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Can Besigye do a Mandela?

By Andrew M. Mwenda

Why the opposition leader cannot dare seek a compromise with Museveni because he would be accused of selling out

Now that we have finished mourning and burying Nelson Mandela, we can celebrate his life by asking ourselves: can opposition leader Kizza Besigye act like him? If he tried, what would happen?

I use Besigye because he claims, like Mandela, to be fighting a corrupt and repressive government.


Besigye has been jailed many times; charged with heinous crimes like rape, murder and terrorism. He is always being beaten, teargased and pepper sprayed by police. His brother has been killed, his wife and siblings sent to exile, his supporters killed and imprisoned and much more. There is not a single scar of repression one can think of, that Besigye does not carry.

Mandela’s greatest act of political boldness was in initiating secret talks between him and the apartheid government. This was against the stated policy of his party, the ANC and without seeking its approval.

Assuming Ugandans found out that Besigye had contacted Museveni secretly suggesting talks about political reform; that he did this through Kale Kayihura, the chief of police, who actually torments Besigye. Consequently, that Museveni and Besigye have held a couple of secret meetings. That Museveni even put Besigye in a nice house near Entebbe with a swimming pool, a personal chef and other comforts so that he can be nearby whenever they need to meet.

Remember that when Mandela initiated the talks with apartheid rulers, he was removed from Pollsmoor Prison in Cape Town to Victor Verster Prison in 1988. Here, he was put in a beautiful house with sofa sets, television, cooker, freezer, refrigerator, microwave, a swimming pool, a personal chef, and a wine cellar filled with all clans of wine.

He was allowed to receive and entertain visitors. He held regular meetings with the chief of intelligence, Neil Bernard, and the minister of justice (who was in charge of police and prisons), Kobie Coetsee. He would be driven around Cape Town and taken to shopping malls and restaurants “so see how things had changed.”

What if during discussions with Museveni, Besigye realises something deeper inside Museveni; a fear of the consequences of leaving power. What if Besigye comes to realise that to promote political reform, the opposition need to appreciate the anxieties of Museveni and those close to him?

That may be their brutality is not driven by greed for power but the consequences of losing it; and that rather than fight them, they need to be seduced to give up power. (This is exactly what Mandela realised in prison talking to apartheid leaders).

Then Museveni stops beating Besigye on the streets. He openly declares that Besigye should be left free to appear on every radio and television and address rallies at every place of his choice.

In return, Besigye now begins to address rallies, appearing on television and radio and writing in newspapers. Everywhere, he says that Museveni and his people have genuine fears; that their ill-gotten wealth will not be confiscated, that their crimes against the people of Uganda will not be punished.

That he has talked to Museveni and finds him a man of integrity (Mandela actually said this of F.W. de Klerk). Besigye then makes a case that Uganda needs to reconcile popular aspirations for democracy with deep seated fears in Museveni and his people for justice and retribution. That to bridge this gap, the opposition must put in place “structural guarantees” that all property that Museveni and his people accumulated corruptly will not be touched.

I actually believe that whatever political reform Uganda seeks will require a leader or leaders willing to take such a position. The Museveni administration cannot be compared to the apartheid regime and Besigye’s suffering, though high, is not like that of Mandela.

Therefore, there is greater chance for political bargaining in Uganda than was under apartheid South Africa. What would be the reaction of opposition activists to Besigye’s new stance? Of course they would denounce him as sell out.

Mandela faced this challenge. The ANC in a semi-official circular accused him of selling out and instructed its leaders not to deal with him. Mandela remained involved in the talks because of his belief in the correctness of his decision, his integrity and his willingness to risk his political career in pursuit of what he thought was the right thing to do.

People forget that both Botha and de Klerk also risked everything to talk to Mandela because their supporters considered any such move as selling out to a terrorist and also as a show of weakness. The lesson is that often, our leaders are held from doing the right thing because of fear of being misunderstood by their followers.

All too often, we forget that Mandela is seen as a hero today because he succeeded. If his efforts had failed – and there was a high likelihood they would – he would have gone done in history as one of the world’s worst sellouts of the 20th century.

With the benefit of hindsight now, we see all his actions as having been right. Without hindsight, Mandela was indulging in an extremely risky undertaking. However, Mandela realised from the outset that the worst risk was fear to take any risks at all.

In 2011, I and Besigye’s close friend Conrad Nkutu tried to organise talks between Museveni and Besigye and almost succeeded. Besigye sent Museveni seven conditions for them to begin talks. Museveni accepted all of them without amendment.

Museveni sent Besigye four conditions; Besigye rejected all of them. Museveni was undeterred and agreed to withdraw all his conditions so that talks could begin. Besigye failed the talks on a very minor technicality i.e. to declare that there was a legitimate government to negotiate with. Indeed, everyone I have told this has sighed and grieved.

This was not because Besigye did not see the necessity of the talks or the potential contained in the opportunity. The attempt failed because Besigye feared his own supporters would misunderstand him; they would think he had been compromised to admit that Uganda has a legitimate government in power.

At a meeting at his home (attended by me, Nkutu, Winnie, Sam Njuba (R.I.P), and Augustine Ruzindana), these FDC leaders told Besigye to be transparent and inform the party instead of doing things secretly.

Yet the best way to kill such delicate talks is to make them transparent and democratic. For then people begin playing to the gallery rather than to their conscience. There is still a chance for such talks but it requires someone to place their political career at risk. Can Besigye do it?

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