Uganda: Is Kizza Besigye returning to finish his unfinished revolution against Museveni?

By Musinguzi Blanshe

Posted on Monday, 30 May 2022 16:22
Veteran Ugandan opposition leader Kizza Besigye is charged with inciting violence during a protest, in Kampala
Veteran Ugandan opposition leader Kizza Besigye sits in the dock at the courtroom where he was charged with inciting violence during a protest against soaring consumer prices, in Kampala, Uganda May 25, 2022. REUTERS/Abubaker Lubowa

Opposition to President Yoweri Museveni's rule has stiffened as of late, with political rivals jumping on issues like cost of living. Kizza Besigye, Uganda’s veteran opposition politician, has a long pedigree in unsettling the regime, and appears to be making a fresh attempt to fight for change. We examine his chances.

In recent months, Besigye’s talking points have been about the rising cost of living, but his main target is awakening masses to fight Museveni who has been in power since 1986.

On Tuesday 24 May, Besigye made a surprise visit to Kampala city centre to protest against Museveni’s regime. The windscreens of his car were protected with strong wire mesh that extended to the entire sunroof. The wire mesh was meant to shield Besigye from being hastily grabbed by soldiers and policemen who gazed at him as he addressed people. He also had a loudspeaker on top of the car from which he made his speech.

Besigye, who is under house arrest, had managed to elude the 24-hour security team at his home in Wakiso, about 17 kilometres from the heart of the city. The security officers had prevented him from leaving his home for about a week.

“This is the time that we have to fight for our country. Nothing is impossible because people in many countries have liberated their own countries,” he said in Luganda, a local dialect spoken in central Uganda where Kampala is situated. “We are the ones to liberate our own country, not Whites or any other person. No one should lie to you that elections will bring change,” he said.

Besigye’s car was later towed by the police. His final message was that “even when they take me today, after they will release me and I will come back”. On Wednesday, he was charged with inciting violence and directed to pay USh30m cash bail (roughly $8000) to secure his release. He however declined, instead opting to go to prison.

The last time he addressed a rally in Kampala city centre was in early 2016 following a presidential election won by Museveni, but one that Besigye disputed. At the time, he had also managed to dodge officers stationed at his home.

From Museveni’s friend to archrival

A medical doctor, Besigye was part of the war that brought Museveni to power in 1986. His main work during the guerilla war was to treat injured rebels, “increasing morale of rebel fighters by demonstrating there was life after injury”, Daniel Kalinaki, a Ugandan journalist wrote in Kizza Besigye and Uganda’s unfinished revolution, 2014, a book that traces Besigye’s political journey.

Besigye served in Museveni’s government until 1999 when he broke away to become the face of opposition, from 1999 to 2017, founding the Forum for Democratic Change (FDC) – the largest opposition party until last year’s general election.

Besigye and his team distributing red cards before being accosted by police (via Twitter)

He led the opposition in presidential elections four times, but by 2011, Besigye had discerned that Museveni can’t be defeated through elections and started a walk-to-work protest that aimed to mobilise large masses to oust Museveni. At the time, large street protests were ousting autocrats in what was termed the Arab Spring.

After much persuasion, Besigye participated in the 2016 presidential election, but flatly rejected calls by FDC to participate in the 2021 elections, giving way to Robert Kyagulanyi aka Bobi Wine, a musician-turned-politician who has now become the face of opposition. Bobi Wine’s party is now the main opposition party in parliament.

As Besigye, now 66 years-old, makes a comeback from a five-year hiatus to mobilise masses against Museveni, many of his agemates who had left the government to join him in early 2000s have either returned to the president’s side or are living a quiet life. There are no top officials, such as legislators in opposition parties, or those from his party, FDC, who have joined forces with Besigye.

Ibrahim Ssemujju Nganda, a legislator and spokesperson of FDC tells The Africa Report that there has never been a time when Besigye protested and all party leaders backed him. “Historically, that is what has always happened. Remember [the] walk-to-work protests, how many FDC leaders were participating?” he says.

Disunity among anti-Museveni forces

“The opposition is scattered,”  Sabiti Makara, a political scientist at Makerere University, Kampala tells The Africa Report.

NUP and FDC have been dodging each other, impeding connections that would lead to formation of unity. After last year’s election when NUP surprisingly emerged as the main opposition party in parliament, it tried to invite opposition parties in a bid to form a united front, but received lukewarm reception.

Last year, when Besigye formed The Red Card Front – a pressure group that he is using to rally people against Museveni – he also invited opposition parties to discuss the way forward. He got positive responses.

Though mistrust runs high among opposition parties, lip service is evident. For instance, Bobi Wine offered to support Besigye two weeks ago. “We support what our fore leader Dr Besigye is doing because he is right and what he addresses is important,” he said.

Norbert Mao, leader of the Democratic Party (the oldest political party in Uganda), argues that protests can be effective if they are better organised and with opposition parties united. “We don’t believe in what we call popcorn protests, like one person trying to protest,” he tells The Africa Report. “We have stated clearly that we will plan and design better protests.”

Godber Tumshabe, associate director of Great Lakes Institute for Strategic Studies (GLISS), a think tank in Kampala, says opposition parties don’t have to be united until the anti-Museveni movement has reached a point where they must unite. What is important, he says, is what professional bodies, labour unions and religious institutions are doing to challenge the status quo. However, there are no strong labour or professional unions in Uganda and religious institutions were co-opted by Museveni a long time ago.

What are Besigye chances?

Makara says Besigye has limited opportunity because government forces will not allow him to express his views. “They have done it before and it succeeded unfortunately,” he says.

Since 1999 when he joined the opposition, Besigye has been arrested countless times. It was during the 2011 walk-to-work protests that the state began to deploy officers to block Besigye from leaving his home.

Godber Tumushabe says civic consciousness isn’t like mathematics “where one plus one equals two”, but a job that a person can do for decades and the population still remains dissuaded.

What complicates Besigye’s task, Tumushabe says, is “dictatorship like the one we have, which is fairly sophisticated. Relying on money and violence is not a small job”.

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