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Besigye out but not out

By Eriasa Mukiibi Sserunjogi

FDC’s leader tells party he will continue with protests

FDC President Kizza Besigye has declared that he is opting out of electoral politics by 2015, but he has left a wide open window for his active participation in his party’s struggles against the NRM government. The most important resolution from the FDC retreat conducted in two phases on July 2-3 and 9-10, on Besigye’s strong urging, was that the party will continue to actively participate in acts of civil disobedience.

By calling for a civil disobedience campaign against President Yoweri Museveni’s rule, observers say Besigye, who has proved to be the formidable force behind the recent anti-government protests, would continue to be the most important opposition figure even after handing over the FDC presidency.

In his meeting with the Danish diplomats at Parliament days after the July 2 and 3 FDC retreat in Mukono where he declared his intention to retire as party leader, Besigye maintained his resolve to continue with the civil disobedience campaign.

The disobedience campaign, which dominated April and the first half of May this year in the form of “Walk-to-Work” protests, shook up the country and led to widespread condemnations due to the highhanded way they were suppressed. Besigye, who halted the protests to receive treatment after he was brutally arrested on April 28, says he is now keen to resume the protests.

Sources say he has held several meetings with the coordinators of the Activists for Change (A4C), which launched the Walk to Work protests over the rising cost of food, fuel and commodity prices, with the view to renewing the protests.

Besigye told his party members at the retreat, some of whom wanted the FDC to formally organise the protests, that it is best that individuals decide on their own to participate in the protests in order to be able to delink the fortunes of the protests from those of the party.

Some of the delegates at the retreat went a step further. In one of the closed sessions, a delegate who attended the retreat has told The Independent that some of his colleagues suggested that the military option should be considered since they had reached the conclusion that Museveni cannot be removed through the ballot.

Besigye had to explain to the delegates that the military option cannot deliver sustainable democratic rule. When war breaks out, Besigye told the delegates, all institutions of the state apart from the military are rendered dysfunctional; a situation he said would cast Uganda back in time by bringing into power ‘another dictator’ who would need another war to remove.

The FDC top leadership has increasingly questioned the ability of elections to bring about political change in Uganda. They argue that in Uganda under the NRM, elections are stolen through various ways, including bribery, intimidation and outright vote theft through methods like ballot box stuffing.

In his opening remarks at the retreat, Besigye cast doubt on the possibility that strengthening the party will make it win the 2016 election.  He told them that even if institutions like the Electoral Commission changed leadership under the current government and parties strive to be stronger, their efforts will still be undermined so long as Museveni is still in power. He said instead, Ugandans who want change must play their cards right to ensure that Museveni does not finish his five year term.

This remark may be starting to sound familiar since he made it even after the 2006 elections. But Besigye has powerful backers, including two of his vice presidents The Independent talked to.

The FDC Vice President for Northern Uganda Prof. Ogenga Latigo, who did not attend the Mukono retreat, said the country is going through unusual times and anything is possible. “We are discussing all this (Besigye succession as FDC president) but what if there is a coup tomorrow? It isn’t like everything is okay,” he said.

Latigo’s counterpart, Salamu Musumbu who is the vice president for eastern Uganda, said it no longer matters much to strengthen their party. “FDC is already strong in many ways,” she said, adding, “You say we should strengthen it further to what end?” She said no amount of strengthening FDC or other parties will deliver electoral victory however much Ugandans may want as long as the NRM is still in power.

FDC members at the retreat had a lot to report and complain about, especially about what went wrong during the February election. They wanted to know, for example, why Besigye’s pledge to set up a parallel tally centre and announce results 24 hours after close of voting was not achieved.

Besigye explained that the logistics team at the campaign bureau did not do a good job despite consuming Shs 500 million to set up the centre. He said they did not properly vet the people who were to man the centre and some of them leaked the plan to saboteurs.

Former candidates also complained about irregularities in campaign funding. Some parliamentary candidates said they got Shs 400,000 plus the Shs 200,000 for nomination, others allegedly Shs 1,000,000 while others probably got much more. Besigye told delegates that in all, the last campaign cost over Shs 5.7 billion.

Suggestions for strengthening party structures and calls for a neutral and competent Electoral Commission were made.

The most compelling case for strengthening the party was made by Maj. Gen. (rtd) Mugisha Muntu, the secretary for mobilisation and organisation in FDC. In a paper he presented to the delegates, he argued for the cultivation of a party ideology “so that Ugandans can know clearly what the FDC stands for”. He told his colleagues that it is important for the FDC to rise above just opposing the ruling NRM.

But concerns for strengthening the party were far from being the main thrust of the retreat. Many party members strongly feel the party is strong. Latigo told The Independent that whereas they can always improve, their party is ‘the most organised and most transparent’. He said they will not be shaken by Besigye’s retirement because they have the institutional infrastructure to transit from Besigye to another leader.

“We are not afraid of scrutiny,” said Latigo, “that is why we have held two retreats since the February election where members have openly critiqued the party’s leadership; no other party has done that,” he said.

He said it is entirely up to Besigye to decide whether to vie for the presidency again in 2016 “if the election is held at all.”

Latigo said he left DP to join forces with others to form FDC in 2005, because DP members were more preoccupied with whether to retain Dr. Kawanga Ssemogerere instead of looking at moving beyond him to build a stronger party. He said FDC has the capacity to withstand such trials.

But many may disagree with Latigo. When Besigye made his intention to cede the FDC chair known to delegates, there were protests. He had to first dissuade some members from being the like ‘NRM members who don’t want leaders to go away’.

When the FDC was formed in 2005, Besigye was in exile in South Africa and few expected him to return to Uganda then, but such has been his influence on the leading opposition party that it is difficult to predict how the party will be affected by his departure.

Makerere University political scientist Dr. Yasin Olum, who was among the key note speakers at the retreat, told The Independent that Besigye’s conduct during the transition is crucial. “If the various parties believe Dr. Besigye is genuine about transferring power to the best candidate,” says Olum, “members will be more willing to cooperate with his successor.”

But even then, Besigye will still be seen as the larger-than-life king maker who would probably wield more influence than his successor. In the event that he is drawn into the 2016 FDC flag-bearer contest, which he can constitutionally vie for since it is a different position from the party presidency, anything is possible.

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