Saturday August 30 2014

UPDF backed Chinese firm to build railway? Roger that…

By Asuman Bisiika

The Wednesday edition of the Daily Monitor carried a small story titled “UPDF-backed Chinese firm to get railway deal”.

Tucked on page four, it looked like an innocent story indeed. It carried no details; neither information worth writing home about.

But the UPDF (Uganda Peoples Defence Forces) has a tendency of attracting public attention in a manner that is unusual. Otherwise, there is nothing wrong with a Chinese company building a railway.

But in procurement terms, what does UPDF backing a Chinese company mean? Is the backing financial, partnership, offer of legal services or lobbying?
Before the company-backing business, the UPDF was said to be preparing to take over administrative management of National Agricultural Advisory Services. Of course there has been a public uproar.

The problem though is: The UPDF may not have enough qualified people to manage Naads. But no, there is a remedy. The UPDF establishment is said to have picked some soldiers who can go for a short course to afford them those job establishments at Naads.

And so the UPDF asked one of the public universities to pass a battalion strength personnel through a crush programme in basic agriculture knowledge. The university, as would be expected, obliged. Trouble though was: the university treated the course as a small thing while the UPDF establishment thought the participants were now a qualified cohort.

The Minister for Defence is known to me as a gynaecologist. Gen Katumba Wamala, the Chief of Defence Forces (CDF) of the UPDF, is said to be a likable person and personality. He studied agriculture before he joined the army as an Officer Cadet.

The Chief of Staff taught me History Paper 1. The Political Commissar of the UPDF is a highly ideological and an MA holding man who would fit in any political and civil administartive role comfortably.

Then there is the UPDF Doctrine (is it a Department or Directorate?). Brig Pecos Kutesa, a published author, heads Doctrine.

And we ask: What does entry into the administrative management of the civil and civilian aspects of national life mean to the top leadership of the UPDF? Is there a new doctrinal shift? Are we about to see the resurrection of the Production Unit?

Dear reader, no one would blame you for laughing when you hear that the UPDF would take over Miss Uganda beauty pageant. But when you hear that it is the good people at the Naads Secretariat who will pay for the pageant, would you cry or laugh?
The technical support departments of the military are very important and there are vehicles for structured interaction between the civilians and the military.

The Engineering Department of the UPDF may have the capabilities to take on a major national infrastructure contract, but there is a need for a shift in the constitutional, doctrinal, legal and attitude of the top leadership to make this happen without raising eye brows.

If the UPDF wants to re-orient itself to participate in the national infrastructure development, they will have to form formal companies competent enough to do business. Because the government wants to be a key player in the oil sector, they have set up a company to handle the government oil business.

And this would mean a policy and attitude shift based on a military doctrine and vision that shapes the military as a key player in socio-economic development of the country. We have examples in Egypt, Pakistan (and Israel?) where the military establishments run big things.

But we have chosen to orient the UPDF in such a way that we can’t afford them space to participate in other national development narratives.

Otherwise, I know a country in this region where a security service runs a major media house. Why wouldn’t such a service run a beauty pageant? Roger that.

Mr Bisiika is the executive editor of East Africa Flagpost.