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Will Besigye rise to the challenge?

By Andrew M. Mwenda

Peaceful protest cannot be an end in itself; it must have an objective. The tactics must seek to persuade not to intimidate

Over the last one month, opposition leader Dr Kizza Besigye has made one of the most dramatic political comebacks in history. Having been humiliatingly defeated by his archrival, President Yoweri Museveni in the February 18th 2011 elections, Besigye looked like a lost cause. Save for a few of his fanatical supporters, most people had written him off as a spent force. Today, even Besigye sceptics are awed by his political re-invention.

Yet Besigye is leading a struggle whose strategy he does not seem to understand. Consequently, and save for gross government mistakes, he can only score political points but can hardly mobilise a broad coalition for real reform. Peaceful protest cannot be an end in itself; it must have an objective. In Uganda’s specific case the strategic objective should be political and electoral reform; the tactics can include promoting this through a national dialogue as happened in most of Africa in the early 1990s through national conferences or precipitating regime collapse as has happened in Egypt and Tunisia.


From the above therefore, the tactics of peaceful protest must seek to persuade or seduce, not to intimidate or threaten. This is because you have to ensure that the people you are protesting against see you as a partner in future negotiations, not an enemy to be destroyed. Of course initially you will be perceived as a threat and the knee jerk reaction of those within the state is to crack down on you and your supporters. But governments are never homogeneous; so there are always many moderate forces within the system who would argue that you should be listened to and that there should be negotiations. We can call such persons your “internal surrogates.”

Therefore you need a message that is conciliatory, not confrontational; a struggle that has a clear purpose and that embraces all the constituencies that stand to benefit from protest. These are assets that help your internal surrogates to make the case for dialogue within the system. Thus, while the first objective of such a peaceful struggle is to organise opposition elements into a coalition to protest, the second and more important objective would be to simulate dissent within the ruling establishment against violent crackdown.

Besigye has been fairly successful in the first objective but seems uninterested in the second. He does not seem to realise that there are many people within NRM and in the armed forces who believe there should be dialogue on political and electoral reform in Uganda and that these people are an important constituency he needs to cultivate. Instead Besigye seems to be pursuing a war against anyone and everyone associated with the government and makes no effort to broaden his appeal beyond his core base.

The problem with Besigye is that he gets carried away by events and misses the broader political objective of his struggle, a factor that reflects a critical weakness in his leadership ability. Thus, when he is stopped by the police, he gets angry at the ordinary constables implementing an order they cannot defy. So he raves at them, mocks and shows contempt for them. Yet these ordinary police officers suffer the brunt of inflation most; so they should be seen as potential allies to seduce, not enemies to berate.

These factors show that Besigye’s courage is necessary but his strategy and tactics are ill-suited for the kind of struggle he is involved in. He is, I think, one of the most principled politicians in contemporary Uganda. His courage and principles make him a good candidate to lead an armed struggle but a shabby one to lead a peaceful protest. In armed struggle, you need to inspire the most passionate to destroy; in peaceful struggle you need to convince the most destructive to preserve. While the enemy in an armed struggle is obvious and is a target for destruction, your enemy in a peaceful movement is a potential ally; he needs to be seduced, not confronted; cajoled not intimidated.

While armed struggles succeed by heightening people’s passions and polarising political positions, peaceful struggles succeed by moderating political positions and accommodating conflicting view points. In an armed struggle you need an alliance of the likeminded, in a peaceful protest you harness the diversity of viewpoints into a unity of purpose. While armed struggles are disciplined with a clear leader and chain of command, peaceful protests are chaotic, conflict-ridden and decentralised.

These differences can also be read in the speeches and writings of leaders like Samora Machel, Che Guevara, Amilcar Cabral and Mao Tse Tung against those of Martin Luther King, Mahatma Ghandi and  the post-1990 Nelson Mandela. The former talk about “them” (i.e. the other), the latter talk of “we” (all of us are in this together). The armed revolutionary’s tone is belligerent and the language is full of words like defeat, kill and destroy. The peaceful protester’s tone is moderate, the language has words like understanding, forgiveness, work together, tolerate one another etc.

Besigye has demonstrated one of the most important credentials of leadership – sacrifice. The price he and his family have paid for his political position has been extremely high. He has lost a brother, his wife and her siblings have been sent to exile, his sisters too. His supporters have been jailed, tortured and on occasion some have been killed. His friends have lost their businesses and much more. He carries this burden on his head. He has endured all this and remained true to his beliefs, however wrong or lofty they may be. This has given him the highest trust a people can have in their leader; he has demonstrated that he is dependable and reliable.

Besigye’s challenge is to transform from a belligerent, angry and polarising figure into a skilful political manipulator; to learn the skill set he needs for this new type of peaceful struggle. If he continues with his belligerent tone, he will appeal to his fanatical base but will find it difficult to broaden his appeal. This base will furnish his Walk to Work campaign with hundreds of stone wielding youths but will not convince other groups within Uganda to join in to create a broad front for protest.

amwenda@Independent.co.ug

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