By Andrew M. Mwenda
This unplugged discussion happened when The Independent’s Andrew Mwenda visited former FDC presidential candidate, Dr. Kizza Besigye, who is under siege at his home in Kasangati, a Kampala city suburb. They agreed to publish excerpts of their discussion on why Besigye thinks his victory was stolen and how he intends to challenge President Yoweri Museveni.
So you’re here living like a president, the number of guards outside is exactly like that at State House.
Yes, only that they have completely different missions; the other side is to protect his power the other is to prevent my own. That is the reason people take extreme measures; when all options of non-extreme measures have been blocked. Museveni took up guns was because he did not trust any state institution to turn to. If there were mechanisms within state institutions for mediating political processes or electoral contradictions, he would not have taken that extreme measure I guess.
He couldn’t go to court because he didn’t trust the court, parliament had just been appointed by Muwanga allocating seats, the executive was obviously arrogant saying `we have the guns, if you don’t have the guns then who are you and what are you talking about?’
That was the campaign mode of 1980. If you don’t have commanders then keep quiet. Indeed the mood after 1980 was like what you see today. In that case, the entire state was captive to a clique of people and unavailable to others. So they had to operate outside the state and actually seek to regain influence within the state, which is extreme means.
So you think Uganda has reached that same situation like in 1980?
Poor souls like me who were not actually active in the politics were drawn in by the sheer abuse of rights that was going on. If I had not been arrested, tortured, and nearly killed simply because I was suspected to have been a supporter of those who went to the bush, I would never have been in this situation in which I am today. I had no intention to join politics. But someone just grabbed and clobbered me and made me realise that I have no country, no protection, no rights, and I can’t run and report anywhere what has happened to me. So what then remains of you! If the police where you are supposed to report an abuse are the ones abusing your rights, what do you do! One time people were brought here in Kamunyes and they attacked me claiming I hadn’t paid them for working for me in an election and I hadn’t paid them. They had my appointment letters. They had just filled in their names. Those were the days of the Walk to Work protests. Fortunately some of the bodaboda cyclists who had seen what was going on came and confronted them even before I came out. They eventually confessed that they had come from a certain place called Musa’s gym in Katwe and that they had been hired from there. They didn’t know where they were going or what mission they were on. So we took them to the police who promptly released them! The bodabodas that helped me to arrest them were the ones arrested by the police! In a situation like that, you cannot turn to any state institution.
So what do you plan to do? Are you going to the bush like Museveni?
I don’t intend to. We have chosen a different path. But I get to situations where I am in exactly the same situation as when I became a terrorist and chose to take up guns and fight. Terrorism, in other words, has now been stretched to include fighting for your freedom.
Do you think an armed struggle is an option, and if so is it viable in today’s Uganda?
An armed struggle is never something realistic. In 1980, when Museveni took to the bush, nobody thought it was a realistic proposition. We had more than 20,000 Tanzanian soldiers in charge of Uganda. So he went to the bush actually to fight Tanzania which had just defeated Amin. There had been a regime of terror for nine years which led to a fully blown war of 1979 where the country was still in ruins. Worse still, when he failed to capture Kabamba and the weapons he hoped to use, he remained with his handful of guns. So all I’m saying is, political conflicts and the violence that sometimes spiral from those conflicts are not things that you can easily evaluate and quantify and predict. That is why they say there is peace that has been ushered in and the next day, there is a meltdown because you have simply not been able to evaluate the kind of anger beneath that peace.
Are you thinking of organising a mass insurrection? What do you think are your options out of this situation?
My option is to continue struggling to the extent that is possible. I don’t consider violence as the appropriate strategy. It’s a viable strategy, we have used it and taken power but I don’t consider that it is an appropriate strategy. Not because it can’t succeed and not because it’s not feasible to take power, but because it doesn’t guarantee the ultimate objective that we are looking for. Our ultimate objective is not just to take power; it is to democratise that power. And the democratisation of power means the empowerment and involvement of people in acquiring that power.
But an armed struggle involves mobilisation of …,,,
An armed struggle marginalises the greatest majority of citizens in the struggle. It dis-empowers citizens and only empowers the armed elements who are a few. The armed struggle actually greatly weakens civil society. It makes it that much harder to democratise power even when the armed elements take power, which is what happened in 1986.
I thought that in Luwero you mobilized the citizens and the military arm was to support a broader organisation of citizens in the struggle for power!
