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Museveni versus Besigye

By Andrew M. Mwenda

Given that Besigye will not retreat, what are Museveni’s options?

Last week on Thursday, the battle between police and Dr Kizza Besigye turned nasty. The police used harmers and guns to smash the windows of Besigye’s car, spray volumes of teargas and pepper-spray into his face, drag him out and forcibly dump him into the back and underneath metallic benches of a police pick-up truck. It looked like a scene out of a horror movie depicting the arrest of a notorious and violent criminal.

The pictures and videos of Besigye’s Thursday ordeal went viral on the internet. By 1pm, the Besigye story was among Yahoo’s top ten. Some whispered that the country looked like it was under the rule of Idi Amin, not Yoweri Museveni. The next day, Kampala rose up in protest again; and the government responded with the full force of the military and police. Nothing has yet united Ugandans across the political divide than this single incident. People were asking: what is going on? Has Museveni said kwaheri to civilisation?


Idi Amin’s crimes were largely committed in the dark. His Public Safety Unit and State Research Bureau would pick their victim in the night (or pick him off the streets during day time) and take them to their headquarters in Naguru and Nakasero respectively, or to Nile Mansions (now Serena Hotel) and torture them there beyond public sight. So there were whispers in the dark and rumours accusing Amin of this or that but no real evidence linking him to the murders. This worked well for Amin; there was always that lingering suspicion that he may not have done it. Police brutality against Besigye and his supporters is done in public before television and still cameras and before national and international journalists.

Analysts claim that Besigye, for both personal and political reasons, evokes the worst instincts in Museveni. Many people who have worked with him closely – in the army and State House – say that the president is always keen to reprimand those of his lieutenants who indulge in brutal acts of torture and mistreatment of political opponents – or at least he tries to. It is only when it comes to Besigye, State House insiders say, that they have seen Museveni turn a blind to gross abuses.

It is in this context that we need to understand the way government has handled Besigye’s call for a walk-to-work campaign. The process has been riddled with incompetence, lack of foresight or even strategy from the start. For example, government has left Besigye free to try to walk (and this time drive) to work. It only intervenes when he has made his journey into a public area where he excites crowds of his supporters and it pounces. Each time it does this, the situation degenerates into a riot sparking more riots across Kampala and the country.

If the government does not want Besigye to go anywhere, why not place him under house arrest or keep him in jail – even if this means violating the law and the constitution? Besigye creates more legal trouble for government every time he leaves his house – he always gets arrested for simply walking or driving – a crime that does not exist under Ugandan law. Keeping him under house arrest or in jail without charge is bad, but certainly better than arresting him for walking, or driving and flying.

Museveni’s campaign to “demystify” the gun and his efforts to bring the army under control has been extremely successful. This has transformed the way people view violence; they get revolted by it and are not afraid to confront the army and police even when they are armed with tanks. Whenever government employs violence, it demoralises NRM supporters and energises its opponents into resistance. Museveni has inadvertently united Ugandans against an evil he has always fought against – state orchestrated violence; and a practice he seems to be retreating to in the evening of his presidency.

Given that Besigye will not retreat, what are Museveni’s options? Keep arresting him every week – to what end? After his defeat at the presidential polls in February, Besigye had lost almost everything. So he has little more to lose and everything to gain from political protest. On the other hand, Museveni had won almost everything, so he has everything to lose and little to gain. The president had conducted a clean campaign – using money, social media, good campaign posters, automated telephone calls, good television and radio ads and actually came across to many as civilised. Where he had previously beaten, maimed and on occasion killed to win, this time the worst he had done was pay cash for votes.

Everyday Besigye walks or tries to and is arrested, he wins public sympathy and gains national and international attention for his cause. On the other hand, every time police brutalise him, Museveni loses his reputation. In many ways, it is Museveni who is helping Besigye’s walk to work campaign. After the election in February, Besigye seemed to have lost all his political magic. For example, he tried to convince a disinterested donor community and Ugandan public that he had been robbed. Only his fanatical supporters shared his view. Besigye who was in retreat is now on the offensive; Museveni who was on the roll is now on the defence; for now, Besigye seems to have the initiative, Museveni is only reacting to him.

Yet  Besigye has neither the message nor the organisational means to press forth his agenda. Asked by an NTV reporter what his alternative policy programme to the economic crisis is, he fumbled for an answer and could not produce one. But he has the courage to stand up and the belligerence to provoke our otherwise ill tempered police to beat him. It is this that gives momentum to his campaign and energises his supporters to his anti-Museveni cause.

