenchment of the military as a political tool in Ugandan politics undermines a key factor in Huntington’s solution: neutrality. The recent example of civilian’s deaths at the hands of the military introduced above, demonstrates the lingering politicisation of the military and its devastating consequences. The protests erupted after a popular presidential candidate, Bobi Wine, was arrested at a campaign. Wine is challenging Museveni who has maintained power for over 30 years. Once aware of the arrest, many Wine supporters took to the streets in a protest which erupted in chaos and resulted in the military shooting at unarmed civilian protestors. International organisations have condemned the actions of the military. Human Rights Watch accused Museveni of attempting to weaken and repress the opposition by the use of the military. 

This incident demonstrates that although the military reform implemented by Museveni has improved the security and effectiveness of the military to protect the civilians from outside threats, the military is far from neutral. In order for the civilians to truly be safe from the military, depoliticisation of the military is desperately needed to undo the partiality of the military which has been ingrained throughout Ugandan history.

Laura has a degree in BPolSci International Studies from the University of Pretoria and is currently completing a level 4 NALP paralegal diploma. She hopes to complete her honors in International Relations and pursue a career in the field of Public International Law and Human Rights. Laura is one of the permanent members of the writing staff at The Art of Politics.


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