Too often, the Kampala government can be the gift that just keeps giving. Last week, in the first-ever gazette of all military clothing, the government designated the red beret as militia insignia, and banned civilians from wearing it.
Any member of the public found in possession of the red beret, is liable on conviction, to imprisonment for life, making it the first item and act of dress that is equivalent to treason!
Why, after 36 years in power; after, as President Yoweri Museveni never tires of reminding us, defeating many armed rebel groups; should his government be so terrified of a red beret?
Superficially, because the red beret has become the symbol of Opposition MP Robert Kyagulanyi (Bobi Wine), and his “People Power” movement. The next question then is, what is it about the red beret that makes the NRM government so afraid, that it is banning civilians from wearing it, under the pretext that it is a military uniform?
This fear is evident in the fact that the NRM is fully aware of the ugly history of banning items of dress in Uganda because they were associated with particular political groups, but is willing to risk the unfavourable comparisons with “past primitive regimes”.
During military Idi Amin’s rule, when rebels started organising against him from neighbouring countries and launching attacks (Museveni was one of them) long shaggy beards were considered subversive, and could land the wearer in big trouble. After Museveni took to the bush to start his guerrilla war in 1981, it was a near death situation to be found wearing his Uganda Patriotic Movement (UPM) T-shirts and colours.
During that period, the Democratic Party’s (DP) green could get you in hot soup too. People wearing green shirts, skirts, T-shirts, caps, were often denied entry into government buildings, and harassed by soldiers and police on the streets. In parts of Buganda, especially where Museveni’s war was raging, green paint on your house was considered a sign of collaboration with the rebels.
There were reports at that time in the DP-affiliated Munnansi of people being forced by soldiers to eat clothes that were in UPM and DP colours. Yet here we are, more than 40 years later, and we have a government that, clearly, is a very good student of the Amin and Obote eras.
It is unlikely that Museveni considers Bobi Wine a huge electoral threat, as the 2021 vote approaches, and Museveni bids for an unprecedented eighth term (two of them unelected). The government is still in charge of the vote counting machinery, so that can be taken care of easily.
Part of the problem seems to be how the red beret came to be a Bobi Wine and People Power symbol. Unlike FDC’s blue, NRM’s yellow, or DP’s green, it was not chosen and unveiled by Bobi Wine as a symbol of popular youthful resistance. Bobi Wine was wearing it even when he was campaigning to be MP, and it became portent as he conjured up the “People Power” moniker for his still unregistered movement/party.
No party colour in recent times has come to be through such an organic process, and been adopted in such a bottom-up wave like the red beret. And no party colour is worn in the course of otherwise fairly regular business (eg going to a Kyarenga concert) like the red beret, red T-shirt, or scarf.
It also has more global resonance than all other Uganda party colours. When Bobi Wine visited Kenya last year, and held events with youthful politicians like Embakasi East MP Babu Owino and other activists, they all showed up in red berets. And at a rally he addressed in Nairobi, there were many red berets. Bobi Wine didn’t organise any of that.
The only other person who came close to giving a party colour that power, ironically, was Arua Municipality and total “Yellow Man” Ibrahim Abiriga. Assassinated in June last year, Abiriga forced the country to develop a new form of talking about yellow, in ways not even Museveni has.
And perhaps the most memorable moment came when he parked his yellow VW, and resplendent in yellow from head to shoe, urinated on the street. May his soul rest in peace.
Part of Museveni and NRM’s hold on power, beyond monopoly of force, has been their ability to control the terms of political debate and symbolism, even of the Opposition – eg Kizza Besigye’s famous hammer. The red beret is the one that got away.
It represents a force they can’t control. It is the proverbial genie that must be put back in the bottle. They would be the first to do so, because no one has been able to do that to a genie. And that is why they are afraid.
Mr Onyango-Obbo is curator of the “Wall of Great Africans” and publisher of explainer site Roguechiefs.com.