By Andrew M. Mwenda
Thus like many millenarian cults, many people supporting Besigye believed in their own self-righteousness and assumed everyone shared their outrage
Last week, opposition leader Kizza Besigye, claimed to have won the February presidential election. He claimed that by the time his own party’s tally centre was ‘sabotaged’, he was leading with 47 percent against President Yoweri Museveni’s 43 percent, from results of about 30% of all polling stations. He says that because this tally excluded the votes from his strongholds of the north, it means he won the election. I find his position absurd.
I hold Besigye in high esteem because of his demonstrated courage, firmness and commitment to the public good in Uganda. He has sustained his struggle against Museveni even in the face of one million and one violent attacks on him and his family members by the president and his apparatchik.
Yet the traits that make Besigye a strong personality in resisting Museveni’s dictatorial tendencies are the same traits that make him look like a carbon copy of the president – the tendency to dig into a position and refuse to listen to alternative view points. Indeed, one of the reasons Besigye’s support declined in the last election is his tendency to listen too much to himself rather than to the people of Uganda.
For example, I followed both Museveni and Besigye on the campaign trail and immediately noticed how Museveni was getting an upper hand. Besigye would go to the rallies with a script. From a purely moral and national perspective, it was a great script written in statesmanlike fashion – a powerful statement of the ills that have bedeviled our nation. He was consistent on his message. But it was an ineffective message in many areas of rural Uganda because Besigye was speaking to the voters, not for them.
Museveni had a message but he was not consistent with it. He was always able to adapt his message to the mood of his audience. Everywhere he went, he was accosted by local complaints most of which revolved around the issue of service delivery. Realising that his government had failed the people, Museveni adopted an opposition posture; his adversaries were the local government officials. He riled them for corruption, incompetence and theft and even threatened or ordered the arrest of some of them. He was thus able to speak for the people, not to speak to them.
As the campaign progressed, it was clear that the Besigye camp had placed itself on a very high moral pedestal, a factor that gave them extraordinary hubris. Thus like many millenarian cults, many people supporting Besigye got consumed by a sense of their own self-righteousness and assumed that everyone shared their outrage at Museveni’s failures. Worse they even thought that most voters viewed them as they viewed of themselves i.e. as messiahs to save our nation from a despot.
Nothing could have been more damaging to Besigye and his most passionate supporters than this hubris. Rather than try to convince people that the country needed change, the Besigye campaign simply assumed that people were ready for change. Hence it promised them that “change is coming”. Thus, the strategy was not to mobilise for change but rather to “protect the vote” – a vote they took for granted to be there waiting for them. Although there was a nation-wide constituency convinced about change, it was wrong to assume that it constituted an electoral majority. Indeed, among the many Ugandans convinced about the need for change was a large section which was afraid of the consequences of change. Such people voted Museveni.
But moral hubris also led the Besigye camp into assumptions that undermined their capacity to respond to Museveni’s initiatives. It seems Besigye believed his own hype and that of the circle around him that there were masses of people across the country who felt like him, who shared his view of Museveni as a corrupt despot. It was a fatal era because Besigye ended up preaching to the converted and in some cases talking to himself and listening to his own echoes instead of listening to the people.
This tendency of Besigye to think that his disagreements with Museveni are similar to the disagreement most people have with the president is not new. In 2001, his campaign posters said “vote for a president who will listen.” Why? In his battles with the president, Besigye had noticed, and correctly so, that Museveni was not listening to him and other senior leaders of the Movement. But was this really the view of ordinary voters about Museveni – i.e. did ordinary people believe that the president does not listen?
I have attended a number of meetings at State House between Museveni and ordinary people from districts involving women’s and youth groups, local councilors etc. I was struck by how patient and attentive he would be when in meetings with them. Sometimes Museveni would be speaking, and a peasant would stand up, rudely interrupt him and just begin to give his own speech. Museveni would stop and begin taking notes. I would spend minutes almost collapsing with impatience as the president listened attentively as this ordinary person made his case, often a list of small local problems that a president should not deal with.
After this ordinary person had stopped, the president would answer each of the issues that person had raised, yielding to many of their parochial demands upon the state such as to appoint someone from their village a minister, an ambassador or RDC or to build a clinic or school in their sub-county, restock their cows or give them a district.
It was clear to me that while Museveni was not listening to his colleagues in cabinet, he was doing the exact opposite with local people. In structuring his 2001 campaign message as “vote for a president who will listen” Besigye was addressing himself and his colleagues in the high echelons of power, not to the ordinary voter. This approach has not changed.
I hold very strong anti-Museveni views politically although I support the broad thrust of his liberal economic policies. But I am always conscious of the fact that I should not assume that everyone else in Uganda shares my point of view. During the campaign, I met many young, well educated, modernist and ambitious Ugandans in their mid to late 20s or early 30s on Museveni’s campaign team, passionately campaigning for the president – a demographic one would expect to be hostile to the president.
I was always struck by this and would ask why they supported a president who has presided over gross corruption, nepotism and incompetence; and the utter collapse of the public spirit in our public service, leave alone having stayed in power for decades. I would ask them whether they did not know what is happening to our healthcare and education system and our roads. Many actually agreed with these but argued that there were other attributes of Museveni like freedom, stability and sustained economic growth which I was ignoring.