People Power, red berets and fight for the soul of Uganda - Part 2

Thursday October 10 2019


By Daniel K. Kalinaki

This column argued last week that the fight over the red berets, nominally worn by sections of the military but also beloved by the People Power movement reflected the violent political history of civilian-military relations.
We also argued that the fight over a beret and a colour, as opposed to say the rosary or some other religious or tribal symbol, was a form of progress, as political mobilisation went from the primal bases of tribe and religion to common vested interests.

Of course, our politics remains patrimonial, patronage-based and infused with ethnic chauvinism, especially at the highest or most important parts of the puzzle, which is what makes the emerging agitated political discourse, of which People Power is just a small part, rather interesting.

It is easier to explain in Luganda, Lusoga or Swahili but that will take us back a century so let me try in English: A fascinating battle is underway to control and determine the narrative of who means well for Uganda and its people. It plays out in different ways but a couple of examples might help.

When Uganda Airlines takes delivery of its aircraft and starts flying across the region, what is the ‘correct’ line to take? The natural instinct is to rally behind our own and pick it behind other carriers if it offers a competitive price and good service, right? What about pointing out that the business case that was made for it was patchy and unrealistic? Is the person who points out the latter doing worse for the country or better than the one who blindly cheers on what could become an eye-wateringly expensive venture?

Or, take athletics. There is a stirring of pride and emotion when a Ugandan takes on and beats the world, especially on the global stage, and when our anthem and flag play out in foreign lands – but what are we to make of those who point out that this success is happening mostly in spite of our lack of support to these athletes and not because of it?

When someone points out that sports fields across the country have been grabbed and turned over to property developers and used car salesmen, are they doing their patriotic duty of holding the government accountable or are they enemies of the country’s development?


These answers should be pretty obvious but they are anything but in our political discourse. It is becoming polarised into two extreme camps: One that can see nothing good in the current government and one that can see nothing wrong with it.

The fight for the soul of the nation – or at least the fight in the public political discourse – then becomes a fight of those who are inside the feeding trough and those clamouring and elbowing their way to get a spot.

In reality, many of the young people shouting pro-and anti-government slogans are all far removed from the trough. Some on one side hope that by adding the Ugandan flag to their Twitter handles and retweeting every kilometre of tarmac will get them noticed and invited.

Others on the other side want to move in and overturn the feeding trough or make sufficient noise to have maize bran stuffed into their mouths, as they have seen happen with others, to keep them quiet.

Those kicked away from the trough suddenly see everything that is wrong with the country; those who latch onto it then discover things are not that bad, really, and that, in fact, “Mzee is not a bad man, it is the people around him…”

If there is a point to be made here, it is that young people need to identify their struggle and redefine what they are fighting for, not whom they are fighting for. The NRA harnessed the hopes and aspirations of Uganda’s young people and fought its way to power. Then one young man after the other – Tinye, Besigye, Mande, Muntu, Kazoora, et cetera – left, citing they had been lied to and betrayed.

Some of the problems in 1979 when these young men were being recruited into the UPM/NRA still exist today, while others have developed or worsened over time. High youth unemployment, systemic corruption, inequality, ethnic chauvinism and poor health and education systems affect those in People Power as much as they affect those in the ‘silent majority’.

The current fight for the soul of Uganda pits young people against each other, as it did with the UPC youth wingers and the UPM ‘patriots’ and has always done.

What would really move the needle is if the young men and women of Uganda finally found a generational voice to fight for, and not amongst, themselves. Think about that.

Mr Kalinaki is a journalist and a poor man’s freedom fighter.
Twitter: @Kalinaki.