By Haggai Matsiko
When three of President Yoweri Museveni’s ministers appeared before the anti-corruption court in Kampala on Oct. 13, the who-is-who in the government showed up to show solidarity. But it was also not lost on many that dragging people who are in the inner core of Museveni’s government to court could be a sign of pressure mounting on the regime.
Among those who showed solidarity with the accused was a deputy prime minister, several serving and former cabinet ministers, secretaries and commissioners of statutory bodies, including the Electoral Commission and the Uganda Investment Authority, and owners of top casinos and managing directors of at least two prominent banks.
The accused were represented by lawyers from two of the top practices firms in the city including, President Yoweri Museveni’s son-in-law, Edwin Karugire. One of the accused, Foreign Affairs Minister Sam Kutesa is the father-in-law of Museveni’s son, Col. Muhoozi Kaineruguba. The other accused are John Nasasira, a long-serving cabinet member and government chief whip, and Mwesigwa Rukutana, a junior minister for labour. They are accused of corruption in connection to the procurement of goods and services for the Commonwealth Head of State and Government Meeting (CHOGM) in Kampala four years ago. They were granted bail.
But in a separate case, there is also a move in parliament to censure Kutesa, Internal Affairs Minister, Hillary Onek and another Museveni right hand man, Prime Minister, Amama Mbabazi, who doubles at the secretary general of the ruling NRM party. They are accused of taking bribes worth billions of shillings from international oil prospecting firms.
Museveni has defended his ministers but his efforts to save them from the embarrassing parliamentary scrutiny failed and some in the NRM are breaking ranks.
“We were told to come and defend the government, I did not know that they wanted us to defend thieves,” one MP told parliament after hearing the bribe allegations against the ministers.
“Enough is enough on corruption, the ministers should resign,” Gen. Elly Tumwine, an army representative in parliament and senior NRM historical – one of the few soldiers that Museveni started his guerrilla war with told the members of parliament during a heated debate.
The President’s brother, Gen. Caleb Akandwananaho aka Salim Saleh and some other high ranking UPDF officials also want the ministers censored, according to those in the army circles.
As pressure mounts, some observers are already predicting that if they are censured, President Museveni’s government could unravel although there are those who insist that Museveni remains strong despite the current turbulence.
Days earlier, The Independent had interviewed the leader of the main opposition party, Dr Kizza Besigye of the Forum for Democratic Change (FDC) who said “it will be a miracle if Museveni’s regime limps on to 2016”, the date of the next presidential election.
“I hear Museveni ridiculing me that he does not see the tsunami; he is standing right in the middle of it,” Besigye said (see interview) adding that despite Museveni’s insatiable thirst for power, his regime has already fallen apart and that the opposition was already making post-Museveni plans.
Besigye was speaking about the nonstop protests that have swept the country since the February election that the opposition alleges were rigged. Besigye has been at the forefront of the Walk to Work protest that were brutally quashed, traders and taxi drivers have closed shop to protest high taxes, and medical workers and teachers want pay raises.
“The protests show broad, national non-partisan discontent,” Besigye said.
Besigye told The Independent that the fact that those close to president Museveni like his former Senior Presidential advisor, John Nagenda and NRM party chairman for Eastern Uganda were coming out to denounce him was further indication that his regime was falling apart.
“He has on several occasions said that NRM MPs are frustrated, if NRM MPs are frustrated, you can imagine how isolated the man is,” Besigye says.
But pundits like Prof. Yasin Olum a senior political scientist at Makerere University says that the problems facing Ugandans might not necessarily mean that Ugandans are ready to oust President Museveni and that the anger is directed at specific pockets of concern that people want the same government to solve.
“We need to assess whether these forces can tantamount to regime change,” Olum told The Independent, “as for now it remains speculation.”
Dr. Golooba-Mutebi, a research fellow at Makerere University went even further to say that although people are angry with Museveni’s government, “they are not desperate yet”. “They are concerned about inflation and other things but they are not desperate to change government,” he said, “even if Ugandans were desperate, they would not make any effort to topple President Museveni’s government because they do not see an easily identifiable alternative for change.
“The question is change for what?” Golooba told The Independent in an interview, “They think that if Museveni is toppled there will be war and people would rather have a bad President with stability than a good President with instability. If you look at the disorganised and non – coherent opposition, If Museveni was ousted who would replace him or which party would replace the NRM?”
Besigye and his fellow protesters want a Libya, Egypt, Tunisia-type of people power uprising in Uganda and say “leaders will emerge”. They appear frustrated that it has not happened despite the economic hardships.
