Despite his weaknesses, Museveni retains a solid base of support among older people and women backed by deep historical loyalties. This is buttressed by effective party organisation, oiled by sufficient financial resources, and riding on a strong Museveni brand, a factor that gives him a crashing advantage over rivals.
Museveni has also over many years cultivated deep-seated loyalties with the most powerful and influential pillars of opinion across our diverse religious and ethnic landscape. He also enjoys a myth of invincibility that projects his electoral victory as an inevitability thereby making many people fear to break ranks with him. Then his personal control of the core institutions of state, the organisational infrastructure of his party backed by large sums of money give him an advantage his opponents cannot match.
On the other hand, Besigye’s lacks a core base within Uganda’s political map. For a poor country where 80% of the population are peasants living off agriculture for a livelihood, it is difficult to organise a politics based entirely on pure economic interests. One needs a parochial base along ethnic or religious lines from which to launch a broader struggle for power.
Besigye shares his home region with Museveni, and it remained staunchly on the president’s side. He lost the northern region because of peace, a factor that made Museveni competitive there. He has no religious base as used to be the case with the older opposition parties of DP and UPC. Left only with the base of disgruntled and dispossessed urban and peri-urban male youth, Besigye has been unable to dent Museveni in a poor society where identity matters a lot. While Besigye is a principled, courageous and tenacious fighter, he is also a poor strategist. All too often, he allows his emotions to drive his politics. This has led him to expend enormous time and energy fighting various tactical battles against ordinary police constables on the streets. Although these fights have endeared him to millions of his fans among male youths, they have scared away older people and women who fear change with violence. But these street battles have also undermined Besigye’s ability to develop and execute a grand strategy against Museveni.
Locked into constant tactical battles, Besigye has been unable to fight strategic wars. In many ways therefore one gets the sense that as a soldier, Besigye is a poor politician and as a politician, an equally poor soldier. Let us look at one incident that happened on Feb. 18 when Besigye led a team of his supporters to a house in Naguru where, he alleged, some people were pre-ticking ballots in favor of Museveni.
First this was actually not true. Had Besigye accepted the request by the police to enter the premises to verify, he would have been embarrassed. But let us assume it was true. Was it the right move by Besigye to personally go to the house? As a leader, Besigye could have invited election observers from IGAD, the EU and AU, called on the Elders’ Forum and perhaps a few ambassadors. Once he had all these people in his palm, he would put one of his senior and trusted lieutenants to lead the group to the premises.
By making himself present at every big and small crisis and being the face of everything FDC has to do, Besigye has denied himself the necessary emotional distance from individual events in order to retain sight of the big picture. But this also demonstrates a severe lack of strategic imagination on Besigye’s part. In his pursuit of these short-term tactical objectives he has lost right of the broader national strategy necessary to defeat Museveni. One such grand strategy is to build a political party with solid grass root structures.
In this election, FDC failed to field candidates for many parliamentary and local council posts. Out of 290 geographical constituencies, FDC fielded candidates in only 201, NRM in 289. Out of 112 districts, FDC fielded candidates for Women MP in only 61 while NRM fielded in 112 districts. While FDC claims Museveni stole Besigye’s vote, the party cannot explain why NRM has won 275 seats and 44 independents allied to it while FDC has won only 37 with two independents allied to it. Indeed so weak is FDC outside of Kampala that out of 112 LC5 chairmanships, FDC fielded candidates in only 43 while NRM in 110.
The level of FDC’s vulnerability becomes apparent the lower one goes down the local government ladder. Out of 1403 directly elected district councilors, NRM fielded 1,389 while FDC only 520. For the 1,400 LC3 chairman positions FDC fielded only 536 candidates against NRM’s 1,381. The situation gets worse for FDC as one goes to lower councils as the attached table here demonstrates. Without widespread organisational presence across the entire country, Besigye’s otherwise inspirational message acts like the Biblical seeds that fell on rock.
To achieve organisational growth and consolidation, Besigye will need to take away from tactical battles and engage in strategic ones. One such strategic imagination is to understand that the primary problem he (and the opposition generally) faces is not Museveni `rigging’ votes but their own poor organization at the grass root level. The second strategic failure by Besigye is what in the military is called “identification and maintenance of the aim.” What is Besigye’s main aim? He has defined it as removing Museveni from power. But this is a narrow objective. A more serous aim would be democratic and economic reform to launch Uganda on a path of freedom and prosperity. If this were the main aim, then Museveni would be seen in a different light i.e. as a tactical obstacle.
Besigye would then realise that there are many factors that allow Museveni to stay in power like the backwardness of our society, the opportunism of the elite, Museveni’s personal control of the state machinery etc. In identifying such structural bottlenecks, Besigye would realise that his primary aim is to organise the masses at the grass root level in order to overwhelm Museveni from below.
Besides, Besigye does not need to capture power, at least not immediately, to achieve this. Martin Luther King never became president of the USA. But he was able to instigate great political reforms. However, it seems Besigye has set his main aim as removing Museveni from power i.e. on him becoming president. He thinks, naively, that once in power he would launch his revolution of democratising Uganda. This is a delusion. It shows a severe lack of understanding. Power cannot democratise itself. If Besigye’s analysis of Museveni is correct, then he has failed to learn from the failure of the NRM revolution to democratise Uganda. Sweden is not democratic because some messiah fought and captured power and then initiated democratic reform. It is democratic because of the many small and big struggles by the Swedish people over a long period of time to establish mechanisms to hold their leaders accountable. But these struggles involved many compromises and concessions with the powers that were. What compromises is Besigye willing to accept?
Secondly, these Swedish struggles and their results did not come in one big electoral sweep. They were a product of decades of incremental changes in the social organisation of the Swedish people, which led to reform of the political institutions of the Swedish state. Swedish democracy is a consequence and a reflection of these changes in the way the Swedes organised their lives.
In failing to see this, which his colleague the FDC president Mugisha Muntu sees with clarity, Besigye exposes himself as another power-hungry politician exploiting popular sentiment to gain the presidency. If elected, Besigye can only replicate rather than transform the Musevenist state. In the end, Besigye has failed to win elections (or Museveni has successfully and consistently rigged him of victory – as he claims) because he has privileged tactics over strategy.