By Stephen Twinoburyo
Five years ago, I listened to Uganda’s opposition leader Dr Kiiza Besigye give his farewell speech in Pretoria as he departed for Uganda to face an uncertain future. His future was scary because on reaching Uganda to contest against the incumbent, President Yoweri Museveni, he faced a number of charges including treason and terrorism.
On Saturday, 18 September 2010, I was among the group of Ugandans and non-Ugandans in Johannesburg to meet Besigye and hear what he had to say about the state of affairs in Uganda and where he thinks the country should be heading.
Besigye’s mostly jovial and humorous address started with a narration of the history of his involvement with the NRM and Museveni: He was a friend of Museveni and campaigned for his Uganda Patriotic Movement (UPM) party in the 1980 elections. By then the UPM was a minor party that did not expect to make a major impact but rather create a new space in Uganda’s political dynamics. Museveni promised that if elections were rigged, he would go to the bush to fight. However, those close to him did not actually believe him. And indeed there were reports of rigging, not against the UPM but against the Democratic Party (DP). Museveni himself was defeated in his own constituency by then DP candidate, Sam Kutesa, the current foreign affairs minister. After the elections, Museveni went to the bush and launched a guerrilla war against Milton Obote’s government, who were declared the eventual winners of the 1980 elections.
Besigye remained in Kampala but was later arrested at Sheraton Hotel and taken to a Uganda Peopleâ€™s Congress (UPC) prison that was then at the International Conference center. It was there that he managed to escape and flee to Nairobi, Kenya, where he started working as a medical practitioner at Agha Khan Hospital. Some of the people he was with in prison with such as Mbiringi, Kabazeire and Karuhanga, have never been seen again since.
After a short stay at Agha Khan Hospital, Besigye decided to abandon everything and go fight. He says the bush war was not easy but they persisted in the belief that they were going to turn Uganda into a better country.
He went on to describe how Uganda has become a patrimonial state under Museveni, whereby the president believes he has the paternal right over those around him. According to Besigye, Museveni once mentioned that a president is next to God and may actually believe it. â€œProbably he believes in God the father, God the son and God the president, Besigye said. He mentioned that so far there is Museveni the president (himself), Museveni the minister (his wife) and Museveni the head of the armys most elite unite (his son), not to mention his brother and in-law that are also ministers.
Besigye also outlined the tools that patriarchs such as Museveni use to cement their power.
Fear: patriarchs always have things around them that threaten others. Museveni travels in a large convoy that consists of heavy military hardware such as rocket propelled grenades, machine-gun mounted cars, AK47-wielding soldiers, etc While the country has no ambulances or fire-fighting vehicles, there are plenty of teargas vehicles, mambas and nyalas all tools of fear.
Dispensing favours: Museveni personally dispenses things like money, scholarships, business support, houses, vehicles, jobs, etcâ€¦Such that even some of the people who are against his system sometimes feel they have to tow the line or else they will fall by the way side. Whenever he visits villages, people come out knowing he is going to donate something â€“ even roads. He has taken over the role of institutions.
Propaganda: the media has been thoroughly put under his control such that some radio stations have to apologize for hosting an opposition politician.
Divide and rule: Uganda has now been broken down into numerous tiny units that each benefit directly from Museveni and are in direct competition or conflicts with each other. Numerous districts have been produced. Almost each and every tribe has a faction that is fighting each other and each directly has the presidents ear.
The effects of Uganda’s patrimonial that Besigye listed include:
Mass poverty: the countryside is bleeding. Itâ€™s not that people are not working hard but their sweat does not help. Meanwhile women going to state hospitals to give birth need to buy their own surgical gloves and syringes before arriving. However last year, a new presidential jet was purchased for Shs 84 billion after one that had been bought in 2000 for Shs 60 billion was deemed no longer suitable for the president.
Collapse of public system:Â institutions, infrastructure, services, railway, water transport (eg. MV Kawa), cooperatives, public banks are no longer existent. This is in addition to education and health that have completely collapsed. The police force has virtually turned into the military.
Besigye said the Inter-Party Cooperation (IPC) is opposing this patriarch system. The change, however, must start with peoples heads. In a system that has almost completely taken away people’s livelihood and dignity, you will still find those who say no change. These are all works of a patriarch. People must realize that they have the power. The IPC is not simply striving for the change of individuals but rather the overhaul of the whole system. If new people come in under the present system, they can simply take advantage of the patrimonial system and perpetuate it.
