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Besigye reloaded

By Andrew M. Mwenda

How NRM internal power struggles have given FDC leader hero status

Last week, President Yoweri Museveni’s inauguration was eclipsed by the dramatic return of opposition leader, Dr Kizza Besigye, from Nairobi, Kenya where he had been treated after being tortured by Ugandan security agents.

Besigye’s triumphant return made Museveni’s inauguration for a 4th elective term a side event as national and international media, popular conversations and national attention shifted from the venue of the swearing-in at Kololo Airstrip to Entebbe Road where Besigye was being welcomed by crowds.

For Museveni, it must have been a humiliating experience as he had to literally drive his visiting dignitaries (nine heads of state) under tight military escort through masses of stone-throwing youths who were shouting insults at him rather than congratulatory messages.

This turn of events is the more surprising because only two months ago, Museveni beat his main rival, Besigye, by 68 percent to a miserable 26 percent in the national presidential election. The president increased his electoral margin by 10 percentage points compared to 2006 and won in all regions of the country including the north where his performance had previously been poor.

How then has Besigye been able to successfully and dramatically bring himself back from the political stretcher his electoral defeat had put him on to be a potent threat to Museveni – yet again? What are the short and long-term implications of Besigye’s resuscitation on national politics? Is there a way out of the Museveni versus Besigye feud?

First, the wider problem in Uganda is political, not economic. Inflation has hit all the East African countries and beyond. There are no demonstrations in these countries. More so, Uganda is not the worst hit by the food and fuel crisis. But it is the one worst hit by political protests. This means, therefore, that the solution to its current problems cannot be sought in economic policy reforms but in political and electoral reforms and gestures.

Secondly, the violence that has been unleashed on the protesters signifies a growing weakness in Museveni’s government; it exhibits a critical vulnerability, not a solid fortress.

Thirdly, it seems Besigye sees into this weakness a chance to seek an Egyptian-style fall of government; an outcome that is theoretically possible but most unlikely. A more productive approach for Besigye and the opposition would be to see Museveni’s current vulnerability as an opportunity to open dialogue with the government on political and electoral reform.

Trouble within NRM

It is in this context that internal competition for power inside NRM is uniting with external resistance to the regime to create trouble for Museveni.

Museveni is fighting a war on several fronts – he has to contain Besigye, placate many and diverse group interests within the Ugandan political community while at the same time sorting out the power struggles inside NRM and the potential for restlessness in the armed forces.

The army and the police are among the worst hit by the current economic crisis. A police constable earns Shs260,000 per month; a private in the army, Shs270,000. Across the country, soldiers and policemen/women cannot send their children to school, put food on their family table or treat their loved ones. No one is acutely aware of the potential of the current protests to build a momentum for change even in the security forces than Museveni. In barracks across the country, armouries have been reinforced; clearly signalling a concern over the armed forces.

When police brutalised Besigye, leading people in the security establishment; Security minister Amama Mbabazi, Security Coordinator Gen. David Tinyefuza and the Chief of Defence Forces, Gen. Aronda Nyakairima condemned the police. NRM insiders say that the trio have had many running battles with Police chief Kale Kayihura and may be condemning the police in order to undermine their colleague who has recently become a blue-eyed cadre of the President.

That is Museveni’s current dilemma and explains the paranoia with which he sought to handle Besigye’s Walk to Work campaign. He has to nip potential challenges to his power in the bud lest they grow into something bigger. The example of the Middle Eastern nations where the army and police have joined the protesters is too fresh for him to ignore.

The irony in Uganda’s politics is that while Museveni won the Feb. 18 elections with an increased margin and indeed beat all his rivals in the four regions of the country, his legitimacy has actually shrunk.  One reason is that he has been in power for far too long. The other is that he raided the national treasury to win.

But Museveni also won by a series of defaults – like many people in the northern region voting for him either because they perceive him as a guarantor of peace in the region or because not doing so would lead to continued marginalisation. There was also apathy among opposition supporters which led to a very low voter turnout and the widespread fear among the electorate that if Museveni lost, it would spark violence and chaos.

Added to Museveni’s many vulnerabilities is the fact that he has been ageing rapidly because of the heavy burden of his job and the excruciating pressure he inflicts on himself. He is no longer the young, vibrant and alert firebrand of yester years. Many around him have sensed this growing physical weakness in the President and are now beginning to think past him to a successor; others are looting with reckless abandon well knowing he is no longer able to rein them in.

