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Can Besigye be a political martyr?

By Haggai Matsiko

Martyrs Day, June 3, this year comes about one month after opposition leader, Rtd Col. Dr Kizza Besigye was on April 28 subjected to one of the most brutal arrests by ruthless security forces. The closeness of the events has got some people comparing Besigye’s ordeal to that of a martyr.

Every June 3, Uganda commemorates over 45 martyrs that Kabaka Mwanga II murdered between 1885 and 1887. The dominant view is that the martyrs died for believing in the Christian faith either as Roman Catholics or Anglicans.

However, some scholars also argue that Mwanga was gay and their interpretation of events leading to the murders has strong socio-political rather than religious overtones including Mwanga’s sexuality and his struggle to retain control of the kingdom’s royal court.

During the commemorations of Martyrs Day at the Anglican shrine, the late Archbishop Janani Luwum, who was murdered by the late President Idi Amin’s henchmen in 1977, is usually mentioned.

The martyrs, therefore, are seen a symbols of political protest similar to that of Besigye and others.


In Besigye’s  Walk-to-Work campaign now entering its second month with a “honk and hoot” noise protest, the resilience the opposition leader has shown in braving the brutality, torture and harassment by President Yoweri Museveni’s regime, has led some to say he has exhibited attributes that would qualify him as apolitical martyr.

Besigye has endured most of the challenges, except death, that are usually attributed to a martyr. He has attained hero status among his supporters who believe that despite clear and real danger to his personal safety, he has committed to a cause they admire. According to this group, if Besigye were to die in the course of his struggles against Museveni’s regime, his burial place could easily become a place of pilgrimage and an inspiration for others to follow in his footsteps.

On April 28 Besigye put his life on the line when he defied police orders preventing him from driving to town. For weeks, the police had been blocking Besigye, the de facto leader of the Walk-to-Work street demos launched by an opposition pressure group, Activists for Change (A4C) to protest against the high cost of living.

Besigye was attacked by hammer-wielding men wearing hoods, his car windows were shattered, and he was drowsed with chemicals before being dragged out of his car, and bundled onto a police truck in a brutal manner that shocked the world.

He had to be airlifted to Nairobi Hospital in Kenya for specialised treatment after being blocked at Entebbe airport for over an hour by the government despite his worsening health condition.

The next morning news that his health was deteriorating sparked the worst riots in Kampala and her suburbs. Scores were injured and about 10 people were killed as the public took to the streets despite firing of bullets and teargas and massive security deployment commanded by President Museveni’s son, Lt. Col. Muhoozi Kainerugaba. Mobs burned tyres, set up barricades and mayhem reigned.

This was the fourth time Besigye was being manhandled for participating in the Walk-to-Work campaign and it almost claimed his life.

He was still nursing a wound on one of his fingers that had been broken by a stray rubber bullet fired by military men as they dispersed his supporters who had frustrated their efforts to arrest him.

Amidst this torture, Besigye’s resilience never wavered. The more he resisted and was tortured, the more his heroism rose. On May 12, the day President Museveni was inaugurated, thousands of Besigye’s supporters thronged Entebbe Road to welcome Besigye from Nairobi. Running battles ensued as security operatives fired bullets to disperse the crowd that danced and chanted Besigye – prolonging a 45 minutes drive to cover the whole day.

Besigye’s movements have become restricted and police has besieged his home on several occasions. The police say the opposition leader is “under preventive arrest”.

The regime’s torture of Besigye predates the Walk-to-Work campaign. Since 2001 when Besigye stood against Museveni in the presidential election, he has been kicked, beaten, tear gassed, imprisoned on trumped-up charges.

In 2001, Besigye and his associates including former MP Okwir Rabwoni, were brutally harassed at Entebbe International Airport, hurled onto police trucks and driven to the headquarters of military intelligence where he was subjected to torturous interrogation.

In the 2005-2006 presidential elections, Besigye and his supporters were once again exposed to government cruelty.  President Museveni is on record saying that in 2005 the government had tried to teach the colonel manners but that it seems the opposition leader did not learn.

Monsignor Fr. Lawrence Kanyike, a senior priest at Makerere University’s St. Augustine’s Chapel says that if an individual pursues a political line for the benefit of others and believes that pursuing that line is more valuable than life itself, that individual qualifies to be a political martyr.

He adds, however, that a lot of blood has been shed under the guise of fighting for are quickly labeled as martyrs only later to discover that they were fighting for political power.

“They may be politically persecuted and end up dying but their initial purpose was to gain political power. We need people like Mandela and Gandhi who openly exhibited their dedication to be servants of the truth and who were ready to die for it,” Kanyike says.

“Our African continent and particularly Uganda is infected with a chronic disease of selfish leaders who think more about themselves and less about those they lead.”

Dr Frederick Golooba-Mutebi, a political scientist and Senior Research Fellow, Institute of Social Research, Makerere University says that Besigye would indeed be considered a political martyr – by some – if he died trying to resist the NRM party or in course of his political agenda against the regime.

But Makerere University professor Aaron Mukwaya says that in the 35 years he has taught political science, he has not interfaced with the term `political martyr’.

He says even if we were to look at it at the level of persecution of Besigye, it would be “a mistake for people to analyse politics or the fight for democratic values in individualistic terms.” He says that politics and its values like democracy do not work with individuals but institutions.

However, he says that the trouble Besigye has gone through can only be looked at in terms of government’s reaction towards the opposition but not persecution. “Can you now say the media people who have been targeted in the Walk-to-Work campaign are also martyrs or that they have been witch-hunted? Governments in Africa react differently to dissenting views and this is the way the Ugandan government has reacted to the protests.”

Another political critic who preferred to comment anonymously said although Besigye deserves credit for standing up to the regime, “he has not exhibited qualities of a selfless leader like was the case with Mandela or other leaders”.

But Dr Frederick Golooba-Mutebi says Besigye has been selfless.

“Why are we seeing scores of people resonating with him if he is not selfless, I think that, that is irrelevant to the discussion, the most important thing is that he is pursuing an agenda that resonates with people,” Mutebi says. “When Museveni went to the bush, did he consult anyone? Of course there were people who were against his cause but he has been largely lauded as a freedom fighter yet he has exhibited selfish interests by clinging on to power when people are asking him to go.”

As they mark Martyrs Day, the question for some is being asked whether there are Ugandans today who are willing to die for what they believe in.

Events of April 18 when masses of supporters formed a human shield around Besigye and prevented the police from arresting him despite firing teargas and live bullets have been mentioned. Such scenarios are rare in Uganda.

History professor Ndebessa Mwambutsya of Makerere University says that unlike in the Arab countries where masses have stood up to regimes at the expense of their lives, Ugandans have been labeled cowards for failing to stand up and fight for their causes. “The problem is the fear of death,” Mwambutsya says.

Before the gruesome April 28 arrest Besigye was asked by a journalist whether he was prepared to die for his cause. He replied: “I am not setting out to become a martyr of anything. I am simply asserting my citizen’s rights, which are inherent, which are not offered by the state and which I am determined to defend at all costs.”

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