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Museveni’s many security organs: A ticking time bomb

By Independent Team

President Yoweri Museveni built his government on its reputed ability to provide security. For many Ugandans, the knowledge that nobody is going to break into their house in the middle of the night to rob them, or waylay them by the roadside to snatch their little possessions on gunpoint is the difference Museveni brought to their lives. And for this, millions of them, especially in the villages, continuously turn out to vote him at every presidential election.

It is easy to understand why. When Museveni captured power in January 1986, he inherited a moribund state that had failed to control the armed forces, leaving the citizens and their property under perpetual threat from state goons. But it seems Museveni has achieved this by not only restoring discipline in the armed forces but by creating a new security structure comprising a myriad units with overlapping roles that many are beginning to fear could be the source of insecurity now and in future.

Today, there are at least 30 different security outfits in the country carved out of the police, army, and statutory intelligence organs, many of them operating independent of the mother organisations but nearly all reporting directly to the president or his trusted lieutenants. Some are statutory, and therefore constitutional, and others are administrative“ and mostly unconstitutional.

These security outfits include: Chieftaincy of Military Intelligence (CMI), Joint Anti-Terrorism Taskforce (JATT), Internal Security Organisation (ISO), External Security Organisation (ESO), Rapid Response Unit (RRU), Anti-Stock Theft Unit (ASTU), Oil Wells Protection Unit, Special Revenue Protection Unit (SRPU), Popular Intelligence Network (PIN), State House Counter-Intelligence Unit (SHCIU), and Special Investigations Bureau (SIB).

The others are; Uganda Peoples Defence Forces (UPDF), Special Forces (SF), Presidential Guard Brigade (PGB), Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC), Criminal Investigations Department (CID), Uganda Police Force (UPF), Special Police Constables (SPC), Para-Military Police, Land Protection Unit (LPU), Child Counter-trafficking Unit (CCTU) and Crime Intelligence Unit (CIU).

This is in addition to a dozen militia groups, among them Amuka Boys, Arrow Boys, Civic Defence Unit (CDU), Kalangala Action Plan (KAP), Local Defence Unit (LDU), and Frontier Guards, among others.

The proliferation of security organisations especially in the later years of Museveni has raised many questions within the public, principal of which are; where does their funding come from? Are they provided for in the structures of the police, army or intelligence as provided for in the constitution? Where does their loyalty lie“ country or Museveni as an individual? Are these organs responsible for the “prevailing security” or are they the secret to Museveni’s long stay in power“ 23 years unbroken? Does it ultimately tell us that the regime is more insecure, is more vulnerable and must protect itself against the masses by building many walls around itself?

National security or regime security?

According to a high ranking security official who preferred not to be named, this state of affairs should be seen through the concept of national security which revolves around three pillars – the state, the regime and the citizenry. According to this concept, state + citizen (human & property) security = national security. Regime security is part of state security but the two are not fused. So ultimately, security is achieved not when regime security is paramount but when state and citizen security are paramount.

The question therefore is; do these myriad statutory and informal security organs reinforce state, citizen or regime security?

“The proliferation of different security organisations will undermine citizen security as the regime consolidates its security and ultimately, it undermines state institutions and therefore state security,” the official told The Independent.

For many observers, the current situation is not at all surprising because Museveni’s objective and strategy would ultimately produce a given security structure and in this case because his objective was always to retain power and the strategy to do so using the military. It is inevitable that we would end up with several dozen security outfits.

“There are two things that define President Museveni; he is inherently undemocratic and inherently militaristic “ and he has never deviated from this,” says Prof. Fredrick Juuko, a senior lecturer at Makerere University’s Faculty of Law, adding “it is the combination of this that has led to the atomisation and proliferation of informal security organs under Museveni.”

According to Prof. Juuko, the president’s strategy first involved personalising politics. Thus, the first form was the atomisation of politics by creating the concept of individual merit which had the ultimate result of denying people the right to associate and aggregate their interests. But this left the armed forces as the only organised interest group so he had to break it up, he said.

“Fragmentation is an instrument of domination, militarisation of the country and also personalisation of the state,” surmised Prof. Juuko.

Intelligence as popular vigilance

A former director in one of the intelligence organisations who has understudied Museveni’s approach to security says we should not be surprised by the proliferation of many security outfits.

‘Museveni does not understand intelligence as an information gathering profession with people doing the job out of love of profession almost independent of their political biases,” this source said, “He understands intelligence gathering from the prism of popular vigilance.

