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Warrior politics and Uganda’s music

By Jude Kagoro

Why music industry is replete with brand-names related to military ranks, weapons, and jargon

For any system or practice to survive there must be enough deep-rooted mass support for it. Democracy can only survive in a society that has enough democrats. Equally true is that for tyranny to survive there must be enough conscious and sub-conscious tyrants.

I use this reasoning to carefully look at the aspect of militarisation in Uganda. Often times I have heard opposition politicians and political analysts asserting that President Yoweri Museveni and the NRM regime have militarised politics in Uganda.


I argue here that both President Museveni and the NRM regime are only part of the broader militarisation attitude of the Ugandan society. What is seen above (Museveni and NRM) is a replica of what is below (wider-society). It is a scenario of the top mirroring the bottom and the bottom mirroring the top. Today I focus on one of the powerful social forces that is perhaps the least talked about in the Ugandan political discussion; the music industry.

Since the late 1990s the Ugandan music industry has been growing tremendously and local musicians have thus-far become household names both in Uganda and in the Great lakes region. Several of these household names are similarly a powerful active agent in the re-production of militarisation.

Operating within the same habitus and socio-political field where the military and its associated ethos carry massive socio-political capital, the musicians have made use of this state-of-affairs by imitating military customs to build their own social capital.

First a caveat; I am not suggesting here that every musician uses the same strategies but the intention here is to illustrate two aspects. First, those who are doing it are not operating in a vacuum but reproducing the dominant mentalities of the Ugandan society. Second, musicians are a powerful social force with a following and what they portray sends powerful ideas in the minds and hearts of those who follow them, in this sense they encourage and promote the warrior politics mentality.

The Ugandan music industry is replete with brand-names related to military ranks, military weapons, and other military jargons. Brand-names such as Gen. Mega Dee, Gen. Levy, Gen. Ozzy, Dr. Col. Big size Chameleon, and H.E Commander-in-Chief the Ghetto President have so-far emerged. Others using trademarks identical to military weapons such as AK 47, and military jargons like Sniperous MC, Saba-Saba (the name given to the gun that is attributed to having disorganised Amin’s soldiers in the 1979 war) have ascended the Uganda music industry.

This is by-and-large a Ugandan mania if one compares with their Kenyan contemporaries. Some of the celebrated musicians in Uganda have strong social networks and ties with their counterparts in Kenya. Musicians like Dr. Col. Big size Chameleon and Bebe cool started their music careers in Kenya. In Kenya none of the known musicians uses a military rank or military jargon as a brand-name. The difference here can be interpreted as a difference of the socio-political habitus in the two countries. While in Uganda a military rank as a brand-name may help a musician to connect and resonate with the audience, it may not play the same role in Kenya. A military rank as a brand-name in Kenya will not embody or personify the same powerful meaning and amount of social capital as it does in Uganda.

Aside from the usage of military ranks as brand-names, scores of musicians tap into the capital attached to the military by the utilisation of the military uniforms or weapons. It is a common phenomenon that musicians don military uniforms as their stage outfit during music shows.

Bebe Cool explains

A military uniform has a deep resonance as a sign of power in Uganda. In donning a combat the musicians are acting in a rational manner because the action will most likely reinforce and amplify their status as powerful celebrities. In a symbolic way any material that will associate one with power is useful for one’s image as a public figure. The music industry is an industry based on the struggle for publicity, for media hype and for social pomp. An interview with Bebe Cool held in Boston, US revealed that the military combat is one of the marketing strategies that help musicians to attract public attention.

Bebe Cool explained thus: “The first time I put on a military uniform was way back in early 2000s. At that time the government had banned the wearing of military uniform by civilians… I came up with a brilliant idea. I tricked the authorities by buying an overall which was a military camouflage. I could not be arrested because no soldier in Uganda wore that kind of attire… When I came wearing it on stage my rivals in the music industry were caught off guard. Many accused the authorities of letting me off the hook because I was a son of a powerful minister (Cool is a son of former local government Minister Bidandi Ssali). The attire made me different. It made me look powerful… because Ugandans many ways like things to do with the military. It was also good for the back stage as the organizers of the concert treated me with some more respect… The media picked on that and has so far constantly used that picture while running stories about me… The government later relaxed and now every musician especially the men put on uniform… The uniform is cool because it also makes you look different from your audience and for us (musicians) that is very important”.

