Monday February 4 2013

Can military professionalism and democracy co-exist in Uganda?

By Samuel Baligidde

This coup-talk may not be a mere bluff; the re-assertion of military preponderance in political affairs is not new in Africa. Although coups have been such a common feature of African politics, their political and social character is hard to discern. As scholar First observed, a coup d’etat can pre-empt a revolution, or inadvertently lead to one! It can install a military regime, an alternative civilian government, maintain, or change social policy.

Essentially the coup is action at the top, in which violence is the ultimate determinant. ‘Palace coups’ or autogolpes in Latin American parlance, where the government in power overthrows itself to tighten its hold on power, such as Milton Obote’s 1966 constitutional counter-coup in Uganda, are not uncommon.

It would not be the first time for what the Latinos call an autogolpe to happen in Uganda!

A former renowned Professor of Political Science at Makerere University Ali Ahmed Mazrui, in the article Soldiers as Traditionalizers: Militarisation and the Re-Africanisation of Africa” published in World Politics suggested that military intervention was “re-Africanizing” politics by restoring the warrior supremacies of the past.

However, coups may be counterproductive because as Amin’s ‘Personalist Coup’ demonstrated, they split the military along ethnic and regional lines; provide a fertile ground for cultural sub-nationalism with dire political and security consequences.

Can military professionalism, a persistent theme in the President’s modernization diatribes, coexist with democracy and economic development? Can a revolutionary army such as the UPDF stay in barracks and strictly confine their activities to military affairs when the direction political events seem to be taking is fraught with risk? It is a contradiction to talk of democracy in the army because military establishments and command structures are hierarchical and authoritarian, not democratic. When under attack in an ambush, the commander does not first hold a Baraza of the entire fighting unit to vote on whether to counter-attack or defend themselves! The commander takes charge and issues the appropriate orders without consulting his fighters.

Samuel Huntington, author of classic books such as The Soldier and the State in which he expounded the theory of ‘military praetorianism’ and The Man on Horseback observed that aspects of the past had resurfaced in a new wave of ‘poorly camouflaged military regimes’. The pretence that democracy and civilian control of the military can coexist is a distinct naivety. With the re-emergence of benevolent authoritarianism, democracy is back on the agenda and notions of military coups cannot be dismissed nor embraced without appraising their inherent challenges and risks.

But neo-authoritarian perceptions of the role of the military in maintaining the sanctity of the State are reinforced by Goethe’s dictum: ‘I prefer injustice to disorder: one can die of disorder, one does not die of injustice; an injustice can be repaired’, which on the surface seems to be a reasonable argument.

Nevertheless, the military could collaborate with the civilian bureaucracy and seek guidance from it on matters of economic management especially where it lacks expertise and respectability in fronting for the regime both in its contacts with the civilian population in government and in its diplomatic relations with other countries. Never mind that the dishonesty, mistrust, corruption, unfair practices and intrigue inherent in politics can adulterate military professionalism.

Mr Baligidde is a former diplomat.