By Edgar Tushabe Muhairwe
Rallies reveal opposition leader’s plan for 2016
On July 24, Kizza Besigye, had a rally in Masaka town. Normally there is excitement when Besigye who is the de facto leader of the opposition to President Yoweri Museveni visits an area. He has drawn mammoth crowds, especially in urban centres away from Kampala. In Eastern Uganda, excited crowds started what has become standard fare at Besigye rallies – the crowd gave him money. But in Masaka, although his rally was scheduled for 2pm, there was still no indication by 5pm that something big was about to happen at the venue, Masaka Children’s Park.
A few posters and a handful of people huddled in one corner of the rally ground were the only signs of a likely rally. It was market day, and outside the rally ground, as in most of the town, traders were busy vending their wares on the streets.
As Besigye’s convoy snaked its way into town at about 5.30pm from nearby Nyendo town where he had been meeting FDC delegates, the organisers of his rally were apprehensive. Besigye who was driving in a small convoy of about seven vehicles kept his comradely smile and he flashed his “V” sign to the crowd from the sunroof of his Toyota Prado SUV.
However, Ingrid Turinawe, the FDC Secretary for mobilisation, who was driving in the convoy, was getting agitated as she saw people run to the road to catch a glimpse of Besigye and retreat to their work.
“What is not happening?” Ingrid said to no one in particular, “The people are not following!”
The situation changed as Besigye drove deeper into the town. The busy streets erupted in ululation and everybody seemed to have been waiting for him. By the time he arrived at Children’s Park, the ground was almost full. By 6pm, when he made his address, the grounds were filled to capacity.
“We are so lucky!” an elated Harold Kaija, the Deputy Secretary General of FDC said. “Besigye is a rally onto himself. A few minutes ago, we almost cancelled it. But as you can see his presence automatically brings the people.”
By 6.40 Besigye was rushing from the rally venue to a talk show. It was going to be a long day for him. But a lot was at stake. Masaka is now considered a tough battleground territory for Besigye.
Although Masaka district, which is traditional Ganda-Catholic country, is a renowned opposition stronghold allied to the opposition Democratic Party (DP), it has since 2001 been leaning towards President Museveni’s NRM. In 2001, up to 64% voted for Museveni and Besigye only 35%. In 2011, Museveni got 54% of the vote in Masaka district to Besigye’s 38%. However, Besigye was strong in the municipality. He beat Museveni by 53% of the vote to 45% in 2001 and 2006. In 2011, Besigye defeated Museveni in Masaka Municipality but the gap narrowed. He got 51% of the vote to Museveni’s 49%.
People power campaign
Besigye had another reason for trying to make the most of his time in Masaka, as he has elsewhere. Officially, he is traversing the country to canvass for votes from members in the race for party flag-bearer in the 2016 presidential election against the man who succeeded him as FDC party president, Maj. Gen. (Retired) Mugisha Muntu.
But at the public rallies, Besigye says little about the FDC flag-bearer race. Instead, what happened in Masaka has become his standard procedure.
When Besigye arrived at the rally, John Kikonyogo who is he former party spokesperson and now is the MC at the rallies, lined up the area FDC delegates and introduced them to the crowd.
“These are the people to blame for what will happen if they don’t vote Besigye,” he says light-heartedly. Nevertheless, the point is made. Besigye has also developed a typical campaign style when he finally steps to the microphone. He hardly speaks about FDC. In Masaka, he was candid.
“People of Masaka I owe you heavily. I promised that you would see him as he leaves Statehouse for Rwakitura. You have voted for me overwhelmingly for the last three times. You have surely done your part.
“I should say though that it hasn’t been an easy promise to deliver. The environment is not easy. If it were not for my resilience like you know, anybody should have given up,” he said.
Then he launched into a phase that has become his typical message that appears determined to whip up the crowd to pick up the mantle of agents of change.
“Power belongs to the people and as such, the people need to reclaim the power,” he says. “Mr. Museveni said that he cannot be taken out of power by a mere piece of paper. He was not joking. He knows very well that the power is in the gun and that a piece of paper is powerless. Uganda cannot go on any longer with a leader who does not believe in the dignity and choice of his people. “Indeed without you citizens believing in yourselves and taking charge of this country, that vote will only be a piece of paper.”
Besigye is alluding to the 1996 presidential campaign when Museveni said that he had shed blood for this country and that a piece of paper could not take him out of power. Besigye says ordinary citizens need to rise up against the Museveni government because the political elite have let them down and accepted groceries.
“Some of them have chosen personal enrichment over liberation. They are invited and promised 500milion, given 200m and promised the rest. Nothing is added. So you find them stuck, they can’t go back, they can’t go forward,” he said in Masaka.
This country has been robbed, he told the crowd, and the citizens have no power. Instead, he says, power is vested in the gun, guaranteed by the gun, and therefore possessed by those that own the guns. He lambasts an election without electoral reforms and insists that the propositions by the NRM are a mockery of the democratic justice the country deserves.
