In the week, the Uganda government decided to designate the red beret as militia insignia, and banned civilians from wearing it.
Even if you had just arrived from Mars, you would have figured that there was more to it than that. The red beret is the trademark of opposition MP Robert Kyagulanyi, more popularly known as Bobi Wine, and his insurgent “People Power” movement.
Wine and People Power are the in opposition wave. Its supporters wearing red berets have been clobbered, and arrested, much like the Main Man Wine.
The ban, therefore, was most likely a move to hamstring People Power, as the country gears up for the 2021 election, when President Yoweri Museveni will bid for a record-shattering eighth term, two of them unelected.
That said, the repressive action had some sophistication. It didn’t specifically mention Wine and his brigade, and was not issued by a general foaming at the mouth with rage on TV or a president banging tables. They slid it in sideways through a gazette notice.
Still, it was unfashionably old school, straight out of the African political playbook of years gone by. It comes from that time when it was treason to photograph an African government building, and certain death to take a photograph at, let alone near, a military barracks or at an airport.
During military dictator Idi Amin’s rule, when rebels formed against him in the region (and Museveni was one of them) and making incursions into the country, long shaggy beards were considered a rebel weapon of mass destruction, and could cost one a beating, or death.
In Daniel arap Moi’s Kenya, in the period of the hysteria against Mwakenya dissidents, long beards were also treated with hostility.
It was equally bad after Museveni disputed the rigged December 1980, took to the bush to start the guerrilla war that would bring him to power in 1986.
Militant youth in Milton Obote’s then-ruling Uganda People’s Congress (UPC) would harass people wearing Museveni’s Uganda Patriotic Movement (UPM) t-shirts and colours. The police and military went further, forcing them to eat the clothes.
During this period, the Democratic Party (DP) was the loyal opposition in parliament. The DP’s party colour was and remains green.
People wearing green shirts, skirts, t-shirts, caps, and socks (a strange choice of colour for socks) were often denied entry into government buildings, and beaten by soldiers on the streets.
It was particularly problematic, because green is popular with schools, churches, and businesses, but because there were many illiterate soldiers around, they couldn’t read and differentiate.
A senior UPC minister famously lost his head when his secretary walked in to work in a green skirt one morning. He threw her out. More colourful reports claimed he ripped it off her.
Green used to be a popular colour in the south of Uganda then, in part because it was the country’s agricultural heartland, although it was also the stronghold of DP so some house owners used it as homage to the party.
Soldiers used to attack houses painted green, so after some time you couldn’t see any homes near the highways painted green.
Banning civilians from wearing red berets is petty repression at its best. And on this, Museveni’s Uganda has gone 33 years ahead, in order to go 47 years back.
Charles Onyango-Obbo is publisher of data visualiser Africapaedia and Rogue Chiefs. [email protected]