By Jude Kagoro
Journalists are doing their country a disservice by knowingly or unknowingly marketing the militarization of politics
Oftentimes, political commentators in Uganda make a claim that there is militarization in the country. To the commentators, the nuances intended to be captured in the usage of the concept largely point to the government vis-à-vis political power maximization. The commentators however, fail to elucidate on two major aspects. First, what does militarization really mean?
Second, it is impossible for any government to successfully reproduce any phenomenon—including democracy and economic development—without the sub-conscious consent of the prevalent social forces. This article is intended to provide a brief clarification on the concept of militarization and illustrate how the media, as one of the country’s social forces, has aided in the reproduction of militarization.
Militarization can be defined as a process through which norms, institutions and other aspects of society are penetrated, dominated and influenced by military ideas and ethos. The process can take a quantitative or a qualitative character.
In the former, the phenomenon is measured in terms of accumulation of capacity for organized violence and military build-up by the State — such as number of people under arms or military spending vis-à-vis the GDP—while in the latter, militarization is a result of non-quantifiable socio-cultural and ideological aspects embedded in everyday activities. Worth noting is that militarization does not simply or directly depend on the role of the military in society.
In his thesis, “The Roots and Contradictions of Modern Militarism,” Michael Mann broadens the concept of militarization beyond the focus of the military institution by referring to a set of attitudes and social practices that glamorize the military and military culture.
I would now like to show how the media is one of the powerful social forces that play a profound role in the reproduction of militarization in Uganda. For a start, one may argue that journalists belong to the same socio-political arena as other social forces in the country. The probability of individual journalists holding opinions that are radically different from those of the society they write for are slim.
Thus, the media performs the reproduction of militarization in three major ways. First, it re-articulates shared mentalities that the military is the final instrument of political power. Second, it aids in the mediation of military visibility in public social spaces, and in some cases glamorizes individual military officers. Third, journalists attempt to construct their own symbolic capital by deconstructing the military.
The media in Uganda is replete with accounts, which reflect the shared mentality that the military is equivalent to power. It is often suggested that the balance of power in the armed forces is a major determinant of who becomes Uganda’s president. It is common to see articles and opinions writing off civilian presidential aspirants based on their perceived lack of “a political power base in the army.”
The continued consumption of these opinions can only have a direct effect on people’s perceptions. A regular reader who may have wished to vote for a civilian president may be influenced to change his/her mind or to abstain from voting since he/she is convinced that a civilian has no chance.
Ironically, some of the journalists write critical articles about the military in politics, but are unaware that their opinions actually send signals to the readers that the military is the “Alpha and Omega.” This is what Rick Roderic calls the “critics paradox” – the more journalists illustrate the power of the military, the more the military is aware of its power, and the more those who may want to change the status quo feel powerless about their ability to do so hence the inertia. Thus, it has become normalized, and to a large extent taken for granted, that the military and politics move together.
Military visibility in media
The media pays considerable attention to the activities of the military and military personalities. As one senior journalist explains, “We don’t write for ourselves, we write for an audience out there. The reading audience shapes what we concentrate on. When we write a story on a major activity like military re-shuffles or a scandal involving a high ranking military officer, the papers sell like hot cakes… in some cases we have to print more copies for the demanding audience.”
This disclosure can be interpreted threefold. One, by covering the military, the papers make profits as a result of increased sales, which in turn attracts more advertisements. Two, shared mentalities of the readers attach importance to articles on the military. Three, journalists construct their own symbolic capital by writing on the military—I return to this aspect shortly.
Some journalists write glamorizing reports about individual military generals. It is common to find articles referring to military generals with phrases such as “the fearless,” “the gallant soldier,” “one of the kind general,” among other colorful descriptions. Newspapers run profiles of military generals illustrating their well-executed assignments; outline the military courses they attended in different military academies and the number of times they have “survived” death.
Let me cite some classic examples of the glamorization of military officers by journalists. In the aftermath of the Al Shabaab terror attack on Uganda in 2010, The Daily Monitor published a story titled, “Army Generals Tipped for War Against the Terrorists,” claiming that the military High Command was discussing who among its ranks would lead a ruthless assault on Somalia.
The paper revealed that two renowned officers, Col. Elly Kayanja and Brig. Kasirye Ggwanga, had been suggested. The author provided profiles and images of the “tough looking” Col. Kayanja and Brig. Ggwanga and inferred that if the two were assigned, Al Shabaab would be shattered to pieces.
The Red Pepper gives another interesting instance of glamorization. In the context of the delayed announcement of the cabinet by President Museveni after the 2011 elections, the paper ran an article titled, “If I were Museveni, this would be my Next Cabinet.” The article proposed a number of military generals who it said were “ideal for cabinet positions.”
Based on his success as a soldier, Gen Katumba Wamala was listed as the preferred vice president. The article suggested several other soldiers such as Maj. Gen Kale Kayihura, Maj. Gen Kahinda Otafiire, Gen. Salim Saleh, Col. Fred Mwesigye, and Maj. Bright Rwamirama for different cabinet portfolios.
The same article picked Gen. David Tinyefuza (now Sejusa) as the most ideal police chief; advancing an argument that “in a bid to save our country from returning to the chaotic past, there is need to have a fierce military officer to man the Police force.”
