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Besigye fourth-time lucky?

By Edgar Tushabe Muhairwe 

Shock, surprise, anger and what his bid for presidency means

There was excitement at the Forum for Democratic Change (FDC) offices at Najjanankumbi on July 1. Supporters of Rtd. Col. Dr. Kizza Besigye were nominating him to compete for the FDC presidential ticket to vie in the 2016 presidential elections.

But some were surprised and shocked. Among them was his wife, Winnie Byanyima, the Executive Director of Oxfam International. She expressed her surprise via her twitter handle.

Besigye, Muntu to face off in FDC polls…I am taken by surprise!” she tweeted.

The man he intends to run against; FDC party President Mugisha Muntu, was equally surprised – and not impressed.  When he chaired the National Executive Council (NEC) of the party on June 30, a day before Besigye’s nomination, Muntu reportedly, spoke about his discomfort.

“Every time I have wanted to contest, I have been the first person to inform him (Besigye) of my intentions, why does he decide to do it this way?” Muntu reportedly wondered.

The Independent has learnt that the meeting that finally pushed Besigye into the race sat on Monday June 29, 2015 at Serefaco offices on Katonga Road in Kampala city centre. Owned by former presidential aspirant Chaapa Karuhanga, they house Besigye’s offices and have been a home of activism groups for the past three years.

Geoffrey Ekanya, MP for Tororo Municipality chaired the meeting that was attended by Ingrid Turinawe, FDC Secretary for mobilization, Roland Mugume Kaginda, MP Rukungiri Municipality, and Wilberforce Kyambadde, the Deputy Treasurer for Budgeting in FDC. Owekitiibwa Sewavva, the FDC Chairman Mpigi district, and Moses Owori and Francis Mwijukye, both FDC youth activists, attended. They resolved to ensure that Besigye runs and it is then that he gave them the nod to pick nomination forms.

In an interview with The Independent a few days before he flew out of the country, Besigye said that he was not sure whether he will vie. While he insisted that elections in Uganda are a basket case, he also took a swipe at those who say he should leave the stage for Muntu.

“I left the party presidency so that anybody that would wish to vie for presidency of the country can use the position to mobilise for himself and familiarise himself with the party members so that he does not find difficulty in the 2016 election.”

Asked why he does not humbly leave the election for somebody else since he has run the race perennially, he added, “Unless you are saying that those members in FDC who support me do not want to be in government. If indeed they wish, they should look for a flag bearer to take them to government. If they think I will not, why would they be looking for me? So, if for any reason they think that by having a fresh person it would give us a better chance of going to government, why wouldn’t they vote for that person?”

If Besigye succeeds in having the FDC flag, it will be the third time he represents FDC in the race for the presidency of the country, but his fourth time.

His candidature within FDC pits him against Muntu, the party president who contested for this flag against him in the run-up to the 2011 election. The two ran for party presidency against each other in 2009. On both occasions, Besigye has floored Muntu resoundingly. That is the basis for believing that Besigye will win again.  But a few things have changed.

Besigye’s confusing message

In the 2010 delegates’ conference at Namboole, for example, Besigye who was the party president then, implored members to give him a last attempt at the presidency. Indeed, apparently as a sign of keeping the promise, he bowed out of the party presidency in 2012, after the general election that gave him 26% of the poll, the worst performance he has registered ever since he aspired. In his handover speech to the new president Maj. Gen. Muntu, Besigye hinted on moving on to fighting for “bigger things.”

Out of the party presidency, Besigye went on a clarion call to citizens to rise up and “dislodge the dictator” using various activism groups like Activists for Change (A4C), and later For God and My Country (4GC). The groups agitated for citizens’ uprising similar to the Jasmine revolution in Tunisia or that of the Muslim brotherhood in Egypt.

In the run-up to 2016, Besigye has used another grouping, the Citizens Reforms Now (CIREN), to categorically say elections will not change the regime. He has said the iron hand of the NRM regime suffocates every space they could have used to organize and fundraise, thus, elections are only a ritual. That political parties and organisations cannot function efficiently in a dictatorial regime.

He reportedly told The Observer newspaper that he will neither contest nor support an FDC candidate if electoral reforms are not granted. But, in an ingenious tactical maneuver, he has also maintained that he was not calling for an election boycott. Rather, he said, he wanted there to be no election in 2016 if the electoral process was not reformed and President Museveni remained in charge. It was a tactical twister on a massive scale and few were surprised when he picked nomination forms to run again in 2016.

In the days towards the start of the CIREN campaign, Besigye met delegations of people from across the country reportedly to program the activities of the campaign. Among them were local government leaders, FDC party officials from across the country and about 111 student leaders from across the country’s tertiary institutions. In almost all, the question of whether he would stand was incessantly raised. The uniform answer on every occasion was that he has never prepared to vie, but he has been approached to offer himself on every one of the times he has done so.

Towards the end of May, the pressure on Besigye to vie for presidency intensified as more delegations visited his Kasangati home to ask him to return.