This former security director said that such an approach is understandable. The president’s path to power was through a guerrilla struggle that was largely based in rural areas among a largely peasant population. He selected Luwero in Buganda because the vast majority of Baganda peasants – largely for ethnic reasons “ hated Milton Obote and therefore identified with the objectives of the struggle. Ordinary peasants were always vigilant to provide both food and information (intelligence) to the NRA on the movements of UNLA troops.

Another former security official who did not want to be named said that Museveni did not leave this concept of popular vigilance in the bush. He brought it into government.

“Whenever there is a security threat,”this official said, “he does not look at formal intelligence/security bodies for intelligence. He tends to rely on informal networks composed of people who are politically or ethnically loyal to him personally for information about what is happening.

The former security official also said that this is the reason intelligence organisations in Uganda do not only spy on military threats but on the wider legitimate political opposition.

“Over the years, this former security official said, “opportunism has set in. This is because regime longevity coupled with increasing corruption has demonstrated to many that the system exists to enrich those who serve it. Therefore, most people are looking for material rewards from the system because the regime has lost its ideological raison detre. This has led to a shift from popular vigilance which was voluntary and pro bono i.e. free supply of intelligence, to seeking financial rewards from the intelligence provided.”

According to this official, this is the major reason security agencies have proliferated because to reward all these people requires them to be employed in a structure. The official said that if you look at the people who work in these new security organisations, they are largely youths who support Museveni. These new agencies are largely created to provide them with jobs in order to retain their loyalty and reward their support.

However, a former Museveni confidant told The Independent that this development has serious negative implications for Museveni and the country. “The president has lost a lot of legitimacy,” he said, “so he is rightly paranoid. In such a psychological state, the best thing you can sell him in form of intelligence is fear. So these young boys in the new security organisations are always reporting to him real and imaginary threats. He buys these stories line, hook and sinker because he is paranoid.”

This official said this is the reason the president has become increasingly isolated. “There is hardly anyone he trusts anymore,”his former close confidant said, “That is why he has become inaccessible. But this also means he has lost those with reasonable information.”

Another political commentator who preferred that The Independent does not disclose his identity because of the sensitivity of security matters too traces the myriad security units to the president’s militarist ideology.

“One of the most revealing things, which Ugandans have typically forgotten, was what Museveni said when he abandoned the Ten-Point Programme and embraced the sensibility of the free market in 1988. He said the ‘revolutionary’ path required discipline, but Ugandans were undisciplined, so he opened up so that we get easy donor money and eat it. Then he added the most significant thing; that he wished the whole of Uganda was an army, because it would have been easier to organise, and that obedience to directives from the top was easier. I think in these multiplicities he is serving out his ideological conviction (and it also explains why he was once passionate about chaka mchaka “ military and political indoctrination),”he said.

However, another analyst who has served at the pinnacle of Museveni’s regime attributes all this to the president’s ‘outmoded’ concept of security that is based on numbers, not intelligence and technology.

“Museveni’s concept is of physical security which borders on cowardice; that you must deploy physical people every where like Special Police Constables (SPCs) during CHOGM, create as many organisations with as many men as possible to saturate the population, and include on his convoy anti-aircraft guns, armoured vehicles, etc. Museveni’s deployment is not led by intelligence but by fear! Yet the smart way is security based on intelligence and technology. A trained intelligence person will very easily beat this ‘physical security’ network,”he said.

And part of the explanation for this, they say, could be the personal weakness of the president grounded in his lack of experience in public management. “If you look at Museveni, before he became president, he had actually never organised politically in the strict sense of the word “ and he has never since he came to power,” the analyst said.

How it works for Museveni

The reasons for this atomisation of security notwithstanding, how has this structure helped President Museveni to keep the country under his hold (or boot as some cynically say)?

Well, beyond them creating job opportunities for his youth supporters (patronage) these security units, analysts say, allow Museveni to occupy and populate more political and contested ground, and ensures that he will always have an instrument of repression.

“Obote I (and indeed II) relied on just the army, Special Force, Police, and NASA. It limited his repressive reach, restricted the ground which he could cover in terms of intelligence gathering, and made him more susceptible once disloyalty set in. With Museveni, you have to work your way through that many organisations“ or at least half “ to carry out a coup against him. That is enough time for word to reach him, and for him to mobilise counter action, a political commentator told The Independent.

Apparently, Museveni understood that loyalty is a very valuable commodity, but that it is also very perishable. Having so many of these informal security organisations has allowed him to create a large supply of the commodity. This scenario is one of the important elements in his survival for this long.