This has led to a ferocious power struggle inside the NRM with many senior cadres positioning themselves for power. When he looks around him, Museveni sees vultures ready for a kill. The President is keenly aware that more than the opposition, his own colleagues in the ruling party want to see him go. This positioning for a post-Museveni era has also attracted some in the military and security establishment who are circling the president like hungry hyenas.

Museveni, therefore, has very few genuine allies in the political and security establishment on whom to rely for a more pragmatic response to the crisis. Thus, since the demonstrations began, senior NRM politicians have been silent, and those speaking like Interior minister Kirunda Kivejinja and Information minister Kabakumba Matsiko have only made a laughing stock of themselves, making the government look clumsy in the process. So government seems to be sailing without ballast; the centre is not holding.

Museveni is also acutely aware that the last 23 years of rapid economic growth have fostered structural change in Uganda. Many youth have migrated to towns and are now unemployed or underemployed. The accompanying boom in education has produced a large and educated population and urban middle-class. Many groups have thus assembled in Uganda – NGOs, boda boda riders, taxi drivers, churches, mosques, kingdoms and chieftains, etc. These changes have supplied those opposed to the government with large numbers of militants for change.

Besides, Museveni should be also aware that while the economy has expanded by about six times from US$ 2.3 billion in 1986 to US$ 15 billion today, per capita income has only doubled from US$ US$ 250 then to US$ 500 today. This means that growth has reinforced extreme income inequality i.e. the benefits of growth are going to very few people. This is because of the dominance of foreign capital in the economy.

For example, out of the top 25 tax payers, none is an indigenous owned business; out of 25 banks in the country, only two are owned by indigenous Ugandan capital. Agricultural growth has averaged only 0.9% over the last ten years against a population growth rate of 3.3%. This means that the sector that employs over 73 percent of the population has suffered negative per capita growth over the last ten years.

These structural weaknesses in the distribution of income could have been mitigated by an effective healthcare and education system. An effective public healthcare system can offer poor families access to the benefits of growth and save their loved ones; a good public education system gives their children an opportunity to get a good education and thereby gain a foothold on the ladder of self advancement. However, elite capture of the democratic process has meant that public revenue meant for education and health is diverted to build private mansions.

If the pressure for the President to go is not only from outside the ruling party; it is worse inside it. Ironically, this became increasingly obvious in 2010 when the NRM seemed invulnerable from without. When NRM held its primaries in 2010, they were characterised by massive rigging and violence. Analysts missed the significance of this event.

While in all previous elections NRM had suffered a major defection from its ranks, in 2010 the party welcomed many UPC, FDC and DP leaders to its ranks. Thus while in 1996 NRM’s coalition suffered the departure of Paul Ssemogerere and his DP allies, in 2000 it suffered the first mass exit of its progressive wing led by Besigye. Then from 2003 to 2006, it suffered the biggest exodus of all as people like Eirya Kategaya, Mugisha Muntu, Amanya Mushega, Augustine Ruzindana, David Pulkol, Miria Matembe, John Kazoora, Richard Kaijuka, Bidandi Ssali, Sarah Kiyingi etc quit.

Fast forward to 2010 and instead of continued loss of its members, the NRM enjoyed a mass infusion of energy. Leaders from UPC (Badru Wegulo, Chris Rwakasisi, Henry Mayiga, Omara Atubo, Aggrey Awori, Osindek Wangor), FDC former national chairman, John Butime, and in northern Uganda many UPC and FDC MPs and district and sub- county chairmen,  crossed over to the NRM; they are too many to be listed here. And worse for the opposition, even those who did not join or re-join NRM like Kaijuka and the late former president Milton Obote’s son, Jimmy Akena, did not come out to de-campaign Museveni. This was much more so in the northern region.

In other words, Museveni had actually reversed political trends in the NRM and the country, a factor that partly explains why his margin in the 2011 election increased. The opposition forces were so dispirited by the defection of their leaders, few showed up to vote, hence the low voter turnout. It is in this contest and after his victory across the four regions that Museveni felt confident and even began toeing with the idea of a possible succession.

Previously, he had been afraid that if he was not there, none of his colleagues in NRM could defeat Besigye. One reason (among many others) he amended the constitution to remove term limits so that he could run again in 2006 was the fear that if Besigye came to power, he would settle scores with him.

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