Militarism: The bane of African politics and society

Amii Omara-Otunnu

What you need to know:

  • Renounce militarism. An overarching lesson that can be drawn from the historical experiences of Uganda and Africa is that unless militarism is renounced and stamped out from society, it will be a practical impossibility for the rule of law and democracy to flower in the continent.

Most of the crises that have plagued Africa can be attributed to the means by which power is attained and maintained, and to the values that they consequently engender. Of the various value systems and means that have dealt devastating blows to progressive developments in Africa, none has been more lethal than militarism.

To avoid confusion, it is necessary to clarify the term militarism, before its historical significance is discussed. The term militarism refers to a value system that makes virtue of violence and glorifies it as the principal means of attaining and maintaining power, as well as the means of improving a person’s or a group’s socio-economic status in society.

In history, militarism has thrived most robustly where the hydra of violence and fear become the mainstay of power. Because of its reliance on violence, which is a means of destruction rather than production, it often devalues human rights and lives, as well as the moral values that underpin them. The case of Uganda can illustrate the historical significance of means and values in society. Indeed, this is an opportune time to consider the case of Uganda, as the country marks the 40th anniversary of the ouster of the military dictatorship under Idi Amin by the combined forces of Tanzanian troops and Ugandan exiles.

To begin with, it should be noted that Idi Amin himself had come to power in a military coup that overthrew Uganda Peoples Congress (UPC) government led by Milton Obote on January 25, 1971. And as if history was repeating itself, exactly 25 years from the date that Amin overthrew the first UPC government under Milton Obote, the National Resistance Army (NRA) under the leadership of Yoweri Museveni on January 25, 1986, ousted the ineffectual military junta under Gen Tito Okello, which had a few months earlier overthrown the second UPC government led by Obote.

Before focusing on the two personalities that have contributed the most to the growth and normalisation of militarism in the country, it should be pointed out that the seeds for militarism was first sown in Uganda with militarisation of politics and the politicisation of the military beginning in 1966 in what is known in political lexicon as the Buganda Crisis.

But it was the 1971 military coup led by Amin, with the connivance of Western intelligence organisation, which first created the condition for militarism. The usurpation of State power by the NRA under the leadership of Museveni in 1986 simply hastened the growth of militarism on a revolutionary scale. To begin with, the success of both Amin and Museveni in usurping State power through the barrel of the gun rather than through democratic means, and subsequently in using fear to arbitrarily access state resources for their personal benefit, demonstrated to the population that violence pays.

There have been two major ways in which both Amin and Museveni contributed to the growth and normalisation of militarism in Uganda. The first has been by the subordination of civilian agendas, institutions and organisations to the priorities and objectives of the military. And the second, as hinted above, has been by using fear if not violence to access State resources for upward socio-economic mobility and in some cases for the sheer physical survival of social groups.

Because of the examples their actions set for the population when wielding State power, examples that glorified violence in social interaction, both Amin and Museveni can be regarded as apostles and symbols of militarism. During the military dictatorship under Amin, militarism was captured in the often-heard utterances of soldiers that: “We can fight, so we must rule.” During the predatory dictatorship under Museveni, militarism has been crystallised in the statement often issued by NRA elites that: “We were in the bush (for the guerrilla war), therefore we must dominate.”

Over time, both rulers purged society of the ethical basis of governance in general. In particular, they brought about the demise of the rule of law and democracy. The militarism they fostered subverted the rule of law because, whereas the former has always functioned on the basis of the arbitrariness of violence, the latter has worked robustly on the basis of reasoned discourse and procedural fairness or due process. And it has undermined democracy because, whereas militarism places premium on obedience out of fear, democracy flourishes best in an environment of freedom, informed consent and accountability.

Precisely because militarism functions in ways that undermines and disparages moral values that respect human lives and rights in society, it must be regarded as the antithesis of the rule of law and democracy. Conversely, the rule of law and democracy should be regarded as its antidote in Uganda in particular and in the continent in general. It is clear that the growth of militarism in Uganda in particular and in Africa in general has marked a watershed in the politics and history of the continent not least because it had a domino effect on every aspect of life by infecting politics and values.

From a historical perspective, the period of militarism from the 1970s onwards has been reminiscent of the long catastrophic era in African history from the 16th to the early 19th centuries, when violence, fear and uncertainty perpetrated by European merchants of profit and dehumanisation hovered over Africans like a permanent nightmare.

The tragic irony is that the militarism in contemporary Africa has been fostered by neo-colonial indigenous elites who have brewed a lethal cocktail for the great majority of people. Indeed, a critical review of collated figures for the period indicates that acute crises coincided with, if it was not caused by, the growth of militarism in the continent.

In fact, during the period, there were more military coups than democratic elections, as means of changing governments in Africa. During the same period, about half of the continent experienced some form of civil strife and about a quarter were convulsed by violent armed conflicts. Compared to other regions, sub-Saharan Africa boasted of the highest incidence of armed conflicts in the world.

The misery indices were not just simply statistics; but rather, they represented millions of African lives that were blighted. Certainly, the grim turn of events in Africa betrayed and made a mockery of the ideals and purposes of the right of self-determination for which many people sacrificed so much.

An overarching lesson that can be drawn from the historical experiences of Uganda and Africa is that unless militarism is renounced and stamped out from society, it will be a practical impossibility for the rule of law and democracy to flower in the continent.

Prof Otunnu is the founder and executive director of the Institute of Comparative Human Rights at
the University of Connecticut.