By frederick golooba-mutebi
Opening the gates of hell
The shock that gripped the country following the violent arrest of FDC leader, Kiiza Besigye was in itself quite surprising. It was not the first time an opposition politician or even Besigye himself was being roughed up. His arrest this time may have marked a particularly low moment in the history of the Museveni government, but there was nothing new there either. It is not the first time it engages in behavior few would associate with a government that is committed to deepening democracy, rule of law, and respect for human rights. There are several examples to illustrate this.
In 2001 blows and karate kicks rained on Kiiza Besigye and his associates, among them former MP, Okwir Rabwoni in Entebbe International Airport’s VIP lounge. In full view of senior western diplomats, Rabwoni was thrown like a sack of banana peelings onto a waiting truck and driven to the headquarters of military intelligence for questioning. Soon thereafter, he sought political asylum in the United Kingdom. The entire presidential campaign then went on to turn into the most violent in Uganda’s history. A report commissioned by parliament to look into those campaigns, the “Report of the select committee on election violence and other related matters”, is a sobering tale of what happens when an unaccountable and insecure government comes face to face with organised opposition it would rather do without.
From Museveni’s controversial election victory in 2001 to the 2002 referendum on political systems and the lifting of term limits in 2005, opposition politicians were routinely beaten, arrested, and locked up for attempting to hold public meetings in open spaces. The police required them to be inside buildings while President Museveni was at liberty to hold rallies outdoors. Many of the Democratic Party’s Young Democrats who built their political careers on defying police orders to hold their meetings indoors as they campaigned for the restoration of multi-party politics, bear scars from repeated beatings. That some of them are among the architects of the Walk to Work campaign that’s currently keeping the regime’s inner circle awake at night exposes the limits of brute force as a strategy for stifling opposition.
In the 2005/2006 presidential elections, Besigye and his associates in the loose coalition supporting his candidacy, once again became targets of unspeakable acts of cruelty by the government. Recently we have seen stick-wielding gangs assaulting members of the public in full view of police officers who have always stood by and watched. Could it be that those who were shocked by recent acts of brutality by the same people who have been tormenting the opposition for years had somehow forgotten all this history?
The NRM regime has always been violent. Those who are shocked by the wave of violence sweeping across the country in reaction to demonstrations are probably those who in the past preferred to look the other way possibly because it was not they or their relatives or friends who were being beaten. Now that the beatings have been decentralised and spread out over several of Kampala’s suburbs and upcountry towns, many of those who previously remained untouched have now understood that no one is safe.
My earliest glimpse into the regime’s violent streak was during the early 1990s when, in reaction to non-destructive student protests at Makerere University where I was a student at the time, it sent in heavily armed security forces whose random firing of live bullets claimed the lives of some students. It was at a time when even some of today’s regime critics and opposition leaders and supporters were still optimistic about the future, and so could afford to disregard seemingly minor shortcomings. For many students, though, it made them realise that the tendency towards heavy-handedness had not been the preserve of previous governments. For some it marked the end of what until then had been a great romance with the new rulers. For others the romance lasted until the mid-1990s when in 1996, following his departure from the government and nomination as the opposition candidate, DP’s Paulo Ssemogerere and his campaign team and supporters were subjected to intimidation, harassment, violence, and obstruction by NRM-supporting hooligans, security operatives and Resident District Commissioners. Those with long memories will recall how some of today’s opponents of the NRM used to justify otherwise indefensible misconduct by state agents who would disrupt opposition rallies and make it impossible for Ssemogerere to campaign in some places.
For many Ugandans all this violence and the reluctance by government officials to acknowledge wrong-doing and apologise to their victims negates what has all along been the highest selling point for both President Museveni and the NRM: their capacity to control the army, ensure discipline, and that soldiers do not threaten people’s well-being and sense of security. At the time of his swearing in as president in 1986, the young, inspirational and by then hugely believable Museveni, made the most famous of his political pronouncements promising “fundamental change” in the country’s politics. His promise on personal safety and security was very specific: “our citizens shall not be beaten… and no citizen, not even a tramp on the streets, shall be killed unless he is so condemned by the courts”. And then he sought to distinguish himself and the NRM from other leaders elsewhere on the continent: “In Africa… We have had one group getting rid of another one, only for it to turn out to be worse than the group it displaced. Please do not count us in that group of people”.
Well, a quarter of a century later there are several reasons why those who want to attack Museveni’s record especially on matters to do with handling the opposition invoke his “fundamental change” speech. In polite society where personal conduct is guided by values such as sincerity and honesty, one is not expected to castigate wrong doing and then turn around and indulge in it.