Tactically, therefore, Besigye has been extremely successful in undermining the confidence of NRM supporters in their president and government, crippling the government’s diplomatic standing, dented the country’s image as an investment destination, shut down the city, forced the closure of banks, stopped people from work, reduced the inflow of goods into Kampala and turned national attention to his person. Therefore, Besigye is actually worsening the very economic situation his campaign claims to improve and thereby accentuating the conditions that facilitate his campaign.

Strategically, however, Besigye’s political campaign faces severe limitations and contradictions. First, by ideology, Besigye, like Museveni, believes in violence as a means to political power. As a person, he comes across as prone to violence – witness how he belligerently wrestled a hammer from police officers and threatened them with it. This behaviour has caused many murmurs of disapproval among his colleagues in FDC and also alienated many of his potential allies in the diplomatic community.

It seems that Besigye does not believe in peaceful protest. His preference, as he has suggested severally, would be an armed struggle. His current strategy of peaceful protest has been forced on him by the particular circumstances of Uganda today, by pressure from some of his FDC colleagues and by the international community whose support he needs. Besides, few of his supporters have appetite for war and the Ugandan economy gives the state enormous resources to crush any armed rebellion.

Therefore, Besigye is facing a contradiction between the mode of struggle he believes is necessary for change and where his character is based suited to inspire his supporters and the mode of struggle he is forced to lead. For example, Besigye has little faith in peaceful struggle and his personal character is of a military fighter. Hence, Besigye is finding it extremely difficult to conduct himself in the manner of Martin Luther King or Mahatma Gandhi. You cannot conduct a peaceful protest wielding a hammer in your hands.

However, Besigye knows his environment. Because his opponent is also known for a similar propensity towards violence, the FDC leader is able to elicit a response from the state that is basically brutal. Brutal repression by the state works in Besigye’s favour because it casts him in the image of a martyr and a hero who stands up to a bully. Had the army and police restrained themselves, resisted being provoked and acted in a civilised manner, Besigye’s campaign would have been thwarted. However, government strategists failed to realise that the Achilles’ heel of Besigye’s modus operandi was that you cannot pursue a peaceful struggle by violent means.

The other vulnerability Besigye faces is that he has kicked off a campaign before his own political organisation has matured to have the infrastructure to sustain peaceful protest. His campaign has largely been supported by idlers, unemployed youths and lumpens. Uganda’s professional classes have not joined in. This has denied the movement the kind of sophistication and civility that was vital in bringing the despots in the Middle East to their knees. Besigye has no capacity to restrain “his” supporters from destroying private property, a factor that is already pushing the business community and will soon push professionals to call upon government for protection.

Strategically, the government of Uganda lost the plot. Besigye has identified real and genuine grievances on which he has based his campaign. Instead of reacting to the issues around which he is building his political capital, government sought to respond to Besigye. The response itself has been not only amateurish but also incompetent and brutal. Nothing builds leadership credentials than sacrifice and Besigye has the determination, the resilience and the character to build a profile out of government brutality.

People in government need to learn that there are better ways to handle Besigye than by brutal means; that the best political strategy is to deny Besigye the platform on which he is standing. Government can respond to the economic crisis with youth empowerment programmes by initiating public works projects like road construction in the city to employ youth. It can also make some gestures like tax relief for small businesses employing youth, announce loans to organisations creating youth employment and reduce taxes on fuel.

For Besigye, he needs to learn anger management, stop provoking the police and cut the demeanor of a Martin Luther King or Gandhi. His current belligerence may endear him to his fanatical supporters but does not cultivate an image of a leader to take Uganda beyond Museveni’s proneness to violence. Many officials in the diplomatic community say they were embarrassed to see him wielding a hammer at the police.

Where will all this lead Uganda? The country seems on a highway with four major exits: one exit goes to Saudi Arabia. The current scuffles may be quelled by a combination of force and financial bribes and they die out. It is Museveni’s best scenario. The second exit goes to Bahrain and Yemen – a protracted struggle between government and protesters that enters a stalemate within an uncertain future. Not very good idea! Third is Tunisia and Egypt where the regime collapses with some pressure from its international creditors. This is theoretically possible but least likely. Finally, and God forbid, the exit to Libya where peaceful protests turn into armed rebellion, violent and bloody.

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