Yes, and that is what I’m telling you. Those citizens, you go to Luwero and look at them, because they are there. In fact they are much weaker than the areas where there was no war, because they lost their economic infrastructure, they lost their social networks. They are much more disempowered than elsewhere. You will find the same happening in Northern Uganda where there was that war. So war empowers those that are armed and disempowers the citizens and makes it much harder. So when you win, there is no capacity outside the armed element to require the armed elements to be accountable. They can only be accountable on their own willful act or benovelence to proactively empower citizens and hand over power to them.
So, what is the viable option that you are now looking at?
The viable option is the empowerment of citizens.
Through what we are doing. First of all, through continuous imparting of information regarding how the state operates, how power functions. How you can disempower coercive elements without taking arms against them and how their own situation won’t change unless they actually regain power and so on and so forth.
How can you do that when you’re here and cannot move?
It’s incremental. Even while I’m here, I can talk to you and you can put it in your media. It’s a process of mobilisation, organization, and of building their organisational skills so that they are able to act and talk together and strengthen each other. Make no mistake; the regime will not democratize or reform except after they have been sufficiently delegitimised by the people and they can no longer hold. In other words, these talks that you’re talking about there are only useful with the regime, the dictatorship, negotiating how they leave power. That’s the only viable dialogue.
You don’t think that when they are still in Government, there can be a discussion of power sharing and democratisation?
It doesn’t work.
Because the purpose of any dictatorship is to take power and protect it. And unless you have the levers that will take away that power, they will not just call you and say “here is some of this power, exercise it”
They cannot co-opt?
Yes, you can be co-opted by the dictatorship but that will not change the democratisation agenda.
Don’t you think that given the 3.5 million votes that you got, the strong defeat of the NRM…….
Again you see; it’s better that you say the 3.5 million votes that you were given.
What did FDC tally center produce, what were the results?
That is a matter that we will discuss at an appropriate time. Unless there is an election that is free and fair, it’s ridiculous. By the way, the first thing that every dictatorship co-opts is the middle class. And today, our biggest challenge is not Mr. Museveni, it’s you people. You’re the real big problem of the country
Because the dictatorship is sustained by you, you see the co-optation is such that patrimonial regimes rent people to do work for it, just like they rent support. They will give some privileges and then you work to legitimise it, to create the public relations for it, doing its actual technocratic work that supports and builds it.
So with your government, if you came to government and you were in a democracy, wouldn’t you do exactly the same thing? Is that the function of a patrimonial system or is it a function of any government?
The function in a democratic dispensation; the accountability, is not to the person but to the popular institutions. That makes the real difference. I think someone who captures a bit of this is man who wrote `Why Nations Fail’ – James Robinson and Daron Acemoglu- talking about the institutions that arise from the extractive institutions and so on. Institutions follow the system. So if you are in a democratic dispensation, you have completely different institutions
So you don’t think there should be any rapprochement between you and the government?
In terms of what? You must define the parameter over which that is going to happen.
So we can define the following things; in this election, Museveni thinks he won and you think you won, and I don’t think anyone of you is wrong necessarily…
That is why we should have an audit
Even an audit will not convince anyone.
What we could do is say, for the future of Uganda, what conversation can we have?” That the problems that Uganda faces are bigger than Museveni and Besigye. You may try to precipitate a mass insurrection and you won’t succeed, but you can inflict very heavy costs on the government. Museveni will spend a lot of money on repression and compromises that will make it difficult for him either to tackle corruption or improve performance of government. So he might block you from taking power but he will not be able to govern well. So he will also have lost.
I have nothing to lose
No, Uganda will lose, you see that is what I’m trying to say, that this is more than you and Museveni, it is more than FDC and NRM. This is bigger than the two of you.
When all those things happen, they do not happen because of me and Museveni, no, they happen because of the dynamics that we have involved in. It cannot be only me and Museveni.
Both of you are key players in the influencing of these dynamics.
There are costs on Museveni’s side as well as yours. You cannot resolve the problems of Uganda without creating a win-win situation. There are huge sacrifices you will make if there is any attempt towards a broad-based government. Many of your supporters may see that as capitulation and co-optation rather than a co-operation depending on how it is handled. You may lose your political capital if your followers don’t feel that this was the right deal.
And they will be right.
Yes, but I should tell you; I have seen your books there, books of these negotiations in South Africa. There is a lot ANC had to concede, to advance the project of one man, one vote. I can tell you, right now, you and Museveni are holding this country at ransom.
