By Agather Atuhaire
Besieged opposition leader launches defiance campaign, FDC members react
Former presidential candidate Kizza Besigye appears cornered. He has been under virtual house arrest since the election ended and his party’s demands for his release have fallen on deaf ears. He even failed to file a petition in court to challenge the election results. Yet from his incarceration, Besigye maintains that he will not let President Yoweri Museveni “impose himself on Ugandans when they didn’t vote him”.
Besigye has even issued a list of demands for the government to meet. They include the establishment of an Independent audit of the elections, the immediate removal of the police, the army and other security forces from his home, the removal of the same security forces from the party headquarters, and the release of the party’s leaders and supporters who are being detained in relation to the election.
But Museveni’s government has not shown any inclination to act on them.
Muntu says the party will engage the civil society, religious leaders, the international community and a full scale engagement of the entire population to realise these demands.
Faced with that stonewall, Besigye has warned that if those demands are not met, other measures will be taken and the party will exercise the mandate that was given to it by Ugandans.
His comments have left observers baffled. How will he do that when his hands appear tied? Members of his Forum for Democratic Change (FDC) party are equally unsure about Besigye’s moves.
One member of the party top organ, the National Executive Committee (NEC) told The Independent on condition of not being named, that all that can be gleaned from Besigye’s actions is that he is attempting to reinvent himself. “What Besigye is doing now is his usual antics to make him remain relevant,” the source said, “He will continue defying the police and being arrested to attract public sympathy to ride on in 2021.”
The NEC member was on FDC President Mugisha Muntu’s team during the party’s internal elections in 2015 and had been sure the 2016 election would be Besigye’s last term. According to this member, Besigye is not going anywhere and that will create problems in the party.
“Other members will think that like Museveni, Besigye thinks he is the only capable individual in the party,” the source said.
Party stalwart Augustine Ruzindana says it is hard to predict now what will happen in 2021. “The political situation is complex as it is,” he says, “forecasting into five years from now would be highly speculative.”
Ruzindana says the political configuration is likely to change significantly generally and specifically within the party which will hold elections for its next President in 2017.
“For instance it is easy to predict that Museveni will contest again in 2021,” he adds, “but while Besigye might have the same ambitions, he doesn’t have the means and the resources that are available to Museveni.” According to this group, Besigye’s moves take the party back to September 2015. Back then, Besigye sprung a surprise on the party when he announced that he would contest against Muntu to be the party’s flag bearer in the 2016 elections.
Team Muntu surprised
Many were surprised partly because Besigye had retired from the party’s Presidency earlier in 2012 even before his term ended. At that time, he was seen to be retiring from politics after unsuccessfully standing against Museveni three times. Plus, Besigye had said after the 2011 elections, he would never participate in another election without the required electoral reforms and for as long as Museveni is still President.
Others thought that since he had contested twice when he was the Party’s President, it would be fair to let Muntu have a go at it. One of the party stalwarts, MP Abdul Katuntu even compared Besigye to “a striker who had failed to score on three occasions” and said there was need to field a different one.
But Besigye returned and Muntu pledged to throw all his support and the party’s infrastructure behind him during the presidential campaigns. Seeing this, many explained the calmness as having a lot to do with Muntu’s peaceful character while others said it was because Muntu and his supporters knew that would be Besigye’s last try.
“Muntu is young and can still stand in 2021 unlike Besigye whose political future is unlikely to go beyond 2016,” one NEC member told The Independent. With all odds seemingly against him, Besigye stuck to his guns with the support of his enthusiastic supporters and contested in what looked like his last shot.
The results of the election that was held on Feb. 18 were declared on Feb 20 and Museveni had according to the Electoral Commission, defeated Besigye with 60.7% against the latter’s 35%.
The opposition and Besigye have never accepted the results declared by the Electoral Commission. They point to the irregularities that included delayed arrival of voting materials at polling stations, the refusal by the EC to tally the votes from over 1,700 polling stations, among others to say that the election was rigged. Besigye called it “the most fraudulent electoral process.” Besigye has been in confrontations with the police since Election Day. In one instance, he was arrested for storming what police claim was a security facility in Naguru, a Kampala city suburb, where Besigye said rigging was taking place. Since then he has been under one form of arrest or the other.