Besigye noted that the IPC has had ideological differences with the DP under Nobert Mao who prefers to go it alone rather than in combination with other parties. The UPC has also decided to pull out of the IPC because it calls for a boycott of the elections while the Forum for Democratic Change (FDC) prefers participation in the elections. According to Besigye, not participating will be giving Musesveni a blank cheque. The IPC is now composed of all the other parties represented in parliament as well as Suubi and the DP group under Sam Lubega. Besigye supports the idea of the opposition working together because on top of giving one voice, it enables the optimal use of resources. He noted that resources are an ongoing challenge in an election. He said that the IPC will continue to call for the change of the current electoral commission and review of the voters register even if it means the postponement of the elections.
If elected into power, the IPC intends to trim the cabinet, cut the defence budget and improve the living conditions of soldiers, deal with corruption that has become a cancer on the country, create and encourage a vibrant civil society, heavily invest in rebuilding the infrastructure, re-introduce cooperatives, invest heavily in agriculture and in harnessing the countryâ€™s vast water resources for economic, social and health gains.
Besigyeâ€™s address, which took over two hours, included questions raised by the public. I was the first to take to the floor.
I agreed with Besigye on the issue of fear and propaganda but there was still a general feeling in the country that the opposition is not offering viable alternativesâ€”they are simply opposing the incumbent. I also said opposition politics are mainly found in cities and the boardrooms of Kampala. I noted that for all his faults, Museveni knows how to campaign and despite the fact that he is the incumbent, he campaigns tirelessly to all corners of the country.
The IPC president conceded that whatever he may criticize Museveni for, he acknowledges two things in him: one, he works hard for his bad plans. He doesnâ€™t sleep. Secondly, he plans. He knows what he wants in 10 years time and works carefully on it. But he added that the notion that the opposition is only opposing the incumbent is part of the propaganda that the government is feeding. Besigye said some of the governmentâ€™s intentions have been picked straight from the opposition books â€“ for instance the abolition of graduated tax and increase of teachersâ€™ salaries. He also said that previously the opposition only managed to campaign on the eve of the elections but that this time they have had four years to campaign and reach all the grassroots. For the first time, the opposition will have trained representatives at each and every polling station.
In response to another question from the audience, Besigye said that the IPC will introduce an electronic system where their agents will post results immediately after counting so that the IPC can announce their results without waiting for the electoral commission.
A Ugandan doctor at one of South Africaâ€™s universities asked Besigye whether he thinks Uganda is a failing state? Besigye said he did because â€œa state is only as strong as its institutions.â€ He said Somalia for instance is a failed state because all institutions had been destroyed by the previous government.
On the question of Buganda nationalism, Besigye said that he supports a federal system. He said he doesnâ€™t see whatâ€™s wrong with people safeguarding their cultures within the broader context of the country; what the Baganda are asking for is indeed theirs. â€œIf you are returning things to the Indians,â€ he asked, â€œwhy not return to the Baganda what belongs to them?â€
A UPC supporter commenting on Besigyeâ€™s treason case said the only treason Besigye committed was when he left dying patients at Agha Khan Hospital to go and fight a democratically elected government. This caused a lot of laughter. The man also asked whether Besigye was part of the corruption when he was still part of the NRM. Besigye replied that he can explain how he worked for his things and is open to any scrutiny. Besigye also said he supports an investigation of all past wrongs.
Another contributor remarked that perhaps UPC is right and elections are in fact a waste of time. He noted that Besigye has twice won the elections, which even the courts confirmed, yet Museveni went on to become the president. He reasoned that elections will never remove Museveni and that the opposition must seek alternative means. Besigye responded by saying he knows how difficult it has been but they have to keep on trying. Even with the rigging, vote-buying and election violence, Besigye said, victory is possible as witnessed in Mukono recently. He also noted that Museveni has never defeated him in Kampala.
On a question on privatization, Besigye said this is the biggest institutionalized scam Uganda has ever faced and in his opinion should be investigated at one point in time. It was an â€œaccumulation scamâ€ by a few individuals leaving the majority impoverished. All public assets were given away for the benefit of a few people.
On a question of massive exposure of the rottenness in Uganda abroad, Besigye observed that exposure alone wont help. People are not altruistic. As long as there are private gains, many (USA, Britain) will look away to protect their gains. At the end of the day, its us to drive the change.
Asked if he wasnt concerned about his security, he answered that his security is the people. He said when he was in prison on charges of treason, a principal judge was sent to convince him to accept house arrest. He said he told the judge that if he was guilty, he should stay in prison and that if he was innocent, he should be released. He noted that the judge was sent to do all this because of the pressure from the public. He said that fearing death in such a struggle would be a betrayal to all those who had died. His own brother had been arrested on treason charges, they were together in prison and he is now dead, but the struggle continues.
Asked if he was angry, he said he pleads to being angry at the injustices in the country but he is not bitter.
Stephen Twinoburyo is a university mathematics lecturer and blogs at www.ugandaspeaks.wordpress.com