As a result, there has been a discussion of Havard University economics professor Paul Collier’s argument that poor countries like Uganda cannot transition into democracies. Collier argues that the transition only starts when a country’s income per capita hits the US$ 2800 threshold. With a GDP of US$ 17bn GDP and a population of 33 million, Uganda’s income per capita is US$561. Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya have per capita incomes higher than Prof. Collier’s $ 2800 threshold.
However, Mutebi says such an argument is farfetched and overly academic. “What is true is that when the time is ripe there is always going to be change no matter the income levels,” he says. “Change is brought about by a number of factors.
Prof. Ndeebesa Mwambutsya, a political scientist at Makerere University says that regime change in Uganda is not yet possible because while the objective conditions for it, like failure by the government to meet teachers, lecturers, traders and the public’s demands, the subjective conditions are not ripe.
Mwambutsya says that the subjective conditions include the level of social media use for political mobilization and the level of urbanisation which is still very unfavorably low in Uganda. The Egyptian capital, Cairo, has about 20 million people, while Kampala has only 2 million. Uganda has only 320,000 (9.6 per cent of the 33 million people) estimated to be using internet.
“If you look at countries where public protests have been successful, majority of the population are using social media and live in urban areas which makes it is easy to mobilise them for a common cause,” he says. “Secondly, ethnicity is so high in Uganda that some ethnic groups look at regime change as betraying themselves since they consider the regime as their personal property.”
Mwambutsya also says the Museveni regime “has put in place shock absorbers”.
“You have parliament, the media, non-governmental organisations working and creating a sense that though inconsequential, these are checking the government and issues are being discussed and thus absorbing public anger,” he says.
“But there is a trend as people mobilise, and the subjective factors grow, we shall soon see an Egypt here.”
Museveni is in the midst of a Tsunami
The Independent’s Haggai Matsiko interviewed the FDC leader, Dr Kizza Besigye.
It is now five months since you were brutally arrested and injured by security operatives, how have you been health wise?
Well, I think I have made good recovery. I still have trouble with my hands. The eyes are much better.
You have been traveling since the protests, and sometimes spending a long time away from Uganda, what have you been up to?
I have not been a way for more than two weeks. I have been to the U.S where my family lives but I also attend to our country issues with entities that have interest in the situation we are in and how we can get out of it. I had a comprehensive engagement with the US Assistant Secretary for Africa and his team. I meet with NGOs and whoever is engaged with Uganda.
You have been very quiet lately?
Again, I don’t know what quiet entails and since when.
Ever since the protests fizzled out?
We had a very big rally in Mbale, in Masaka that was also attacked by police. I had a big function in Rukungiri which was a thanksgiving and I have attended a number of other functions. We had two party retreats lasting weekends. I may not have been in the media but I am available for those who want me.
May be people expect more from a person who led protests and risked his life in April when inflation was 11 percent, now that it is well over 28 percent?
I expect those big protests will come. As it was in April, it was not my organisation’s initiative; it was a public, civil society action and when those actions come up I am always available to participate. I am happy that people can express their frustration and discontent without the government saying that this is Besigye. There have been nonstop protests since our walk to work; traders closing shops, the taxi- drivers, the medical workers, and the teachers. The protests show broad, national non-partisan discontent. I even read in press that NRM students at Makerere were protesting because their governments had failed. One of the NRM cadres Vincent Nzaramba was arrested for publishing his opinions of what he sees in his party. So it is no longer necessary for me to talk. Everybody is in it and my own sense is that it is unstoppable.
With you things could even be much bigger?
Well, I am around. This time we are walking having demonstrated also that the arrest and harassment we went through the last time was illegal because they took us to court and all their cases were dismissed. It is now clear that it does not require a permit to walk from somebody’s home to his place of work. Even the traders who were complaining that we were disrupting their businesses have seen that it is necessary to protest.
In Asia and North Africa small things have sparked protests that have grown to topple governments, why aren’t we seeing the many problems in Uganda leading to situations similar to this?
