Elite troops turn paper tigers again as Gaddafi’s Touaregs melt into the sands

Sunday April 03 2011

African leaders with a liking for hanging onto power invariably use the military as the fulcrum around which their regimes rotate.

The underlying logic is simple: Autocratic regimes are either being actively opposed and challenged, often by armed groups, or they live under constant threat of violent uprisings and insurgencies.

For presidents who would have ascended to power via coups or wars, the potency of the gun as a tool for intimidating opponents and removing leaders who won’t give up power voluntarily is all too familiar.

In Uganda, President Museveni’s continuing fascination with political violence and with the power guns confer on those who wield them, is evident in the name he has chosen for his personal Kalashnikov, “Rwitabagomi” (killer of the obstinate).

Remarkably, even the knowledge that their opponents too can take up the gun, does not help moderate their conduct towards political rivals.

On the contrary, the default conduct of many presidents who come to power courtesy of the gun is to use it to impose their will in the same way the predecessors they toppled would have done.


Where elections are conducted, they tend to be a sop to powerful external critics, the outcome usually fixed in advance through pliable electoral commissions.

These tactics have proved to be effective in many cases, but only for as long as opponents of autocratic regimes remain weak, unable, or even unwilling to face the enormous risk taking up arms involves.

When they decide to take up weapons and organise disciplined and motivated insurgencies, with or without external help, however, the armies of seemingly impregnable dictatorships lose their nerve and scatter much more easily than anyone would have predicted.

At the end of the day, soldiers serving dictatorships are human beings with as much passion for life as those they are hired to protect.

When push comes to shove and they can cut and run, they do.

The latest demonstration of this unwillingness by men in uniform to sacrifice themselves so their master may live comes from beleaguered Libya.

According to media reports, faced with constant bombardment and possible exposure to vengeful anti-government forces, some of Colonel Gaddafi’s elite troops, among them thousands of Touareg tribesmen from several Sahelian countries, have discarded their weapons and uniforms and melted away.

Apparently, the Sahelians have been heading home in droves and worrying their own governments about what sort of mischief they may get into given their military training and the prospect of unemployment.

The Mad Colonel, as some call Gaddafi, is not alone in suffering this kind of betrayal, when people who have “eaten” a dictator’s money for years abandon him when he most needs them.

Had he been around, Uganda’s Idi Amin would have borne testimony to the fecklessness of “elite troops” hired to defend autocracies.

In his heyday, Amin had army units whose names and reputations were legendary.

There was, for example, the Simba Battalion, so named possibly to evoke the image of a fierce lion, which became famous for, among other things, nearly decimating insurgents, among them the then youthful Yoweri Museveni, who attacked the country from Tanzania in 1972.

Then there was the Suicide Regiment whose very name would terrify the faint-hearted.

And then there were others, such as the Chui Regiment, named after the cheetah, commanded by men like Juma Butabika.

The name Butabika does not refer only to a village on the outer limits of Kampala, but also to the mental asylum located there.

Legend has it that it was Juma’s eccentricity that earned him the Butabika name.

Amin’s elite units, some dominated by Sudanese and Zairean elements, disintegrated not too long after Tanzanian forces and Ugandan insurgents invaded the country and gave them the fight of their lives.

As the “enemy” advanced towards Kampala and the regime started to collapse, survivors opted not to die for Idi Amin.

They headed home to eastern Zaire and Southern Sudan, taking military and civilians assets with them.

The story of paper-tiger elite troops is not simply a Libyan or Ugandan one.

It is also that of Rwanda under Habyarimana, Zaire under Mobutu and others throughout post-colonial Africa.

It goes to show the limitations of force as the political foundation and the military as the key constituency of any regime.

Frederick Golooba-Mutebi is a senior research fellow at the Institute of Social Research, Makerere University.