During the last 32 years, whenever Uganda has had to deal with contentious political, social or economic issues. President Museveni has often been in the habit of dusting his CV and proudly pointing out his ‘violence credentials.’ Many times he does this while donning military fatigues complete with his General’s pips. Then he tells the war tales of the five-year bush war in Luweero, pompously pointing out the victory of his guerrilla fighters against a better armed and financed UPC government army known as UNLA.
Depending on the gravity of the matter, this comes along with some dramatic table slapping and threats to put whoever messes with NRM where they belong. On other occasions, he will threaten to ‘go back to the bush.’
He sternly warned so, most famously when the 1995 Constitution was promulgated, that he would go back to the bush if anyone tampered with the Constitution. It has been tampered with to remove the two five-year term limits and the 75 year age limit which all seemingly benefit Museveni, but observers ask, ‘how come he did not go to the bush?’
Recently, he said he contemplated going back to the bush because of the inconsiderate nature of Ugandan doctors who went on strike protesting against low pay and poor working conditions.
His opponents laughed him off. They said it was just an empty threat from an old man, who would not manage conditions in the jungles. How wrong and myopic.
From observation, in Museveni’s vocabulary, going to the bush may be defined as taking an action against the law, order and other acceptable norms to achieve an end using whatever means possible, especially violent and disruptive ones. The nuisance value of such arrangements makes their user a protagonist, who is impossible to ignore. All efforts are made by those who contend with him either to annihilate him or accommodate his wishes willingly or begrudgingly.
That is how the Obote II government and the successors, the Military Junta of Gen Tito Okello Lutwa that fought the NRA of Museveni, were forced to talk peace and were finally routed. Museveni popularised ‘going to the bush’ 38 years ago in 1980 when he promised such an action if the elections held in that year were rigged. He then went to Luweero and the rest is history.
Museveni is one of the leading students of violence in Uganda. In his ‘Fanon’s Theory On Violence: Its Verification in Liberated Mozambique’, he makes a case for violence in decolonisation, liberation and to an extent in politics. Violence is his most tried and tested potent political weapon that he regularly falls back to. Many times it is garnished with other softer and shrewd methods that entice one into submission. It is his ‘bush.’
I recall during the hotly contested elections of 2001, Museveni while appearing on the Capital Gang talk show on 91.3 Capital Fm, responded to a caller named Anne Mugisha that he was ‘not a pacifist.’ Mugisha’s question was about Museveni’s use of ‘violent’ language when referring to his opponents.
Indeed since 1986, when it is claimed Uganda returned to the league of nations that practice the rule of law, violent methods have always been the last resort in cases of contention.
We have seen the police and the army break up rallies, which in their view, are ‘illegal.’ We have witnessed all sorts of armed outfits like the Kalangala Action Plan, stick-wielding lumpens called the Kiboko Squad working alongside the police beating up people of a political persuasion different from that of the ruling NRM. The so-called Black Mamba or security operatives dressed in black outfits raiding the courts of law to force suspects who have been granted bail by the Judiciary back to the ‘safety’ of prison.
We have also seen security operatives raiding Parliament beating up Opposition MPs who have opposed the lifting of the age limit. We have witnessed Opposition leaders being put under ‘preventive arrest’ to deny them the opportunity to canvas support for their cause.
When matters have not been that intense, Museveni has resorted to using the financial carrot to disrupt the activities of those who oppose him. Depending on their response they may either fail or succeed because he is central in the control and distribution of the economic resources and opportunities of this country. There is the enduring story of some of his critics visiting State House for tea, only to return and become a disruptive weakening menace to the political parties to which they belong. Then the selective cases of some being shielded from the long arm of the law while others are exposed to its full wrath.
All these happenings be they hard methods of raw force or soft methods of persuasion using finances and other groceries outside the law, is a form of ‘going to the bush.’ They have the net effect of either annihilating the opponent totally or weakening them by isolating, humiliating, scaring, and manipulating them into eventual submission.
The proposed importation of Cuban doctors who will be better paid than their ‘unpatriotic’ Ugandan counterparts is one case of going back to the bush, which the old man with a hat, is talking about.
Nicholas Sengoba is a commentator on political and social issues. [email protected]