In Sri Lanka, soldiers are fixing roads and bridges, remodelling cities, and selling vegetables
President Museveni’s decision to give the controversial National Agricultural Advisory Services (NAADS) to his former bush war veterans who, he claims, are living under abject poverty reminds me of an article I wrote in June last year but never published. It followed the visit to Uganda of President Mahinda Rajapaksa of Sri Lanka during which I noted some similarities in the domestic policies of the two countries.
President Museveni had said some time ago that the NAADS programme had failed completely and called for its immediate dissolution. It had been under the supervision of civil servants, and it was intended to advise farmers throughout the country on modern agricultural development.
Speaking during Uganda’s Heroes’ Day recently, President Museveni announced that he would deploy soldiers in every constituency in the country and throw in a few civil servants to take agriculture to a whole new level. He gave the example of Luwero Triangle, heart of his liberation struggle, where some agricultural projects have been a success under the supervision of his brother, General Salim Saleh.
Before the visit of the President of Sri Lanka which I have referred to above, The Economist (of London) had reported in its issue of 23 March, 2013, that there was a general effort in Sri Lanka to promote military culture among the young people, especially among the ethnic Sinhalese majority. In my article which was not published, I wondered whether President Museveni had not consulted his counterpart on the issue with a view to introducing the same system in Uganda, possibly on experimental basis.
A report about the bilateral talks between the two Presidents noted that the Ugandan leader called for a stronger relationship between the two countries, especially in the areas of ‘defence training and co-operation’. However, there was no specific mention that they discussed militarisation of their societies on the lines of what the Economist was reporting to be happening in Sri Lanka.
The government in Sri Lanka had until 2009 been embroiled in a bloody civil war against the Tamil Tiger guerrillas, while in Uganda, the ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM) waged a guerrilla war against alternating governments for several years until it defeated them and took power in 1986.
Like war, peace also comes with its problems. When the armed conflicts in Uganda and Sri Lanka ended, the governments of the two countries embarked on the task of rebuilding their countries’ economies, political and social infrastructures.
Equally demanding was the task of rehabilitating their poor populations which include the military, war veterans, widows and orphans and the peasants. Unlike Uganda, Sri Lanka did not demobilise its servicemen and women after the war but is, according to media reports, using them ‘to rebuild the country’s fledgling economy’. According to The Economist, the army’s grip in Sri Lanka is spreading across society. The paper was told that militarisation had been going on ever since the end of the civil war in 2009 and that the government had made no effort since then to reduce the armed forces.
In Uganda on the other hand, when the NRM’s liberation war ended, the Movement introduced training courses at Kyankwanzi that came to be known as ‘Mchaka-mchaka’. Targeted at NRM followers, higher education institutions and civil servants, the programme offered some basic military knowledge but was largely ideological. President Museveni has since been focusing on promoting patriotism, particularly among the youth, and the idea of giving NAADS to his fellow bush war veterans is a new development which, if it works, may be extended to other economic sectors in the country.
Moreover, 2016, the next national election year in Uganda, is approaching, and the political parties, especially the NRM, are now focusing on those elections in all their activities. A sizeable group of the party members has already named President Museveni as the party’s flag bearer, and the votes of the veterans will certainly come in handy. In Sri Lanka, soldiers are fixing roads and bridges, putting up and renovating houses, remodelling cities, building public recreation parks and even growing and selling vegetables. The army has a brand of hotels, and the navy has built its own resort called Sober Island where, funny enough, alcohol is served. The air force offers helicopter tours and has even opened a beauty salon in Colombo, the capital.
The Economist also reported that 4,000 head-teachers were at the time invited to interviews at the National Cadet Corps (a military establishment), and that the successful among them were to undergo 45 days of training and end up with full military titles. “The idea, supposedly” the report added, “is to improve discipline in schools”. The idea looks appealing to other countries, including Uganda which has, for a long time, experienced indiscipline in its own schools such as burning school buildings and defilement of students by teaching staff. Some students too, especially girls, are known to offer sex to teachers in exchange for good marks.
The person behind all the developments I have referred to in Sri Lanka was said to be defence secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the President’s brother, who also held the portfolio of urban development. The Economist said that sceptics want ‘this kind of stuff’ to be curbed, because in the north and east, where the Tamil minority bore the brunt of the civil war, the presence of the military breeds worry.
“There is no good reason for them to breed crocodiles, run school seminars, conduct whale-watching tours or operate nurseries”, the paper said.
The government of Sri Lanka retorted that ‘it is better to use servicemen and women for development than demobilise them’, and that their cheap labour had saved the country $ 1.5 billion a year earlier. It denied that private businesses suffer from competing with the army. The Economist added that activists fear that a chief reason for spreading military influence is indoctrination. It observed that ‘Leadership Training’ courses for university entrants are, for example, now run by the army inside military camps.
The handing of NAADS to war veterans has coincided with reports that the NRM Government has revived its training activities in Kyankwanzi by sending batches of newly recruited magistrates and new entrants to universities to that institution. The questions that arise from these developments are: (a) whether the NRM Government may not be tempted by Sri Lanka to militarise the development of Uganda’s economy and (b) whether the allocation of projects like NAADS to selected groups of the population is not tantamount to economic sectarianism?
Kiwanuka is a journalist and retired Foreign Service Officer