He says the focus should be on how to dislodge Museveni’s government, which he calls a dictatorship by all means other than just by the power of their vote.
“The biggest challenge we have is a citizenry that does not believe in itself,” he tells crowd after crowd. “You fear the sound of teargas canisters and flee in disarray, how then will you protect your vote when the dictator wishes to rig it?”
Besigye changes strategy
Besigye then reads out his number to the crowds.
“Send me a message. Just mention your name, and residence. I will also respond, noting the receipt of the message. And when the time comes, the whistle will be blown and we shall take action,” he says.
He adds, “We have heard the message and understood it; we are committed to liberate ourselves. What we have been lacking is keeping on the network. So much is planned but without communication it fails.”
At first, Besigye’s team was handing out books for people to write their names and contacts. The spokesperson of Besigye’s campaign team, Sarah Eperu, says that sharing his number should not be misinterpreted.
“Many people ask for Dr. Besigye’s number and we can’t always give it to them without consent. Therefore, it is always better for him to give it himself, and there is no better place than a rally because he cannot share it one on one. It will be hectic.”
She adds that there is nothing new that Besigye is saying that he has not said.
“What you should know is that our candidature does not mean that we have given up the fight for electoral reforms. We are still on course and this is just an effort in the right direction. More and more is yet to come.” A source close to Besigye told The Independent that Besigye is determined to have either a free and fair election or no election at all. “Besigye believes that he has been winning elections but is denied victory. He is now organising people for civil action.”
The source pointed at Burkina Faso, where the citizens stormed parliament, burned it down and forced President Blaise Campaore to flee the country. Early this year, protests erupted in Kinshasa, capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) over Joseph Kabila’s decision to have a census before an election. Protesters said they suspected he wanted to use the census to extend elections. Kabila is still in power. In Burundi, President Pierre Nkurunziza beat down a citizens’ insurrection and a military coup attempt to win a controversial third term. While speaking to the rallies in Iganga and Masaka, Besigye hinted on such people power. “When you are determined to liberate yourselves and you are organised, you will move to these police stations and demand for your guns, and they will have nothing to do but to hand them over to you,” he told the crowds.
Apparently, sources say, Besigye is determined to throw everything he has in him at this election bid.
“He knows that this is his last bullet. He is sure that if he misses this chance, he will be finished. He will take power now or forever keep his peace.”
Besigye has run against Museveni for three times; once in the movement under the “Reform Agenda” and twice under the FDC. On all occasions, he has not taken power. On the first two occasions, Besigye petitioned the courts of law to nullify Museveni’s victory. On both occasions, the courts agreed with him that there were “electoral malpractices” but added that they were not “significant enough” to change the result in his favour. In the 2011 election campaign, Besigye promised his voters that he would not go back to the courts of law but to the court of public opinion. Soon after the election, he launched the Walk-to-Work protests that swept through the country. Although it seemed like an earthshaking strategy, it did not lead to the civil disobedience that the organisers hoped for. Instead, Besigye was badly brutalised by police and forced under house arrest for the longer part of the campaign.
It is said that Besigye gave billions of money to top politicians in Kampala to coordinate the Walk-to-Work protests but they swindled it and several of his colleagues secretly colluded with Museveni. The protests died a natural death.
Ugandans not ready?
The same thing is likely to happen again this time, according to commentators like Dixon Kamukama, a lecturer of Political History at Makerere University. He says Ugandans are not ready for such civil protests. “I was in Mbarara when Besigye visited the town, clearly even when a mammoth crowd had gathered around him, they were so easily dispersed. They scampered for safety when a few teargas canisters were unleashed. This shows you the lack of resolve in the people.”
He says even if citizens resolved to protest, Museveni’s grip on the armed forces means they will be easily quelled.
“When you see how Museveni has a firm grip on the army, police and intelligence services, it portends wishful thinking for any opposition politician to think they can organise, mobilise, recruit, and carry out their activities without hindrance.”
Kamukama says Uganda’s social-economic setup does not favour a citizens’ uprising.
“Follow the character of revolutions. The people that spark them off and sustain them are not deplorable people. They are the middle or working class. Here, this class of people is either selfish or complacent. They are not ready to disorganise their business.”
Kamukama says if Besigye’s strategy yields any results, it will be accidental.
“In Mbarara I noticed through the conversations I had with the people that even those that weren’t interested in the rally or sympathetic to Besigye were agitated and irritated with the conduct of the police. Every time Museveni manhandles and brutalises Besigye, Besigye becomes popular and gains sympathy.”
He says, however, for Besigye’s strategy to succeed, he needs to build a movement that can protest for a long stretch of time. “It is not impossible to cause change through a protest. However, Besigye should make sure he draws a strategy that can prolong the protests for over half a year. Many people will get angry with the response of the regime and they could join accidentally.”
When The Independent put this to Sarah Eperu, her response was laconic.
“Let us watch the space,” she said.