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UGANDA IN HISTORY: Is Besigye Going Up Or Down?

FILE PHOTO: Besigye the soldier (left) during the NRA war in the eighties

TODAY NOVEMBER 19, IN UGANDA HISTORY: FDC presidential candidate for life, Kizza Besigye, first declared his intention to run for president for the first time on October 28, 2000. On November 19, only three weeks later, ANDREW MWENDA wrote this article for The Monitor

Kampala, November 19, 2000 | Daily Monitor | ANDREW MWENDA | With Col. (rtd) Dr Kiiza Besigye’s declaration of intent to run for the presidency on a movement ticket, the open political confrontation be­tween President Yoweri Museveni and his erstwhile allies in the Na­tional Resistance Movement (NRM) has come earlier than anticipated. Yet with all the euphoria surround­ing Besigye’s candidature right now, there has not been a massive break in the ranks of the NRM to provide the retired colonel the needed political initiative.

There have been simmering ten­sions within the Movement for a long time now. However, the politi­cal temperature had shot up over the last one year. The source of in­creasing tensions has been the disgruntlement within the high circles of the Movement about the presi­dent’s leadership. However, Museveni’s opponents have always talked, mourned but done nothing, or very little to effect a progressive change in the direction of the Move­ment

In the last months before Besigye declared his intentions to challenge Museveni for the leadership of the country, the political atmosphere was full of tales of a hit-list of 100 members of Parliament (MPs) whom the president and his anti-demo­cratic coalition at State House were planning to block from being re­elected.

Numerous meetings were held among NRM leaders on how to handle the issue and various options were considered (see “How the NRM Historicals Dug Their Po­litical Graves: Museveni’s finest Hour Is At Hand”, Sunday Monitor, September 24, 2000)

Yet these consultative meetings were still taking place and expectations on their likely yield was still not very clear when Besigye declared his candidature. According to Besigye, he rushed to declare his intentions because he had received reports of a plan to arrest him on treason charges.

However, if Besigye’s bid is going to face a setback, it will be because his declaration came before he had reached any agreement with his colleagues in the historical and militant Young Parliamentary Association (YPA) camp on the next course of action.

The Besigye candidacy would have put Museveni’s fortunes in disarray if it had come with open support from the likes of Eriya Kategaya, Amanya Mushega, Tom Butiime, Kahinda Otafiire, John Kazoora, Bernadette Bigirwa, Jim Muhwezi, Mugisha  Muntu, Augus­line Ruzindana etc.

Political insiders say all these Movement bigwigs share many of the criticisms that Besigye is rais­ing. Sources say the president has been working the phones, keeping ill touch with each of these historicals, trying to allay their fears and get assurance of their sup­port.

The issues that Besigye has raised so far to wit, corruption, mass pov­erty, nepotism, tribalism and intol­erance are not new.  There has been a debate on these grievances both within and outside of the Movement over the years. Besigye has cap­tured the political limelight be­cause he is the first senior (histori­cal) leader of the Movement to marshal the courage to openly chal­lenge Museveni on these issues.

As the political fortunes of either Museveni or Besigye swing, senior Movement politicians are waiting to jump on the bandwagon which has the most chances of winning

Besides, there was a lot of disgrun­tlement among the leading person­alities within the Movement with Museveni’s leadership, and indeed there still is a lot of it. However, al­most without exception, all the lead­ing historicals and militant YPA (with the sale exception of Winnie Byanyima) have adopted the policy of wait and see. As the political for­tunes of either Museveni or Besigye swing, these politicians are waiting to jump on the bandwagon which has the most chances of winning. ·Such opportunism is the hallmark of most politicians.

Yet those seeking to effect progressive change from within the Movement as Besigye is trying to do face a number of pitfalls whose significance can­not easily be ignored.

Over the years, Museveni has con­solidated himself as a person first and a leader of the NRM second. Except for the urban elite, most sup­porters of the current regime in the countryside – the peasants – iden­tify every success, every achieve­ment of the last 14 years with Museveni the man rather than the Movement as a political organisation or as a political system.

So what are the likely scenarios? Are we going to see many more peo­ple from within the top leadership of the NRM cross sides and support Besigye openly? Or should we an­ticipate an alliance between Besigye and the multi-partyists, supported by all other democratic forces in the country?

