In his book, Arrow of God, Chinua Achebe reminds us of a powerful African proverb: “When a handshake goes beyond the elbow we know it has turned to another thing.”
Our army, whose primary role is to defend Uganda and guarantee its territorial integrity as stipulated in Article 209(a) of the Constitution, is showing a troublingly insatiable appetite for civilian tasks.
From heading police to chairing the committee drafting the Constitution for the proposed East African federation, from joining cabinet to heading the problematic national identity card project, and from supervising development projects in Luweero triangle to delivering presidential gifts of all kinds, our “professional” soldiers are all over the map, marking territories in civilian affairs.
Somehow, our soldiers think that they are more competent and less corrupt than civilians in handling non-military matters. That is a misconception.
Should the clergymen at Lubaga or Namirembe also take up soldierly roles in Somalia because some of our soldiers there were recently implicated in unpatriotic escapades?
Our military seems to enjoy doing things that truly professional soldiers would not even ponder. The relevant constitutional and statutory provisions on Uganda’s defence forces envision a clear separation between the civilian and military segments of Ugandan society. To join one, you leave the other.
The cost of a soldier converting into a civilian is retiring from the army. And just as you cannot be simultaneously military and civilian, you cannot aptly perform both military and civilian functions contemporaneously. One comes at the cost of the other!
The army should not digress from its core functions by purporting to do things civilians can do as well or even better. With an enduring terrorist threat to Uganda from al-Shabab and its allies, the military surely has enough on its plate. They cannot pretend that “peacetime” redundancy is provoking them to intrude civilian affairs.
When the military protrudes into the civilian arena, it fails in its constitutional obligation under Article 209(c) to foster harmony and understanding between itself and civilians and thereby creates a recipe for needless conflict. You cannot grab a man’s cake and expect him to understand it. Return his cake, apologise and he will understand and forgive you. Keep the cake and eat it, and you earn hostility and denigration.
Look at Egypt, Libya and Somalia today. Though the military are in charge, there is no peace in people’s hearts and minds. The identity card project, cabinet matters, drafting of constitutions for regional blocs, police work, development projects and government assurances are neither emergency situations nor natural disasters warranting military cooperation with the civilian authority as envisioned by Article 209(b).
The army deserves our utmost respect for the legitimate sacrifices its members daily make for our peace and security, and because of its critical role as a defender of Uganda’s constitutional democracy.
To continue to respect the army, however, we must trust it to tend to the borders as the guarantor of the territorial integrity of our nation as opposed to the mercenary function of gate-keeping the oscillating political interests of a particular leader or regime.
Civilians cannot trust an army that constantly seeks to usurp their jobs and shape their policy. The army ought to take its fingers out of civilian pies.
Once that happens, and the military appreciates that its role is to defend society not to define it, Uganda’s civil-military relations will become a love song, instead of the theatre of hatred and suspicion that they presently are.
How safe is a Ugandan citizen if the people he or she funds and tasks with guarding the borders are busy doing other things?
What should the citizen do when his or her supposed guards take over his or her job in the civil service? Think of an askari who, rather than patrolling the master’s homestead, heads to the kitchen to flirt with the attractive maid or picks a fight with a guest in the living room over the choice of television channels.
In order to prevent a return to the political and constitutional instability of the past 50 years, our soldiers must abide by the constitutional command of military subordination to civilian authority.
Eron Kiiza is a lawyer and commentator on civil-military relations in Uganda.
This article is part of the Legal Brains Trust Governance and Oversight Programme.