Charles Onyango Obbo
A coup, democratic rent, and the curse of Euripides in Uganda
Posted Wednesday, January 23 2013 at 02:00
The outcome a military coup could be terrible, yes, but its happening would not be out of character in Uganda
In the space of a few days last week, Uganda’s minister of Defence, Dr Crispus Kiyonga, and then President Yoweri Museveni, said words to the effect that if Parliament continues to give the Executive headache, the Uganda People’s Defence Forces (UPDF) might be tempted to step in and stage a coup.
The outcome a military coup could be terrible, yes, but its happening would not be out of character in Uganda.
The surprising thing is that Museveni and Kiyonga acknowledged the possibility in the way they did. That is because it represents a sharp move away from the story on which the ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM) and Museveni have justified their monopoly of power, and having the army represented in Parliament.
The story is that the UPDF is the “People’s” army, and when as the National Resistance Army took up arms to fight the Milton Obote regime, and thousands of peasants died in that war, it was to hand power back to the people. That is what made the NRA war a “revolution”.
That power was exercised through the Resistance Councils, later Local Councils at the lower levels; by the National Resistance Council, which later became Parliament at the national level; and the NRM leaders at the executive level. The UPDF’s place in Parliament was, as Museveni used to say, the “eyes and ears” of the peasants and progressive intellectuals who lost their life in the cause.
For the UPDF to have to stage a coup, would mean the gulf between it and the “people’s organs” it brought into people to exercise power had grown so wide, it needed to break that social contract. In short, what Museveni and Kiyonga are saying is that the “revolution” is over. That is truly amazing.
Next question then, is why would a coup not be surprising? The reason is that the transition of power from the military to elected representatives in Uganda has been messy, and not happened as neatly as it has in Ghana, for example. It remains “unresolved business” and will have to come to a head one day.
Indeed some scholars have argued that Uganda didn’t democratise. That the NRA still rules as an armed movement, but did two things: It formed the UPDF to create a semblance of a conventional army; and dressed up the NRM rebel movement in civilian garb.
Which leads us to the next and last question; why did they need to “civilianise”?
Because in this way, it can collect “democracy rent”. Every form of rule has its side benefits. An Idi Amin-type military dictatorship, or the “revolutionary” and one-party rule of the NRM had its pay-off.
There was little bureaucracy, so things got done quickly.
If you got a contract, even you bribed for it, you would be sure to do the job and collect on your inflated invoices. There were few, and even then embattled media, to stick their nose in the story. And the courts did not have the “democratic” space that they fluked in the Constitution to make independent rulings, so the possibility that you could go to court to challenge the awarding of a contract and get a fair judgement was nearly zero.
Unlike today with over 60 independent FM stations and a Parliament where MPs defy the president, things were easier – even for the corrupt.
The problem is that donors, local and internal investors, don’t trust that system, so they put in less money, and you have lower private sector wealth created. This means you collect fewer taxes, and have less donor money, and therefore less resources for patronage.
Whereas a corrupt chap in the old regime had an easier time, he had little to steal. Democracy opened the money tap and brought big money (the democracy rent), but also intrusive journalists and independent MPs.
In the old regime, the government had to control people through a vast security mechanism, which it didn’t have enough money to pay for. With democratic rent, it can control the people through patronage. By sharing some of it with the security agencies, it gives them a subjective and selfish reason to protect the political order.
With a military coup, Museveni and NRM would lose the vast democratic rent. And the security establishment would have to base its loyalty to the state on ideology, not bread and wine. It’s clear which of these is the sweeter and more rational deal for Museveni and Kiyonga – the latter.
Would they give it up? Yes.