Police has camped at his residence in Kasangati and barred him from either leaving or receiving visitors not authorised by the state. Whenever he attempts, he is taken to Nagalama police station where he is kept for the entire day and returned to his house in the evening. It is clear that that as the first three months of 2016 end, Besigye appears not to be going anywhere, and some in FDC are becoming restless.
Officially, the party says it supports its former presidential candidate’s cause. Muntu has said publicly that the party is fully behind Besigye and that it will not stand by and watch the “successful completion of a creeping coup d’etat that is underway against the people of Uganda.”
“We want to assure all Ugandans that we are working uncompromisingly for the realisation of a change they voted for,” he says.
Besigye backs those views.
“This is a critical moment for our defiance campaign,” he said in a statement, “let’s all remember that government power comes from cooperation, submission and obedience of the population. If the population withholds its cooperation, submission and obedience, the government loses power.”
Besigye says he will call for non-violent actions that will disempower the regime seeking to impose itself on Ugandans.
But observers wonder how he will do that. They say the state appears to have all that it takes to keep him under siege for as long as is necessary. Makerere University Political scientist Sabiti Makara says organising any form of demonstration will be an uphill task for Besigye because of two reasons. One, Makara says, is that Ugandans do not seem to be up to it.
“Ugandans, either naturally or because of their history don’t seem to be eager to engage in anything that will cause violence so they might not support him on that,” Makara says, “But also, there is the issue of security forces which have proved that they are ready to do whatever it takes to keep him contained.”
Makara sees Besigye’s only chance in the Presidential elections petition that was lodged by fellow former presidential candidate, Amama Mbabazi in the Supreme Court. He says if the court nullifies the election it will benefit Besigye more than it will benefit Amama.
Analysts, however, say it is unlikely that the court will annul the election. They point to the previous petitions where court ruled that the elections were marred by irregularities but the irregularities were not substantive enough to have significantly altered the results. That was the court verdict during the petitions Besigye lodged after the 2001 and 2006 presidential elections.
If these options fail like observers predict they will, many say Besigye will be left with no choice but to wait for the next election in 2021. But if some people in his party and the entire opposition insisted there was need to have a different “striker” because Besigye had stood three times unsuccessfully how will they take it now? Some analysts are again talking of “Besigye fatigue” among the population and that there was need for the opposition to prepare a new candidate for 2021. But already there is a strong group insisting that unlike what some, including some in his party think, Besigye is not about to be irrelevant in Uganda’s politics. They say he is the only other politician after Museveni that is popular.
“We all saw what happened to Mbabazi who everyone had seen as the new kid on the block,” one commentator said, “the electorate completely rebuffed him. And Muntu who is not yet even strong enough in his own party is not the one that will be more relevant than Besigye in 2021.”
Makara agrees with the commentator. He says anyone who saw the energy that Besigye exhibited and the response he received in the recently concluded campaigns cannot say he will be irrelevant anytime soon. “If there is Besigye fatigue like those people claim what explains the extraordinary response he got from the electorate?” he asks. “In any case, the Besigye fatigue can’t exceed the Museveni fatigue. People are more tired of Museveni than they are of Besigye and Besigye is the next viable option after Museveni.”
Nicholas Atuhairwe, a member of the Party’s National Executive Committee also insists Besigye will still be the party’s best option in 2021.
“If there was anyone who had any doubt that Besigye is the most popular opposition politician” says Atuhairwe, “the recently concluded election was a good confirmation. Which other politician do you think will have gained the same popularity, the same confidence from the electorate by 2021?” But Makara says despite his popularity, Besigye will have a challenge at party level if he stands against another person who would have offered him/herself as flag bearer. “He will be seen to be making himself the party’s “pakalast” as the man he criticises,” he says.
He says what Besigye should instead focus on is building party structures so that the party can stand a chance and be able to protect its votes in 2021.
“In fact, he should focus more on the party than himself so that he is not seen as someone who is pursuing individual interests,” Makara says.
These are the sentiments of some other analysts who say right now Besigye has no basis to claim victory when he did not have agents at many polling stations in rural areas and when the party failed to have representatives at many lower levels.