Nandala Mafabi, current Secretary General of the party in the days after he announced that he will not stand again for Member of Parliament for Budadiri West constituency started pronouncements on his support for Besigye.  Wafula Oguttu, the man Muntu replaced Nandala with as Leader of Opposition in Parliament (LOP) is also said to favour a Besigye run.

Meeting about 70 delegates from the greater Kampala region on the Sunday evening of July 5, 2015, upon his return, Besigye vehemently denied ever saying he will not stand for presidency again. He went on to challenge anybody who has evidence that he ever pledged not to run again. He also categorically stated that nobody coerced him to run for presidency again.

Besigye’s moral predicament

Besigye’s decision to vie puts him in a moral predicament. Over his days in the opposition, he has accused his archrival Yoweri Museveni, who has beaten him thrice at the presidency, of inconsistency. He has been consistent in reminding Museveni of the promises he has broken in the aftermath of the 1980-1986 NRA liberation war; on the spirit of the movement system, term limits and electoral democracy among others.  Besigye’s critics also accuse him of inconsistency and failure to keep his word on not vying again. More so they ask themselves why a man that has previously basked in the banner of “no elections without reforms” now made a u-turn and now wants to participate in the election.

His campaign manager Geoffrey Ekanya says that Besigye’s contest does not mean that the quest for electoral reforms has been abandoned.  “We know that we have a strong battle for free and fair elections and we have not abandoned it,” he says, “But at whatever time they come, FDC must participate in the election.”

“Supposing we fight tooth and nail and in September parliament is summoned to pass the electoral reforms, do we start panicking, looking for a presidential candidate?”   He says the team fighting for electoral reforms is fighting because it needs change, it would thus be foolhardy for them to fight without a team. Pressed on why they insist on Besigye when there are other options, Ekanya alludes to the Christian holy book; the Bible.  “As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another as good stewards of His grace. That is 1Peter chapter 4 verse10,” Ekanya says.  He says both Muntu and Besigye are great leaders, blessed in different ways.

“Muntu is good for strategy and underground mobilisation. But when it comes to an election, you need a charismatic, time-tested leader like Besigye to deliver victory. We need to divide roles and responsibilities if we are to oust Museveni,” he says.

However, Abdu Katuntu, MP Bugweri South, and a senior member of the party, insists that Besigye has had various chances and failed and should leave the stage for somebody else.   “When you try a strategy three times at achieving one goal and it fails, you have to rethink that strategy.”

Muntu is banking on FDC members to look beyond individuals and look at the institution. “However big a tree might be, it can never be a forest,” he said in his speech after nomination.

But going by the recent elections of new NEC members of the party, where pro-Besigye activists trounced the moderates resoundingly, Besigye could defeat Muntu.

If he wins, Besigye could choose to go it alone or join The Democratic Alliance (TDA), which he personally has a low opinion of, to contest in the presidency for the fourth time. Besigye says that coalitions for the purpose of elections are not very helpful as they shift focus from the goal of fundamental change to electioneering tactics.

However way he goes it, the fortunes of his candidacy are not certain as the previous three results have not been consistent. In 2001, Besigye under the Reform Agenda got 27.8% against Museveni’s 69.3%. In 2006, Besigye polled 37% against Museveni’s 59%. However, his performance fell in 2011 to his worst when he polled on 26% of the vote against Museveni’s 68%.   On the first two occasions, he went to court alleging electoral fraud and court agreed with him, adding though, that the fraud was not significant enough to tilt the balance in his favour.  Besigye then pledged in the 2011 campaigns never to go to courts of law again but the court of the people, that was to be the walk to work campaign.

Fourth time lucky?

When the BBC World service tweeted Muhammadu Buhari’s victory as president-elect of Nigeria in the March 28 2015 election, Besigye retweeted it immediately adding that it is possible for Uganda too. But will Besigye be fourth-time lucky as Buhari was?   Buhari like Besigye was a military man before he joined the opposition after a failed presidential bid against Olusegun Obasanjo in 2003. In 2007, he unsuccessfully contested against Umar Mussa Yar’Adua, and lost again to Goodluck Jonathan in 2012. His luck came at a fourth attempt in 2015.

In Northwest Africa, the resilience of Abdoulaye Wade could be more inspirational to the Besigye team. Wade, contested four times; 1978, 1983, 1988, 1993, without success until the fifth attempt in 2000 where he came second and won a rerun.  This case-hardened character of the two West African leaders could also have served as an inspiration to the retired military colonel; persistence breaks a rock.

Across the Atlantic, Brazil’s Luiz Lula da Silva contested three times 1989, 1994, 1998 and won in 2002. Today, Lula is arguably the most popular president Brazil ever had.

If he lost once more, Besigye could be Uganda’s perennial candidate who never won. He could join the likes of Edward Mahama of Ghana who has lost four times; 1996, 2000, 2004, 2008 and Ibrahim Lipumba of the Civic United Front of Tanzania who has also lost a record four times; 1995, 2000, 2005 and 2010.

Whatever the outcome of the election and however Besigye responds can only be given time.

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