I hope not, and it’s actually a wrong analysis because let me tell you, if today for example I got into my car and drove to state house, somebody will take over the opposition.
I agree, that’s what I’m saying
In other words, it is not me. Even if I went under the bus today, and I was killed, it would not change the situation at all.
I just want you to take that message quite seriously that Dr. Besigye, you need to begin a conversation within FDC.
We have never opposed the principle of talking. What we have only differed on is what to talk about. Museveni was saying that we must recognise him after stealing elections that he is the president before we talk. We said no, we will not do that. Because we think you have stolen, we can’t recognise you as a condition for talking. You can come as a suspect and sit there.
But isn’t that the problem. In Museveni’s view, Dr. Besigye was a person who was involved in PRA and was a terrorist. He was demanding that you first concede to defeat and renounce violence.
That is ridiculous, why should I renounce something that you’re not able to convict me of! You have all the tools.
But you also talk about the election.
Yes. That is precisely what we want to talk about.
So Dr. Besigye, what do you think is going to be the way forward here?
I think we need to fight a little more. You yourself have been advocating for that, that the solution is not peace talks in Sudan that they should allow people to fight. I think that’s what should happen.
But you know that a military option here has the least chances of success.
Fighting doesn’t only take military. I’ve told you I don’t intend to fight with guns. I don’t intend to take up arms.
But don’t you think that the end result of that fight, even if it is mass insurrection on the streets or urban uprising, may weaken the civil society?
No. It won’t do that I believe.
Do you think mass insurrection can work here?
I don’t know.
But you will try it?
We are going to try to rely on people to defend their rights and to assert their will. That is what we will be simply helping them to do. To whatever extent they are able, we will be happy.
In any strategy, you must have plan A and plan B. What is plan B assuming this attempt doesn’t succeed?
You know very well that you only fail when you stop trying.
But you don’t think that, outside of an armed struggle and mass insurrection, there are other possibilities of advancing a democratic reform agenda?
There is and you know dialogue and compromise is always an option. I’m only talking about when that becomes relevant.
You don’t think that right now it’s relevant?
No, not actually.
But when does dialogue begin, because there must be a point where dialogue begins.
Dialogue is always going on in different forms. But democracy doesn’t come in one big electoral sweep as you would wish it to be. It comes in very many slow incremental changes.
No one has said that it comes in one sweep. Even if we won the election, it doesn’t mean that there is democracy. It means that there is a change.
So we would have dictator Besigye replacing dictator Museveni?
It could easily happen and it has happened many times. It happens otherwise only to the extent that you have sufficiently empowered the competencies outside the state.
Do you realise that the best way is to advance a democratic agenda in Uganda is to strengthen civil society? Civil society doesn’t operate in an armed state or even in civil insurrection. You have seen some of these insurrections in Syria, Libya, Egypt, and Yemen and where they have led.
You see. Once you start off as nonviolent and you become violent, then you have changed the parameters. Then the disadvantages of violent conflict accrue. We don’t intend to move from non-violent to violent. No.
But the repression of the state to stop a mass insurrection can enfeeble civil society.
Andrew; you somehow think that citizens assert their will only in a manner that the state is able to fight with their coercive machinery. No. If citizens withdraw their co-operation, you will not have anybody to teargas, but you will go down.
How does the state have people act on what it wants? Once people disobey you, you have nothing to do. You get down. All they need is to know how to be organised. The first thing that these people should know is that they have the power within themselves.
I think you’re being idealistic.
I don’t have a problem with that, but I know that these ideas work also.
So people are going to sit in their homes refuse to go and work refuse to drive taxis….
It can happen. Traders have closed their shops. Who was tear-gassed? It can happen in many forms and ways disobeying a regime like this one, you don’t have to subject yourself in a situation that empowers them.
But traders with KACITA have closed their shops not because of opposition or government but because of the influx of vendors on the streets.
We can talk about resolving the competing interest, but the most important point I’m making is that delegitimising a dictatorship doesn’t only involve actions that put you in direct confrontation with it. It doesn’t. You can delegitimise and bring down a regime like this without ever giving them an opportunity to fire a canister of teargas or to fire a bullet. Why do you think all these forces have voted against NRM?
People’s moods change.
The change of the mood of your forces that you rely on, because the source of power of any dictatorship is coercion and money. Those are the two main sources of power of a dictatorship.
What are the sources of power of a democracy?
(Laughs out loud)
Dr. Besigye, you need to think about the things I’m telling you seriously.
I never dismiss anything. I hear you and I will think about it.