Here is a question and try to answer it honestly: How many readers knew, until a few days ago that the Army has a Dress Committee? Hullo? Anyone? Is that a hand in the back? No? No one? Okay – I didn’t know either.
Yes, armies march on their stomachs, a short, fat French emperor once said, so we understand the need for brass bands and quartermasters and all that.
But it is not immediately clear that there is actually a committee that deliberates the important business of the military’s look and feel, colour-coding and so on.
One is tempted to crack silly jokes about a few folks twiddling their thumbs with embroidery while others crack on with the serious business of war – but identity is not a laughing matter.
Neither is the recent warning by the Army against civilians strutting around in military camouflage and, most notably, the red berets worn by the Military Police but, notably, also favoured by members of the People Power (PP)pressure group.
The Army says it is protecting its stores. PP folks say the announcement is a political move to yank away a powerful tool and image of political mobilisation ahead of the elections. Whatever your view, the fight itself is more revealing.
To see why, consider that it is possible, in tourist shops in many cities across the world to buy cheap T-shirts emblazoned with the initials of a security agency, from FBI to NYPD, FSB, LAPD, CIA, Mossad, etc. I have even seen a boda boda rider in Kampala with a ‘New York City Mortuary Attendant” T-shirt, but who am I to judge the living and the dead?
The point is that it says a lot about a society when there is a danger of mistaking an ordinary civilian for a highly trained killer just by the T-shirt or beret they wear. But peel back the layers and you will see that uniforms, especially those associated with the military, carry very powerful lessons and messages.
This goes back many years, including during the Obote I and Idi Amin days when the sight of military uniform, far from being reassuring, was often a sign of impending doom. When the armed conflicts became two- or multi-pronged, such as during the Bush War, distinct uniforms were an important distinction of good guys from bad guys. It signalled to civilians whether to either flee or come out of hiding. It also meant that one or both sides could commit atrocities then blame them on the other just by a mere change of uniform.
To this day, it is common for one to drive past a police checkpoint undisturbed just by showing off just enough military camouflage. A military or police jacket hanging loosely off the back of the driver’s seat is often enough to hoist the occupants and their associates above any pesky law or regulation obtaining in that moment, whether it is security checks or traffic rules. To that end therefore, and whatever the motivation, the fight over uniforms is political.
It is also more than just military uniform. A Yellow ruling-party T-shirt with The Candidate’s picture on the front can serve the same ‘hoisting above the law’ purpose described above as an army jacket. But it can also bring the wearer into a lot of trouble if they are caught in a dark alley in an Opposition stronghold even if they don’t support the NRM and are only wearing the shirt out of need and the guaranteed supply every five years.
This represents ‘progress’, in a counterintuitive way. Political mobilisation is traditionally built around identity – tribe and religion, for instance – not interests.
Where social economic classes emerge, such as in the higher income urban constituencies, it is easier for people to coalesce around interests and individuals seen as likely to defend them, and thus vote for “non natives”.
But in poor urban areas where tribal and religious identities are blurred, and where incomes have not risen to create a propertied class with vested interests, mobilisation is around very primal needs: The need to continue eating or get a chance to eat. In these unsophisticated spaces one needs basic primary colours – yellow, red, blue and green – to signal. Few candidates with fuchsia-coloured posters have been known to win elections.
More seriously, and as we shall argue next time, this is quickly becoming a bitterly divided fight for the soul of the nation. Whichever way it goes will have serious and long-lasting implications.
Mr Kalinaki is a journalist and a poor man’s freedom fighter. firstname.lastname@example.org.