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Book Review: Militarism and the Dilemma of Postcolonial Statehood

Book Review: Can military deliver democracy?

Title: Militarism and the Dilemma of Postcolonial Statehood: The Case of Museveni’s Uganda

Authors: Busingye Kabumba, Dan Ngabirano, Timothy Kyepa

Publisher: Development Law Publishing

Availability: All major bookstores


In his 30th State of the Nation Address on June 6, President Yoweri Museveni said Uganda is at peace with itself thanks to the tireless efforts of its army. Museveni had said the same in his New Year address; that Uganda had never experienced such peace in 500 years. He repeated it in his July 10 comment on the recent by-elections.

As hyperbolic as that is (Uganda as it presently exists is only 127 years old), one wonders why armoured fighting vehicles, known as Mamba, and teargas trucks are everywhere in the nation’s capital and major urban centres. Why are policemen, and oftentimes soldiers, everywhere armed as if taking a final stand against a formidable foe? Why the constant commissioning of crime preventers instead of, say, agricultural extension workers or community educators and mobilisers whom, one would have thought, Uganda needs a lot more?

Leaders of Uganda’s security institutions, notably the police, argue that such raw display of state power responds to a more militarised society.

But three young law academics at Makerere University – Dr Busingye Kabumba, Dan Ngabirano, and Dr Timothy Kyepa – contend there is everything wrong with such militarism, by which is meant the prioritisation of the military as panacea for whatever challenges the State is confronted with.

In a 184-page book titled `Militarism and the Dilemma of Postcolonial Statehood: The Case of Museveni’s Uganda’, they argue that “the military solution that our political leaders through the years have adapted to the challenge of State formation and sustenance is one that is undesirable and, ultimately, unsustainable.”

Beginning in 2001, political contestations in Uganda between the ruling NRM party and those in opposition to it have been settled, albeit temporarily, in favour of the former mainly through state sanctioned violence and coercion. The purpose has always been to aim a salutary lesson at whoever dares to challenge Museveni’s authority, which appears to continually come under tougher scrutiny every time he has sought every possible way to extend his longevity in power. So, it is not true that the prevalent show of force across the country exists to counter militarised crime. In Uganda today, it is a truth widely acknowledged that it is to keep the regime’s critics in firm check.

At the heart of these often deadly confrontations is the pertinent question whether democracy can be delivered through the barrel of the gun – the raison d’etre for Museveni’s launching the devastating six-year guerrilla war that brought him to power in 1986.

Kabumba and friends note that “from the very beginning, there was and would continue to be an internal contradiction presented by a group that sought to ‘fight for democracy’. How could such a group, once it had taken power by force of arms, be expected to transform this military-won mandate into a democratic or popular mandate?

“What would happen if the people of Uganda, in whose name the bush war had been waged, felt they needed a change in leadership and sought to grant this mandate to a group different from the historical NRM/A? Could the NRM/A be expected to permit this transition, if it was clear this is what the people wanted? Or would the NRM/A find ways, including through manipulation of the law and state institutions, to sustain itself in power indefinitely?”

Thanks to time, the answers to these and related questions can now easily be found in such instances as the NRA/M’s extension of its self-set four-year interim period in 1989, its execution of four general elections beginning 2001 (three of which have ended up in the Supreme Court and the other in massive public protests), its lifting of presidential terms limits in 2005, and now the ongoing maneuvers to lift the presidential age limit in order that Museveni can stand again in 2021.

There are no prizes for guessing whether he will ‘win’ and inevitably extend his 35-year stay in power by another five. After all, he is on record saying the ballot is a mere piece of paper that cannot remove him from power.

The book is an enticing primer on the evolving politics of Uganda. It is quickly narrated, making it easily readable and relatable through the choice of still fresh events. The authors interrogate its central question: whether armed groups that capture State power can ever voluntarily divest themselves of it – a process the authors believe would be necessary for, and implicit in, any genuine transition to democracy, which these armed groups always claim to fight for.

While Kabumba, Ngabirano and Kyepa conclude such groups tend to turn out as ill-prepared and unsuited to their stated purpose to restore democracy, they do not explain what exactly makes it difficult for them to keep their promises. A more in-depth inquiry could have plugged this and a few other sections such as the concluding chapter, which is populated by endless trains of imagination and questions that, again, time has revealed answers to. Besides, the absence of any practical suggestions as to the way forward creates inlets for unnecessary pokes at an otherwise commendable effort.


One comment

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