The changing face of the Ugandan army and what it says about Museveni’s plans for the future
Imade my career in the late 1990s and early 2000s in large part by investigating and reporting on corruption and incompetence in the Uganda Peoples’ Defense Forces (UPDF). The National Resistance Movement (NRM) came to power criticising previous governments for presiding over what it called “parasitic” armies i.e. the army depending on the taxpayer for its budget and on many occasions (under Idi Amin and Milton Obote II) looting from citizens.
The NRM promised to build a productive army. So beginning in 1987, the UPDF (then National Resistance Army) established the National Enterprises Corporation (NEC) as the productive arm of the army. NEC owned a weapons manufacturing plant, ranches, a mattress production company, a fumigation business, a pharmaceutical plant, established a construction unit and much more.
By 2000, nearly all of these businesses had been cannibalised by incompetent officers through gross corruption and mismanagement. The UPDF had become a springboard for private profiteers that procured substandard military equipment, expired food rations, and undersize uniforms. They were paid for supplying “air” (i.e. nothing) to the army, and placed ghosts on the army register. The UPDF itself was by then a poorly trained, poorly equipped, poorly fed, poorly dressed, poorly led and demoralised force that could not fight against more determined opponents. In 1999 and 2000, UPDF fought three battles against the more disciplined Rwanda Defense Forces and lost badly. In northern Uganda, the rebel Lord’s Resistance Army was expanding its theatre of operations and the intensity of the war was increasing.
In 2000, President Yoweri Museveni had, during his reelection campaigns, promised to professionalise the army. But by 2003, some highly educated, professional and disciplined officers like the then director of records, Maj. Sabiti Mutengesa, were running away – preferring the misery of exile than remain and be commanded by thieving generals. Museveni’s promise seemed mere bluff. In October 2003, Museveni fired the army commander, Maj. Gen. James Kazini and ordered the arrest and prosecution of 112 senior army officers. The country saw senior generals in the dock accused of theft and mismanagement. Kazini and others went to Luzira. A decision was taken to sell many of the NEC companies and liquidate the assets of others.
By 2005 I was still arguing that UPDF was an absurd spectacle. I remember one day the then-new army commander, Gen. Aronda Nyakairima, and his then chief of staff, Maj. Gen. Benon Biraro approached me: “Things are changing Andrew,” I remember Biraro telling me and asking me to visit one of their facilities. I never did.
It is with this in mind that I went to South Sudan to visit our troops and see first hand how UPDF stands. Let me declare a conflict of interest: my brother, Brig. Kayanja Muhanga, is the commander of UPDF in South Sudan. But that, I hope, has not influenced my assessment.
Ten years since my last criticism of UPDF corruption and mismanagement, I could not believe the army I found. Properly dressed soldiers in polished boots and pressed uniforms. Their meals comprise posho and beans; beef is imported from Gulu, rice forms part of their regular menu, and their stores are stocked with dry rations. The army that used to carry sacks of posho and beans to cook for themselves at the battlefield is a thing of the past.
The army today boasts heavy artillery, tanks, armored personnel careers, heavy machine guns, a motorised infantry, and close air support consisting of supersonic jets and armor-plated helicopter gunships. All are in the hands of highly trained, well-coordinated and synchronised units, highly disciplined, highly motivated, well fed and well led soldiers. Today’s UPDF is a formidable fast moving, hard striking juggernaut.
The transformation that has taken place in the army since I last wrote my investigative stories is mindboggling. It was clear to me that once the corruption waned and things got better, our sources in the army dried up – because there was nothing juicy to leak to the press. And we journalists did not follow the story of this transformation.
When this army pounced upon poorly trained, poorly armed (with light infantry weapons), poorly commanded and poorly disciplined militias of Riek Machar, one can imagine what happened. The UPDF fell into an L ambush along a 4km stretch at Tabakeka. But they had expected the ambush anyway and were already in a box-formation. In a battle that lasted between four to five hours, UPDF lost nine soldiers and 46 injured (and this due to an initial mistake). No one wants to talk of the casualties on the other side. But one can imagine what a highly armored, mechanised and motorised fighting machine with close air support can do to militias with light infantry weapons. It was the first and last battle the Sudanese rebels engaged the UPDF.
Visiting the UPDF field hospital made of prefabricated materials – with crisp clean wards that make Mulago look like a 15th century outpost, its operating theatre, its dental facility, its drug stores and seeing sick soldiers in clean hospital uniforms, clean beds, in air conditioned wards with proper meals you feel proud to be a Ugandan.
It is leap years from the UPDF that ran out of ammunitions and could not sustain its fire ratio during the 2000 battle against RDF in Kisangani. Back then, its injured troops could not be evacuated from the battlefront and there was no field hospital to take them for treatment – the only one available being a facility run by UNICEF.
It has been a long journey for UPDF. But this tells of something worrisome for Uganda’s future.
Museveni has modernised the army and thus gained capabilities to launch military adventures abroad, defend the nation, and strike at his domestic opponents if they dare challenge his power.
The transformation of the UPDF clearly shows that it is possible to reconfigure the state in Uganda to function effectively and efficiently.
So why has not achieved similar results to improve the capabilities of civil institutions like ministries of agriculture, health and education to serve the citizen?
Here, service delivery has remained atrociously poor – characterised by institutionalised corruption, incompetence, indifference, and apathy.
Every effort appears to be hampered by the democratic process with its electioneering. Politics is no longer a contest over alternative policies and programs. Instead, Museveni and the NRM find it more electorally rewarding to trade private goods (like ministerial and ambassadorial appointments) to elites than to deliver public goods and services to ordinary citizens.