Every country is unique. We have had a 40-year history of repression since independence. This breeds a society that is submissive, timid and that has an exaggerated view of the government. There is also the culture of the people. People need to understand that in a democracy, which we want, it is the people who must have the power and that the government and their president are their servants not their masters. Their understanding of power relations has been distorted for centuries. Explaining these things is not easy. We are dealing with the fear element because dictatorships thrive on using tools of coercion to instill fear. I think you have heard Museveni threatening to crush almost everything. That is why he had to import all this scary equipments, mambas and others. People see you and keep peeping to see whether you can go through these fierce looking people and when you do and they fire all these things then people start seeing that it is possible to challenge and more people get emboldened to come out. The middle class is important in providing leadership but they are selfish and narrow minded middle class because they are slightly comfortable and don’t want to endanger their comfort zones. Some of them are active participants in the misgovernance, the corruption networks, getting free money. They think it will go on endlessly. The massive poverty at the bottom is now affecting them. The mismanagement of the economy which has led to the runaway inflation and the total collapse of the social system are pulling them out of their slumber. The roof over their head has holes and is beginning to leak. They are becoming anxious and beginning to ask what is going on. We have a very skilled and aggressive patrimonial regime that builds its power on the dispensation of favours; a motorcycle, Pajero, school fees for children. But the money to oil the patronage system has also reduced, so many people are frustrated. I think troubles in the economy are exposing these things. These slow changes make me believe that time has run out for the dictatorship. The situation now can rapidly change because the anger at the bottom. There is anger and frustration everywhere. The regime will crumble under the pressure of these Museveni people.
When I talked about a tsunami, people misunderstood me to mean that I was going to come and sweep the government away. I even heard Museveni ridiculing me saying “where is the tsunami?” He is now living in the midst of it. He is attacking the NRM saying the problems, like lack of electricity, are because the NRM leaders are joining the opposition in frustration. You can imagine how isolated he must be feeling. Many people have kept in NRM because of either fear or groceries. The Nagendas, the Mukulas are saying no, this can’t go on. So the end is coming. What we need to focus on is post-NRM. How do we pick up the pieces and make sure that we don’t have a dictatorship again.
But some people tend to think that these are just pockets of concern not a call for regime change?
I am not doubtful that there are people who still have that rather myopic view. The evidence is overwhelming. There is not one medical institution where even the head of state can get the most basic care, people are dying of hunger, and the socio-physical infrastructure is as it is. Museveni cannot blame the minority opposition yet he has the majority in parliament. But Museveni will simply blame everybody for his failures. Fortunately, nobody takes what he says seriously any longer.
There are claims that Ugandans don’t want change because they do not see an alternative to Museveni in the opposition.
That’s absolute nonsense because the people themselves are the alternative. When the people in Egypt were struggling they didn’t have people that were waiting to take over government. People should struggle for themselves for a change of leadership for their own interests. As long as the struggle is going on, leaders will emerge. Who knew this Museveni before 1980? Nobody. He only emerged through the struggle of fighting against Obote.
Secondly, if there was a lack of confidence in the opposition leaders by the population why would government not allow a free and fair election? Why would government have to use force, beat, kill and imprison people, empty the treasury? That is a demonstration that peoples trust is there.
So what do you make of the view that only 58 percent of the voters, voted, the others never voted because they were apathetic?
I don’t think they are apathetic. They are pathetic because they were simply narrow-mindedly selfish. Knowing that things are wrong but not having the courage to change them. They didn’t want to vote for change because they feared change and did not want to endorse something clearly rotting. They don’t have the courage to say that this is wrong let’s remove it even if it in our convenience in the mean time. They are pathetic to think that they can fold their hands and think that a good government will emerge. They think politics is dirty, they say there is no alternative; none of them is willing to vote. That is pathetic.
You have repeatedly said that you are not resorting to violent means even if it is impossible to change government through peaceful means?
No, it is extremely possible. It is the surest way because it is ideological. The experience of using armed insurrection has proved to us that it is highly unlikely to get a transition to democracy. In armed insurrection the first victims are the non-state institutions; civil society, political parties and media collapse with everything. The only viable government is that of the military that has won the war. Now by nature the military is a dictatorship taking orders from above not the views from below. Therefore if there are no institutions that can check this military then there is no motivation for it to relinquish power to the people. Only the military benefits. On the other hand, if you use peaceful means, teachers unions, the workers union, and other unions, political parties become stronger and challenge the dictatorship that has lost legitimacy. It collapses and what emerges is guided by these non-state institutions thus an emerging democracy. Armed insurrections are vulnerable to failure because that is where the dictatorship is stronger and can only defeat a dictatorship from a situation of inferiority like Museveni started with twenty guns. Armed insurrection is illegal, peaceful means are legal. Once people understand their power and are organised; they push out the dictatorship themselves. They also understand that the outcome is a better and sustainable government.
The April protests started with numbers increasing every time you walked but with your absence they fizzled?
Fortunately the deficit is still in the leadership not the people. Strong civic leaders have not taken root for people to rally around these activities. These processes take time and I am not myself panicky about the time. In non-violent changes, you don’t force things. Walk to work did not fizzled out, it just stopped. The leaders said let us reorganise, assess. Since the beginning of the year when the police was deployed all over to superintend over the stealing of the elections, it has been up and down, they have never sat down. They are getting exhausted emotionally and physically, exhausting funds that would be dealing with other issues. I think it is good that the whole thing is not hinged on Besigye alone because if it was like that, they would die. But if there is leadership everywhere, it becomes overwhelming on the government. You will have to gun down a few people.
