By Andrew M. Mwenda
The death of Maj. Gen. James Kazini reveals the major institutional weakness in Uganda. Kazini died like a petty thief allegedly bludgeoned to death by a ‘malaya.’ This is not an isolated incident. As President Yoweri Museveni said at the funeral, the best of NRA/UPDF commanders have died ‘ not at the hands of enemy bullets ‘ but as a result of irresponsible personal conduct; in brothels, due to drunkenness etc.
The source of this institutional failure can be traced to the selection process of combatants during NRM/NRA’s struggle. Many enlightened Ugandans joined the struggle in pursuit of high ideals ‘ to fight for freedom, democracy and economic progress. But many also joined for base reasons; as the president has said on several occasions, he accepted into the NRA ranks many criminals and thugs running away from justice.
The socially irresponsible elements in the NRA grew progressively, beginning in the bush and becoming stronger once they captured power. In the resource-scarce conditions of Luwero, you could largely rely on ideological incentives to retain support; so thugs could not gain the upper hand. In power, there is a lot of money; so the greedy win. This is how the thuggish elements inside the NRA/NRM became strong and diluted its ideological purity.
Yet this should be puzzling. For NRA to succeed, it needed superior organisational ability. Some rebels get access to a rich mineral from which they can generate revenues to finance their operations (UNITA in Angola and the RUF in Sierra Leone) or a rich external power to bankroll them (RENAMO in Mozambique and the Contras in Nicaragua). They may also need a rear base where they can retreat when government counter insurgency operations get tough (RPF in Rwanda). The NRA lacked all the above.
Yet, although these advantages may achieve short term financial and military objectives, they disable the mechanisms that facilitate internal structural and attitudinal change. For example, they distorts the selection process; many fortune hunters seeking a quick payoff may join in order to capture a diamond mine or to access CIA largesse. They may even crowd out people who are ideologically committed to the objectives of the organisation. The same logic applies to most foreign development aid.
Because NRA lacked these advantages, it should have attracted high commitment individuals who are highly disciplined and ideologically motivated. This would have led to the development of effective organisation. It did ‘ to some extent. But it also attracted a lot of poorly disciplined individuals as the president has attested. Why? The lesson became increasingly apparent to me as I began to compare it with the RPF.
The RPF was born inside the ideological womb of the NRA. The two movements should therefore exhibit similar characteristics. Yet while the NRM degenerated into the organisational nightmare we see in most of Africa, the RPF has grown to establish one of the most effective social organisational systems in contemporary history.
What explains this? First, NRA fought its war when both the state and economy in Uganda had collapsed and the ruling party was deeply divided. Second, reading Museveni’s Sowing the Mustard Seed (I have read it four times) and listening to the president and his colleagues reveals something fundamental; they share a common contempt for their adversary ‘ the UNLA and UPC. There is consensus among all NRA fighters that UNLA commanders (except for a few) were weak, cowardly, incompetent and corrupt.
Because the adversary was weak politically, institutionally, militarily and economically, the organisational ability required to win was average. This had powerful implications on the judgment of individual competences and merit. A person who would have made a mediocre commander came across as a great ‘fighter’ when put against some illiterate UNLA goon. Fortune seekers with limited commitment to the political objectives of the NRA were welcomed and promoted; their opportunism and incompetence largely shielded by the ineptness of their adversary.
The situation was different in Rwanda. RPF commanders may have despised President Juvenal Habyarimana’s politics. But they respected the Rwandan military under him. They all agree that it was a formidable fighting machine. Indeed, RPF initially attacked Rwanda with the NRA mentality of karampenge (a reckless battle practice of standing exposed with a run-and-shoot at the enemy) and were thoroughly beaten and almost annihilated. All their leaders with this mentality died in the first 30 days.
This taught them a lesson. They retreated to the harsh Virunga Mountains and re-thought their strategy. They did not have a rich mineral or a generous external financier. The weather was so cold that the weak died and the opportunists deserted. Only the strong, disciplined with high ideological commitment to the objectives of the RPF remained in the bush. In such circumstances, the RPF overcame adverse selection problems. It was easy to achieve organisational coherence. They have transplanted this into government and we should therefore not be surprised by their ability to build enduring social systems.
These conditions required the supply of a person with extraordinary leadership ability; tenacity, fortitude, iron discipline, an inflexible will, a strategic mind and good judgment. Paul Kagame became this person. The danger with such people is that they can be stubborn and cling to power at all costs. It will be a statement of great personal character if Kagame ever voluntarily relinquishes power ‘ it will be an act without precedent.
We should equally not be surprised by Museveni’s revelation that out of ten battalion commanders he had at the time NRA captured power, eight died as a result of ‘recklessness’. The personal failings of 80% of his commanders reveal inherent organisational weakness born of a poor selection process during NRA’s incubation period in Luwero.
But it also reflects a fundamental flaw in the president’s judgment. One of the most critical aspects of leadership is the choice of people to appoint to positions of responsibility. Museveni is the one who appoints commanders and is therefore partly responsible when most of his choices exhibit recklessness. He had a wide pool of talent to select from. He chose Kazini who died in a brothel. It is highly unlikely that Mugisha Muntu or Aronda Nyakairima can die such a tragic and ignoble death.