Bebe Cool’s disclosure resonates with the Ugandan shared mentality that attaches a reasonable amount of capital to the military combat. It is fair to make a claim here that the mentality of the musician is not different from the mentality of the Ugandan wider-society. The musicians are products of their own society and by donning the military combats they are re-articulating the dominant societal mentalities and skillfully packaging themselves in a way suitable to the wider-society in order to reap social status. Their audience is in a sub-conscious way fascinated by their appearance in a military combat. If the audience was in disapproval of the musicians’ donning of military uniform and the use of military ranks as brand-names then the musicians would not be doing it.

What we see the musicians doing is what is in their mind and what they consider important for them and their audience. Musicians have adorers and their actions, their behavior and their strategies have a direct and indirect impact on the wider-society. In this sense I argue that the musicians are active agents in both production and re-production of militarisation in Uganda.

Symbols meet reality

The musicians’ association with the military does not close borders at simulation of military ethos but traverses to the level of making real connections with real military generals, and real military weapons. For example, Gen. Mega Dee has on some occasions allied himself to Gen. Elly Tumwine a Bush-War hero. The two ‘Generals’; the real and the symbolic, have jointly presented music concerts dubbed ‘Afande Salute’. Gen. Tumwine has served as Minister of State for Defense, as Director General of External Security Organisation, as Army Commander and now an MP representing the army. It is clear that the symbolic general accumulates social capital by allying with a real and established military general. Gen. Mega Dee’s recording studios are also dubbed ‘Afande records’. In the Ugandan military ethos Afande is a concept used in addressing a senior.

In October 2010 president Museveni briefly joined the music industry in a grand style. While at a rally addressing the youth in Kampala, he sung (rapped), the now trendy lyrics commonly referred to as ‘You want another rap’. Museveni did not only rap, but rapped while donning a combat decorated as a full general. The rap from the President was a surprise commodity, but the military combat on a music stage was business as usual.

Save from using dummy-guns and simulation of military weapons on the stage and in their videos, scores of musicians own actual guns. A gun (especially the pistol) in Uganda is not only a symbol of security, but equally a symbol of status. Guns are a social display that communicates social status and signify social affluence that goes beyond politics and criminality.

In a socio-political arena like Uganda’s, guns are markers of status, guns signify idolised style and guns indicate the status of being a ‘big man’. Musicians in Uganda acquire the guns not only for their own personal security, but to re-assure their status as public figures. They intentionally expose their guns for everybody to see while walking on the streets of Kampala and while appearing in public social gatherings. There have been several scuffles in which musicians have drawn guns at each other. In most cases a senior police officer revealed; “the drawing of guns at each other has nothing to do with disagreements but everything to do with drawing attention to themselves for the benefit of selling their music and appearing in the media”.

Besides the guns some of the musicians have allied themselves to the different sides of the political divide in Uganda. Bebe Cool, for example is an ardent supporter of President Museveni, he has composed songs for the President, has sung at the political rallies and openly campaigned for the President even against his own biological father. In his own words Bebe Cool indicated that he likes President Museveni because he is a strong man who has managed a stubborn country. Bebe Cool thought that his father Bidandi Ssali is a smart politician with smart ideas but Uganda may be too stubborn for him to govern comfortably.

Let me recoup my argument in form of a conclusion. The musicians’ fascination with the military ethos is a clear indicator that to understand the political we need to understand the social. The warrior politics may not be understood if different social forces in the Ugandan society are not deeply analysed. For politicians and political commentators to solely focus on the political is to surely miss the point. There are several other social forces that are re-producing agents of the warrior politics in Uganda and if time and space allow I will discuss them sometime in future.

Jude Kagoro is at the University of Bayreuth, Department of Sociology Bayern, Germany. He is a member of the Africa Good Governance Network (AGGN)

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