And there are notable parallels between his style and that of Obote who was twice overthrown by his army. According to observers, Obote and other classic African civilian dictators like Kenya’s Daniel arap Moi, believed that a mass party that was dedicated to the ideals of keeping itself in power was a great deterrence to opponents trying to oust you. But Museveni, who claims to lead a mass organisation “ National Resistance Movement, went the opposite way. By creating so many security organisations, he has accumulated so much power in his hands that even a fully mobilised mass African party can’t pry it from his hands without contesting on the ground where he is strongest “ taking to the gun.

“The disadvantage of the Obote strategy is that when you try to spread your control via a broad civilian network only, you just end up having to bribe too many people and leaving many disgruntled because you can never have enough resources to go round. The Museveni approach pushes the rank and file into a corner where they are bound by their jobs to be loyal, and then he bribes a few senior officers and key people “ which is possible,” an analyst said.

Indeed many observers have noted that most of these informal security outfits are stuffed with the president’s village-mates, relatives, and tribesmen as these are deemed to be most loyal.

“Close to 70% of those in these organisations may be from one village, broadly speaking. It is on the assumption that the enemy is not from ‘our’ village; he is from outside, a senior security official who preferred anonymity told The Independent.

The other side to this security structure, analysts say, is the symbiotic relationship between these quasi-security outfits and President Museveni. Apparently, the soldiers want to get money and business from the state yet for Museveni, it gives him security and undermines any organ that could rise against his divide-and-rule approach. It is possibly this is responsible for State House’s perennial surpassing of its budget, and partly explains the size of classified defence expenditure, the level of corruption within the security services, and the total breakdown of the institutional command and control structure.

What does it mean for Uganda?

For many people, the effect of Museveni’s atomised security structure has been to ensure relative peace, stability, and regime longevity.

‘They have made him more entrenched, and therefore allowed him to be more oppressive – and for much longer. If you consider that regime longevity in Africa is also some form of ‘stability’, then you can argue that it actually brought a degree of that (which is not all a bad thing), an analyst told The Independent.

Others however think these might be the seeds of the president’s downfall.

“The danger is if one day a village boy becomes the enemy, then Museveni will be gone in a minute. There is going to be discontent over eating and people who eat big usually disagree in a big way, said a security analyst.

Be that as it may, it is clear this set-up has resulted in the systematic de-institutionalisation of security.

“It has been a process of systematic destruction. He fears strong institutions. Even when he talks about professionalising the army, it is all empty; it is the type of thing that has kept UPDF as a militia that cannot defeat a rag-tag army,” said a security analyst, adding that now the security structure is beginning to constrain national objectives and therefore the original strategies mapped out of a national outlook have fallen by the wayside. Ultimately therefore, the security structure has become like the inverted pyramid “ too many chiefs (heads of different outfits) at the top and few men.

Such a system may service individual objectives but it’s a mismatch with national aspirations. Besides, resources that should have been used to build a national security framework have instead been diverted to build these informal outfits and service the patronage network “ opening ground for massive corruption.

Implications on succession

With such a militarised and regimented society, what will happen when Museveni finally leaves the stage by an act of nature, or the system collapsing or finally can’t control this incoherent operation?

The fragmentation of the security services means that their control depends on the skills of Museveni as an individual and his personal charisma and loyalty built over the years. Without him, it is unlikely that his successor, even a member of his family, would be able to exercise effective control over such a highly fragmented and ethnicised security system.

“Museveni has perfected militarisation and has ridden the tide. For now, he must continue to juggle around but for how long? It can’t be in the negative for a long time; the decay, moribund society. It is a question of time before it explodes, and it could go the Ivory Coast way,” says Prof. Juuko.

And this is a view shared by many.

“I think the chances of a country breaking up, and the rise of warlordism is 10 times higher than in the Obote or Moi scenarios. This will be Somalia, or Sierra Leone or Liberia at their worst point. You also have to wonder what all these security elements will eat when Museveni drops off the stage. At best, this means that Uganda in future can only be held together by even a more iron-fisted strongman than Museveni to bring together all these myriad forces and their foot soldiers who will be on the loose in the years to come,” said one analyst.

But perhaps more worrying is that the west of the country from where many of the foot-soldiers and commanders of the informal outfits come from may provide the hub for future insecurity because these may provide the first recruits into rebellion to try and restore a dead regime or find a source of livelihood to replace the state perks that will be no more.

Clearly, Uganda is on the precipice. Museveni might still hold the ropes for now but by an act of fate, the country could descend into anarchy or warlordism to a scale we have never experienced before.

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