You have said that because of the repressive, military regimes we have had, people are timid and so fearful. Some people think that until the army’s backbone is broken, we cannot have regime change?
The army cannot continue to have a bone where the population is completely against what it is doing because who is the army. The army is our children; and they come from those villages where their parents cannot have sugar, where thousands and thousands of their brothers and sisters are unemployed, they are part of the society that has all these problems.
When they get sick they die because they cannot access medical care, they get injured in their operations and die. You had the military almost mutinying because they cannot burry their friends. Soldiers keep dyeing and their bodies are kept in the fridge to wait until the bodies are many so they can be given one truck to distribute the bodies. They have buried wrong people in wrong homes. So the army cannot be happy where the whole population is not. That is why when a dictator is overwhelmed, he orders the military to shoot at the public and they say wait a moment, you are the problem; we shall not shoot at our people
The debate about succession is so ripe with WikiLeaks offsetting it. What do you make of the cables quoting senior people saying that Museveni is planning to replace himself with his son?
I think the people who write the cables are properly trained to gather the information and it is credible. People who think that Museveni has a succession plan do not know what they are talking about. The only succession plan Museveni has is of himself. He can only replace himself with himself not even his son. I suspect that he must be very uncomfortable about those who are saying that his son should succeed him. I hope it won’t put poor Muhoozi in trouble that he is being talked about. Museveni is about himself and nothing. Of course I suspect that as a plan B for some reason that he became unable to hang onto power, he would want it to stay as close to him as possible. My understanding of Museveni’s mentality is that he cannot imagine himself existing outside power as a humble citizen of our country paying taxes, attending village meetings in Rwakitura.
On the same question of succession, there was news a while ago that you would not contest for president again, but it later appeared that you were misquoted. Does this mean that you will contest in 2016?
No, I was not misquoted, there was a distortion. We were talking about party leadership which we are still discussing and I absolutely have no doubt that I am serving out my last term and that there must be a change of leadership in our party and that that change must come earlier than my term because I think it would be fair to release me to be more active in the broader national struggle which is a non-partisan struggle of people who want a different dispensation.
Our clear sense is that it would be a joke for anybody to plan a national election organised by the NRM. So we are not part of the people who are talking about 2016. We believe there cannot be a 2016 without some fundamental changes and to that extent we would not want to be diverted as to whether we shall field a candidate, which candidate it will be. We consider that that will be diversionary of what we are engaging in now which is dislodging the dictatorship.
What are some of these fundamental changes?
Well, the overarching requirement is to have a mechanism of restructuring the state. It must be a transitional process which involves revisiting our constitution. There are serious constitutional issues whether it is land, regional governance, and the electoral system. To have these undertaken in a manner that is acceptable to everybody, you need to have a mechanism that enjoys the confidence of everybody. This is why one of our core demands has been to have a national dialogue.
This is impossible with Museveni still in power?
That is why I have tried three times to get him out of power. The most important thing in getting Museveni out of power is to have a mechanism that can reconstruct the contentious areas of our country into a consensus and certainly he is part of that controversy, he can be part of the solution, he should be part of the solution but under a different construct not where he is the supervisor.
So in the event that Museveni is still in power, does it mean that we won’t see you participating in 2016?
That is the debate that we are not willing to entertain right now. We want to devote all our efforts to ensure that the country is not abused again by going through another fraudulent election. I think it will take a miracle for this country to limp on until 2016.
FDC’s Anne Mugisha says that she is organising to lead the party. Is it a position you are behind?
All our members are free to contest and the party will be behind all contestants that is the essence of our internal democracy. I would encourage Anne and whoever wants it to go for it so we can have a lively and competitive process.
People say that you are still the strong and strategic leader that can challenge President Museveni?
When that time comes our party will choose an attractive leader that will lead the party into success but I think it is a conversation that is well saved for the future.
At the height of the protests a New York Times story reduced your struggle to just a personal fight between you and President Museveni and in most cases your critics accuse you just fighting Museveni?
Everybody to the best of my knowledge concedes that our basis of challenging Museveni is real and legitimate. Anybody who was serious with what my serious disagreement with Museveni and the NRM has been would have understood that our disagreement predated the single issue they base on to suggest a personal conflict; my relationship with Winnie. That has been a deliberate campaign to deflect from the issues so that people do not discuss the corruption, the nepotism. To say the problem is Museveni and Besigye. What is the problem with Museveni and Gen. Muntu? This was his army commander for eight year and all those people that fell out with him.