As the battle-lines for the next presidential elections are drawn, where will institutions like the churches (especially the Roman Catholic Church), the mosques and Mengo that wield immense political clout fall? Is it possible to build a broad coalition of all these forces against Museveni?

Politics is a highly fluid process whose outcome can only be predicted by holding so many factors constant. The ability to form a broad demo­cratic coalition of all political and social forces mentioned above against Museveni will depend on whether the leading play­ers place more emphasis on Concerted action than on their indi­vidual egos and petty ambitions. The other factor will be an ability to resist tempting offers from Museveni aimed at confusing and regimenting them.

Besigye is the best candidate for a broad anti-Museveni coalition. The NRM government has been fairly successful in discrediting both the UPC and the DP, and with them most multiparty poli­ticians in this country. The future of multiparty poli­tics in Uganda therefore lies more in the break from within the Movement than from external pres­sure upon it.

Besigye has been a moderate Movement per­sonality, advocating for political tolerance and dialogue. He has good links with both Rubaga and Mengo and many democratic forces in the country are willing to embrace him. The progressives in both UPC and DP are willing to support him. The discredited Obote faction of the UPC will op­pose him. which would be a bless­ing in disguise.

The second factor in the campaign will be the ability to provide strong and resolute leadership that will galvanize all these forces around a common interest. The mere pres­ence of a commonality of interest in politics has historically shown that it automatically leads to unity of action. The behaviour of the op­ponents of President Daniel arap Moi of Kenya over the years has al­ways proved this hypothesis. Besigye will peed to provide con­siderable charisma and political skill to rally the disgruntled historicals and militant YPA, Mengo, Rubaga, Kibuli, Uganda House, DP. etc, in a broad and im­penetrable democratic coalition.

It should be noted that although such a feat is not impossible, it is very difficult. First, most of these groups are at odds with each other. While it is possible to bring Mengo and Rubaga together, and multi­party organisations have been con­ducting broad consultations on how to defeat Museveni, it is not auto­matic that they will adopt Besigye as their candidate. The colonel has a lot of footwork to do to realise his ambitions. His success will depend on the ability to insulate himself and his campaign strategy from clientelistic forces that think his candidature is a clique project.

For example, the problems that Besigye thinks have derailed the Movement from its original objectives are likely to permeate his presidential bid. A clique of peo­ple in his campaign office whose links are clientelistic thinks that any criticism of the colonel’s strategy means the person voicing it “has been bought”. The same clique thinks that every warning that Museveni should not be taken lightly because he has many achievements to his credit in this country means the bearer of such a message is a supporter of Museveni.

It appears that attempts to wave off any criticism, or point of con­cern this way, will make it difficult for Besigye to get honest and inde­pendent opinions. In fact this is the very issue that Besigye is accusing Museveni of.

So Besigye needs to be transparent and treat divergent views as a legitimate and necessary requirement in his campaign enterprise without compromising the confidentiality of his efforts.

This brings us to the third and most important factor that will weigh heavily on whether Museveni’s op­ponents can beat the president. The challenge for Museveni’s oppo­nents, especially Besigye, is to craft a message that will sell among the peasants, especially in western, central and eastern regions. There is a misleading view among many political actors that there is increas­ing mass poverty in Uganda, espe­cially among the rural people. The facts do not seem to bear out the holders of this view.

Most social-economic indicators in western, central and eastern regions show that the NRM govern­ment has been the first to effect a progressive and qualitative im­provement in the lives of the rural poor in this country since 1971. The Poverty Eradication Action Plan drawn up by the ministry of Finance in Uganda has become the show­piece that the international donor community is selling to other Countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America to combat rural poverty.

Liberalisation policies have brought mass consumer goods that only yesterday were unknown to peasants, or seen as luxuries even by the urban elite to every village in the country.

Some good work has been done on the infrastructure and lack of transport is a thing of the past. Decen­tralisation has brought so much money into the hands of districts and sub-counties and the elite are using it to distribute political pa­tronage.

And most important, UPE (what­ever its weaknesses) is Museveni’s most important asset in the coun­tryside. For the first time since 1971, peasants have seen government build classrooms in rural schools.

This pleasant picture of NRM gov­ernment achievement does not au­tomatically mean that Museveni will defeat every (or any) challenger. Rather it raises serious concerns on how to craft a message that recog­nises these gains but promises to do more, and that the current gains are in danger because of Museveni’s in­transigence, arrogance and nepo­tism.

*****

SOURCE: Monitor November 19, 2000

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