One of the more objectionable aspects of past governments was their intolerance for opposition and the seeming belief by leaders then that only they knew what was best for Uganda. Indeed, Museveni’s war against the Milton Obote government and the suffering it inflicted on Ugandans was, we have always been told, intended to end all the abuses Ugandans suffered at the hands of unaccountable and power- hungry leaders. Underlying the decision by Museveni and others to go to war was the belief that the best way to deal with a bully was not to run away, but to stand and fight back, however unbalanced the battle might turn out to be, and whatever the price one had to pay. It is hardly an exaggeration to say that in 1981 few people believed Museveni’s handful of fighters and idealists stood a chance against Obote’s Uganda National Liberation Army and their Tanzanian allies. Indeed, even on the eve of the collapse of the Tito Okello regime in 1985, it was hardly obvious that Museveni’s National Resistance Army had the capacity to seize power, scatter or subdue other fighting groups, and impose order. Well, they did, and for a period led a largely grateful country.
In reaction to Besigye’s announcement that the FDC would declare its own results of the Feb. 18 elections, Museveni was quoted to have boasted that in 2005 the government had tried to teach the colonel manners but that it seemed he had not learnt his lesson. President Museveni thrives on boasting. So whenever he embarks on boasting, it is hardly newsworthy. This time, though, his chest-thumping raised more than a few eyebrows.
Although the way the government handled Besigye during the 2005 presidential campaigns was presented to the public as a purely legal matter, few believed it was. There was a general feeling that here was a vengeful and nervous President Museveni doing everything to humiliate his opponent and minimize his chances of performing well at the elections. In referring to those events as intended to teach Besigye manners, the President finally confirmed what Besigye’s acquittal had revealed: it was pure persecution. Then, as today, President Museveni’s behavior and that of his security operatives and the police raised the question whether strong-arm tactics were the best way to resolve the matters that Besigye raises. The recent wave of unrest across the country is evidence that the search for common ground calls for a different approach; that brute force will not work.
If anything can be learnt from history, it is that Museveni and associates went to the bush in response to escalating political intolerance and failure by those who at the time were drunk with power, to privilege dialogue over violence.
It is, however, doubtful that President Museveni will seek to engage with his opponents in any meaningful way. His record up to this point suggests that anyone expecting serious talks and treatment of the opposition as equals is being excessively optimistic.
In the same way as Obote who promised to follow by then rebel leader Museveni to the bush and leave him there, today President Museveni prefers to beat his opponents into submission if intimidation and humiliation will not shut them up. However, through his obsessive determination to humiliate Besigye, President Museveni has managed to turn what could have been merely a subject for mutually respectful discussion and collective search for solutions, into the source of a growing national crisis that has seen many killed and maimed, and turned whole towns into zones of military deployment. Although placing a ring of military hardware and soldiers around urban centres is intimidating to some, going by the repeated cycles of clashes between the security forces and protesters, its effect can only be temporary.
Left unaddressed, popular discontent easily pushes fear, even of military hardware, into the background. For that reason and the opposition’s determination to carry on insisting on their right to voice discontent, including by walking to work, tensions can only continue to mount. Museveni may decide to cling to force and intimidation as his default positions. However, Uganda’s history and that of the world in general shows, it is in reverting to violence each time they are challenged that powerful autocrats find their downfall, eventually.
Every episode of violence visited upon unarmed demonstrators and defenceless opposition politicians engaging in normal political activity entrenches the view of Museveni as an old-style African big-man politician who will do anything to cling on to power.
The man once feted as a bright spark on a continent not known for producing inspiring leaders has acquired the image of a man out of touch with the reality of life for the ordinary person. One angry citizen reacting to all the rioting wondered: “Is spending trillions of shillings on fighter jets the best way to thank people who gave him 68 per cent of the vote when they have nothing to eat?”
As for Besigye, for someone who seemed as if his star had waned only a few weeks ago, today he’s looked upon, even by those who would ordinarily not have much time for him or his party, as a hero of sorts for daring to stand up to Museveni’s bully-boy ways. Granted, there are some who blame him for his confrontational approach and apportion equal responsibility to him insisting on protesting because he has the right to do so when he knows the brutal consequences.
So where might all this end? There is no knowing what will happen to Besigye eventually. It seems as if the government has only two choices if they want to silence him: lock him up on some trumped-up charge, or kill him. The first is tricky. The second would literally open the gates of hell. The country would burn. Would the regime survive?
Dr Frederick Golooba-Mutebi1 is a political scientist & Senior Research Fellow, Institute of Social Research, Makerere University in Kampala