In April 2011, The Red Pepper published a cover story titled, “New Succession Plan Leaks, Gen. Katumba Fronted to Succeed Museveni.” The paper validated its claim by noting that Gen. Katumba had the required credentials, notably military experience, to succeed President Museveni. Though these articles could pass as mere speculations, they clearly show that journalists are actively re-producing militarization.
While thinking through the attention journalists give the military, an academic at Makerere University argues: “Every time I open a newspaper I see a general being praised. The media pay too much attention to these generals.
I think the journalists are in the hangover of the bush war… a lot has changed and we should be moving forward rather than talking about war and generals all the time…this country for sure is in the grip of the generals. The journalist praise generals more than professors! What is that?”
“Every time” is perhaps an exaggeration, but the academic’s claim points to the glamorization of military generals by the media. The academic alludes to another important element, the regular re-visitation of the NRA guerrilla war. The 1981-1985 NRA guerrilla war is an important point of reference in the contemporary politics of Uganda.
The war has been used as a source of symbolic capital by both the NRM government and the leading opposition party, the FDC. The same war is one of the factors NRM uses to validate its continued stay in power. The media keeps the guerrilla war fresh in the minds and hearts of the readers, listeners and viewers. Narratives of who played what role, who led which battle, who contributed more than the other, are regular in the media.
For instance, in the period of May to September 2009, The Observer newspaper devoted its every mid-week edition to the guerrilla war series, “Who Fought.” Sensational headlines such as “Col. Kashilingi Saved Museveni from Deadly UNLA Attack,” “Ten Brave Men who Faced UNLA’s Fire,” “How Brig. Kyaligonza Terrorized Kampala,” “Gen Kagame Helped to Crush Internal NRA Revolt,” and “Brig. Lutaaya: The Man to whom Museveni Entrusted his Life,” were flashed into the eyes and minds of readers.
The continued re-visitation aids in the continued hero worshiping of the guerrilla war veterans, who in January 1986 arrived in Kampala as superman-like characters. One can argue that the articles help to reconstruct the symbolic capital that the veterans accumulated in the war, indirectly giving them leverage in their socio-political ventures.
Deconstructing the military
A senior journalist observes that when a journalist writes an article on “classified” military information, he/she demonstrates the power of access to the corridors of influence. Interviewed journalists seemed to be aware of the fact that articles about the military/military personalities draw considerable public interest.
One of the journalists reasons that when a well-written article about military affairs is run, the author becomes a public figure. Some ardent readers make follow-up calls to get the ‘story behind the story.’
He adds that the readers do not only view the journalist as a person with access but as a “fearless” writer as well. Similarly, another journalist observes that when articles on scandals about high ranking military officers are published, their authors command respect among the readers. As it is world-wide, most of what happens in the military is beyond the ordinary eye; one has to dig deep, sometimes go beyond the able to complete a single article. In other words, the writer becomes the “warrior journalist” writing about “warrior generals” in a “warrior institution.”
Journalists with credentials in covering the military are a ‘scarce resource’ and are well sought-after by the media industry, one journalist intimates. The journalist’s name and services may be used to build the image and the popularity of a particular media house. It is not enough for one to be an experienced journalist to write about the military.
Andrew Mwenda for instance says that it takes a journalist with connections to uncover what is behind the scenes. It is not the art of writing that is important, but the social intelligence and the ability to socially wire oneself with networks that matter. Mwenda gives context: “I made my name as a young journalist by covering government secrets especially those of the military.
My image and the label “Andrew Mwenda” was built when I started hosting military generals and blasting them on my daily evening radio show programme “Andrew Mwenda Live” on KFM… I would always host these generals well-armed with classified military and intelligence files. I tell you I can have access to any information in this country… A lot of responses to “Andrew Mwenda Live” were directed towards the discussions on the military and the military generals.
Many of the generals feared to appear with me on TV because I would have demystified their power. I did it once with former army spokesman Lt. Col Shaban Bantariza and immediately after the show Gen. Tinyefuza called him [Bantariza] and warned him never to appear with me on TV again.”
Mwenda’s revelation clearly illustrates that he used the power of access as a strategy to construct his own journalistic power. This can be described as a power claim through proximity. Mwenda is aware that his own name or brand as a journalist has a lot to do with his power of access to military secrets. Currently, Mwenda owns a popular newspaper, The Independent, and continues to construct more symbolic capital for himself and his newspaper. The Independent is known for “uncovering” political and military/intelligence secrets.
To enhance the capital constructed through the deconstruction of the military, some journalists discuss war tactics and strategy. Some give perspectives about why the government should procure military hardware X instead of Y. In that way, the journalists are not only claiming symbolic capital by proxy but also demonstrating their expertise on military issues. In other words the journalists make rational calculations based on the “feel for the game.”
In summary, journalists are social agents with “practical mastery” or “practical logic” they possess knowledge that enables them to be creative in the attempt to reap symbolic capital. However, they are mostly unaware that they too indirectly market militarization. Many may seek to build their own capital by resonating with what is on high demand without knowing that the sustained coverage of the military/military personalities in turn reproduces militarization.
Dr. Jude Kagoro is a research fellow at the Institute for Intercultural and International Studies (InIIS) at Bremen University, Germany. He wrote this article specifically for The Independent.