About me.

Andrew M. Mwenda is the founding Managing Editor of The Independent, Uganda’s premier current affairs newsmagazine. One of Foreign Policy magazine 's top 100 Global Thinkers, TED Speaker and Foreign aid Critic

Monday, October 5, 2020

Lessons from UPDF’s 50 years

 Why it’s important for the army or the government to tell the story of its transformation

THE LAST WORD | ANDREW M. MWENDA | Next year, the Uganda Peoples’ Defense Forces (UPDF) will mark three major milestone dates. It will be exactly 50 years (Golden Jubilee) since its formation under its precursor name, the Front for National Salvation (FRONASA) in 1971. It will also be 40 years since the launch of its second major phase of the struggle, the attack on Kabamba on February 6th 1981. Finally it will be 25 years (silver Jubilee) since it acquired its current name, UPDF, in October 1995 when this constitution came into force.

Over these 50 years, the UPDF has undergone a transformation from a small guerilla force into a large professional national army. Having fought a national liberation war in Uganda, it emerged as the first guerilla army in postcolonial Africa to overthrow a sitting government. From then, it has consolidated peace in Uganda by defeating armed insurgencies across the country, making Uganda free of civil conflict for the first time in 40 years. (President Yoweri Museveni likes to claim in the last 500 years).

The UPDF has over the years acted in a manner that reflects its Pan Africanist foundations: born in exile in Tanzania; initially trained in Mozambique; then fought a liberation war alongside the Tanzania People’s Defense Forces (TPDF) to remove Idi Amin in Uganda; after which it directly helped liberation movements in Sudan, Rwanda and DR Congo; trained the South African Umukhoto We Sizwe, contributed to the stabilisation of the security situation in Somalia, Central Africa Republic and South Sudan; and contributed to peace keeping operations in Liberia.

It has since then also moved beyond being a mere fighting to a productive army, consolidating its position in business through National Enterprises Corporation (NEC). Today UPDF produces ammunition, assembles and repairs tanks and Armored Personnel Carriers (APCs) and other guns and artillery and it produces spare parts for military equipment.

Its engineering unit does metal fabrication, housing and other infrastructure projects. The unit also designs and manufactures machinery equipment for small-scale industries, trains its personnel in light and heavy vehicle mechanics, gun repairs etc.

Finally, UPDF is playing a central role in Operation Wealth Creation (OWC) in a bid to improve agricultural production and productivity and increase household incomes in order to liberate many Ugandans from poverty. Over 300 UPDF soldiers are deployed across the country to implement OWC by ensuring farms supplies such as high quality seeds and animal breeds and also in helping communities and cooperatives set up enterprises. OWC has made many mistakes from which it has learnt critical lessons.

Over the same period, the UPDF has been involved in community activities through the provision of social services like education and health to the population. This is especially so during Army Week when UPDF officers, men and women engage in cleaning public hospitals, collecting rubbish from slums, painting hospitals, offering free HIV testing and counseling services, attending to dental problems etc. UPDF thus enjoys a special place in the political development of Uganda, our region and continent.

Yet in spite of all these, and its founder also being the president of Uganda and the most influential persons in the government being its historical members, there is no effort on the part of the army or the government to tell the story of this transformation. While reflecting on its history, I landed on an article Museveni wrote in 1981 about why he and his compatriots chose a protracted people’s war as the strategy for the struggle. It is one of the most illuminating pieces of writing from which Uganda’s opposition can learn a lot. Museveni says that in 1981, there were four possible paths to power by his group: a conventional war, a popular insurrection, a military coup or a protracted struggle. The first option required amassing of troops in head to head combat, but they (NRA) did not have such capacity to engage the UNLA backed by Tanzanian troops. A popular insurrection demands a degree of coordination but they lacked organisational ability to pull it off. The presence of the Tanzanian army made a coup impossible to execute. So he chose a protracted struggle going through three phases: guerrilla warfare, then mobile warfare and in the final phase conventional warfare.

Initially the rebel army is small relative to the national army. Its major aim is to preserve itself by avoiding direct confrontation with government troops. The initial phase therefore takes the form of short, sharp attacks and ambushes by small groups of rebels against isolated small army and police units. This forces government to spread out its army by fragmenting it into small units. And this helps the guerrillas as it makes government troops subject to surprise attacks, harassment and annihilation.

During this period, the rebel army improves its organisational strength and gains battle experience, making it possible to, over time, mass larger forces (battalions and even brigades) to launch the second phase – mobile warfare.

Here control of territory is unnecessary. So the rebel army avoids positional warfare by fighting fluid battles. The aim? To avoid unnecessary casualties but destroy the enemy’s means of making war – his weapons, morale, economy, physical infrastructure and international credibility. It is only when the balance of forces has shifted to the rebel’s side that a conventional war can be launched. It is incredible how Museveni proceeded to follow this strategy every step to success. In this article, Museveni is conscious of the extraordinary advantages the enemy has over his rebel group, but his strategy seeks to turn all those advantages into liabilities.

On the other hand Museveni is also acutely aware of his own side’s weaknesses but seeks to actually turn them to his advantage. For instance, the government forces have superiority over weaponry. Museveni makes clear that the rebels do not need much weaponry. Where the army has tanks, the rebels need anti tank weapons of modest caliber. Where they have aircrafts, the rebels need anti aircraft weapons. Uganda’s opposition has a lot to learn from this.

For instance, it is forever complaining about how the ground it tilted against them. Museveni sees the repressive propensity of the state as a disadvantage, not an asset. In fact his aim is to provoke the state to be more repressive to turn larger sections of the population against it. His argument is that the basic weapon of the rebels is popular support. Therefore people should be convinced of their ability to overcome the repressive state and defeat it. How so different this is from Kizza Besigye’s message that elections cannot deliver victory



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