When a president’s walking stick becomes a dog

Tuesday September 28 2021

Author, Nicholas Sengoba. PHOTO/FILE/COURTESY

By Nicholas Sengoba

Legend has it that when the late Prof Ali Mazrui (may Allah keep him well) was teaching about the three arms of the state he made a cheeky comment that has turned out to be prophetic for African politics to date.

After Mazrui had elaborated on the Executive, Legislature, and the Judiciary, a student asked him, ‘what about the army?’ His response was that it’s the President’s walking stick!

Walking sticks by their nature may be useful as a tool to support one’s bulk and steady their stride. They may also act as instruments of self-defence and of coercion against a threat to the owner. You have heard politicians bragging that they have ‘the majjye’ (the army.)

The Opposition politicians deemed to be a threat may be treated to the other end of the walking stick called the Military Tribunal that is almost a law unto itself.

In other cases it may be used for patronage when it is lent out to one who needs to walk, protect or coerce etc. but does not have their own stick. This is how Uganda People’s Defence Forces finds itself in Somalia fighting the war on terror - and gaining favours from global powers.

In African politics, after the euphoria of Independence had dried out towards the end of the 60s and early 70s, people in different countries started making excessive demands to the Presidents who had promised heaven with self-rule. Others felt that the colonial creatures of the Berlin Conference in 1884, which was the highlight of the scramble and partition of Africa, was not their cup of tea. So you had the Biafra War of 1967 to 1970.


The civilian central governments opted to use the army to put out these fires.

Soon the army realized their worth as defenders, not only of the interests of the state but most importantly of the president and his acolytes. These selfish interests like corruption were becoming clearer.

Towards end of the 60s and into the 70s a wave of military coups engulfed the continent. Uganda, Nigeria, Egypt, Sudan, Ghana, Libya etc. saw the army coming to the helm of political order; capturing the executive ‘to restore order and then return to the barracks’. It was not because they envisaged themselves as being better than the politicians.

It was more of a statement that if they could do it for the civilian political leadership they could also do it for themselves, like the pace setter deciding mid race to go for the gold medal.

We have to appreciate the fact that the cold war only made things worse. The East and West used these armies to eliminate leaders who had gone wayward in as far as allegiance to the ideologies of the respective powers was concerned.
Then the Soviet Union collapsed and the West dictated their democratic values. The wind of change saw the army ‘retreating’, leaving in place a dispensation of multiparty politics with civilians in charge.

Many reluctant converts, a.k.a the ‘new breed’ of African leaders, jumped on the multiparty democracy band wagon. Some like Yoweri Museveni of Uganda and Rwanda’s Paul Kagame established hybrid regimes; part military, part civil with most of mannerisms of the western democracy like (shambolic and violent) multiparty elections, being practised, superficially.

The army was the majority shareholder in this venture having slots in Parliament and being consulted on all major decisions plus taking the lion’s share of the national budget.
The worst part of the return to civilian rule was perhaps the lesson the coups of the 60s to the 80s had taught the politicians. You were nothing without the allegiance of the army. So the military became ensconced in the politics.

To perfect this mixed talent of political martial arts, the civilian presidents built armies that were mainly drawn from their own ethnic groupings. They picked the willing from the villages and trained them in the army especially in violence and ruthlessness. They would be protected as long as they demonstrated that they were acting on behalf of the regime.

The interest of the man in State House became theirs to defend to the dearth. They became a privileged class that basked in impunity because of their usefulness to regime maintenance. Henceforth the army took on the added role of the fierce backing dog.

Now you had a complete symbiotic relationship. The President called it ‘his army’ because they relied on him to enjoy impunity and privileges of a pecuniary nature like land grabbing.

But the same army rather patronizingly called him ‘our president’ because he now relied on them like never before after the fashion of the legendary Mazruian ‘walking stick’.

What constitutes political problems for most African regimes is the failure of the state to provide a social safety net healthcare, shelter and education because of economic policies that aren’t working and corruption to enrich the ruling class including the army.

When the people’s demands overwhelm and threaten to collapse the state, the President, now in a very weak position, runs to his fierce dogs - the army. He is now at their mercy. The Baganda say, ‘Bbwa ddene, ligambwako nnyini lyo’ (the fierce dog is only controlled by its owner). The army now owns itself and take orders from itself as the proverbial ‘owner of the fierce dog.’ If it judges that the President has become a liability that threatens their own existence in the setup of the state, they withdraw their other nature in the form of a walking stick and actualize the Ganda saying that goes ‘Akusinga, Akukubya gw’okutte,’ (the one stronger than you will grab the stick in your hand to beat you.)
As political forces increasingly dissipate, for many in Africa, hope for regime change lies in the mutation of the army from a walking stick to the dog that turns against its owner.

Mr Sengoba is a commentator on political and social issues
Twitter: @nsengoba