KAGABO: Living in the shadow of the military not good for democracy

Saturday August 30 2014

Frank Kagabo

Frank Kagabo  

By Frank Kagabo

Over the past couple of days or weeks, two developments, not directly connected but somehow related, have come to pass.

One was the arrest of three top members of the country’s military, both retired or serving, and the obvious interest and near-frenzied fascination that many people showed in the development.

Also, a section of Rwandans abroad held commemoration events for politicians who lost their lives in the aftermath and as a result of the 1973 coup d’etat that marked the entrance of the military into the politics of Rwanda.

The Juvenal Habyarimana-led overthrow of the government greatly altered the political terrain and lives of Rwandans. The same as the armed takeover of 1994.

Since 1973, political power in the country has been largely held by the military. People with no military means have been shunted aside and civilians who hold political office are not as respected or feared — for that matter, as is the case with the men in uniform, whether retired or in the barracks.

Whereas the current leadership has sought to put up a show of democratic transformation, it is largely assumed that it is the military that remains the core constituency of the president and the ruling Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF). This was also the case with the Habyarimana-led MRNDD government from 1973-1994.

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Frenzied fascination

Partly, it explains the frenzied fascination that Rwandans — at least those active on social media — have shown with the arrests of Brig-Gen (Rtd) Frank Rusagara, Capt (Rtd) David Kabuye and Col Tom Byabagamba. The latter, was three or four years ago the commander of the famed Presidential Guard, the so-called “Abajepe.”

In countries that have been stable for a long time, where the military remained professional and subordinate to civilian authority, there is not much fascination and awe with them. In fact, in most of those countries where the military never took power, interaction with the general public in daily life is very limited.

In such countries where the military never interfered with politics and has remained in the barracks, men and women in uniform largely socialise with their own, mostly peers, in the senior or junior officers’ mess, and do their shopping in the army shop.

Rarely will you find military officers holding court in common bars or social clubs in the company of civilian hangers-on.

Noteworthy is that the public’s interest for information in regard to the details behind the arrests of the senior officers also considered “historical” members of the ruling party has been met with a predictable stonewalling with only curt statements issued by the military spokesman to media outlets aligned with the interests of the ruling establishment.

Brief statements that have been largely reproduced without much ado or analysis, leave alone context or background. This has left room for speculation.

Reports of arrests of military officers has become quite common under the current government. Most of those detained are given administrative reprimand, rehabilitated and redeployed. But whereas that has become a norm of sorts within the army, there are exceptions.

One is the case of Lt-Col Rugigana Ngabo, the brother of exiled former army chief Lt-Gen Kayumba Nyamwasa, who has remained in detention for years.

Military wields power

The current interest and fascination with the goings-on in the military circles, be it retired officers and soldiers or even those in active service, is a reflection of the perception mostly derived from the realisation that it is the military that wields power in the country.

Civilians in high offices, save for a handful, are sometimes derided by the exiled opposition as “empty suits,” implying that they hold high office without the corresponding power.

This fascination with the military is a hangover from the past. The coup of 1973 that ushered in military rule and the RPF/RPA war of 1990-1994 that ended the genocide led to changes in the political and military elite but power remained in the same institution — the army.

Indicator of possible tension

Therefore, interest in the arrests of military officers, for many, serves as an indicator of possible tension at the centre of power. It betrays the fact that many believe that any change in leadership will be determined and led by the men and women who are, or have been, in uniform.

This is unhealthy for the nation. It does not augur well for the future of democracy in the country.

When the time comes where the arrest of military officers will not become breaking news and the main talking point, only then shall one be assured that the culture of democracy and civil authority over the armed forces is taking root.

Frank Kagabo is a journalist based in London, the United Kingdom. E-mail: [email protected]; Twitter: @kagabo

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