By Stephen Twinoburyo
Five years ago, I was one of the people that listened to Uganda’s opposition leader, Dr Kiiza Besigye, give his farewell speech in Pretoria as he departed for Uganda to face an uncertain future. Indeed the future was scary because on reaching Uganda to contest against the incumbent, President Yoweri Museveni, he faced a number of charges including treason and terrorism.
On Saturday, 18 September 2010, I was among the group of Ugandans and non-Ugandans alike that trekked to Johannesburg to meet him and hear what he had to say about the state of affairs in Uganda as well as his view on where he thinks the country should be heading. I here give a report of what transpired in that meeting and the analysis or commentary will follow in the comments section.
Dr Besigye’s mostly jovial and humorous address started with a narration of the history of his involvement with the NRM and Museveni. He was a friend of Museveni and campaigned for his Uganda Patriotic Movement (UPM) party in the 1980 elections. By then, the UPM was a minor party that did not expect to make a major impact but rather create an new space in Uganda’s political dynamics. Museveni promised that if elections were rigged, he would go to the bush to fight but those close to him did not actually believe him. And indeed there were reports of rigging, not against the UPM but against the Democratic Party (DP). Museveni himself was defeated in his own constituency by then DP candidate, Mr sam Kutesa, who is now the minister of foreign affairs, a close ally of Museveni and who now share relation through the marriage of their children. After the elections, Museveni went to the bush and launched a guerrilla war against Milton Obote’s government that were declared the eventual winners.
Dr Besigye remained in Kampala but was later arrested at Sheraton hotel and taken to a Uganda People’s Congress (UPC) prison that was then at the International Conference center. It was there that he managed to escape and flee to Nairobi, Kenya, where he started working as a medical practitioner at Agha Khan hospital. Some of the people he was with in prison then, including prominent people from Mbarara: Mbiringi, Kabazeire and Karuhanga, have never been seen again since. After a short stay at Agha Khan hospital, he decided to abandon everything and go to fight a horrible system I Uganda. He says the bush war was not easy but they persisted in the belief that they were going to turn Uganda into a better country, not ware of the disillusionment that was yet to come. The war awas against a system that catered for a few and dehumanized the majority.
He went on to describe a patrimonial state that Uganda has become under Museveni, a patriarch being a an imposing person that believes he has the paternal right over those around him. According to Dr Besigye, Museveni once mentioned that ‘a president is next to God” and may actually believe it. “Probably he believes in God the father, God the son and God the president”, Dr Besigye said. He mentioned that so far, there is Museveni the president (himself), Museveni the minister (his wife) and Museveni the head of the army’s most elite unite (his son), not to mention his brother and in-law that are also ministers.
Dr Besigye outlined the tools that patriarchs use that have indeed been Museveni’s methods:
Fear: patriarchs always have things around them that threaten. Museveni travels in a large convoy that consists of heavy military hardware such as rocket propelled grenades, machine-gun mounted cars e.t.c. While the country has no ambulances or fire-fighting vehicles, there are plenty of teargas vehicles, mambas and nyalas – all tools of fear. Museveni is always surrounded by AK47-wielding soldiers.
- Dispensing favours: Museveni personally dispenses things like money, scholarships, business support, houses, vehicles, jobs e.t.c such that even some of the people who are against his system sometimes feel they have to tow the line or else they will fall by the way side. Whenever he visits villages, people come out knowing he is going to donate something – even roads. He has taken over the role of institutions.
- Propaganda: the media has been thoroughly put under his control such that some radio stations have to apologize for hosting an opposition politician.
- Divide and rule: Uganda has now been broken down into numerous tiny units that each benefit directly from Museveni and are in direct competition or conflicts with each other. Numerous districts have been produced. Almost each and every tribe has faction that are fighting each other and each directly having the president’s ear. So are the religions. For a example, a company that was contarcted to explore oil in Bunyoro eventually sold the rights to another company for $1.5 billion. This was after spending about $300 million. While this company made $1.2 billion over their land, the Banyoro were fighting the Bafuruki and each seeking favour with Museveni.
Like with apartheid in S Africa, the effects of a patrimonial state are the same and in Uganda’s case, some of them are:
- Mass poverty: the countryside is bleeding. It’s not that people are not working hard but their sweat does not help. For example a farmer who harvest a 100 kg sack of maize can only be able to exchange it for an equivalent of 3 kg of sugar simply because there is no transport infrastructure to transport it the appropriate markets or there is too much corruption in the system to enable him get anything out of it. Women going to state hospitals to give birth need to buy their own surgical gloves and syringes before going to hospital – these only being the basics.
- Last year a new presidential jet was purchased for UG Sh 84 billion after one that had been bought in 2000 for UG Sh 60 billion was deemed no longer suitable for the president. All this when state hospitals cannot provide a single panadol tablet. UG Sh 500 billion was spent on the 3 day Commonwealth Heads of Government (CHOGM) summit of which nothing, even roads, can be seen now.
- Collapse of public system: all institutions, infrastructure, services, railway, water transport (e.g MV Kawa ), cooperatives, public banks are no longer existent. This is in addition to education and health that have completely collapsed. The police force has virtually turned into the military.
Dr Besigye said the Inter-Party Cooperation (IPC) is opposing this patriarch system. The system must change if Uganda is to recover. The change however must start with people’s heads. With all that is going on, with a system that has almost completely taken away people’s livelihood and dignity, you will still find those who say no change – even when their system will never improve under the present circumstances. These are all works of a patriarch. People must realize that they have the power. The IPC is not simply striving for the change of individuals but rather the overhaul of the whole system because if new people come in under the present system, they can simply take advantage of the patrimonial system and perpetuate it.
He noted the IPC has had ideologigal differences with the DP under Nobert Mao who prefer to go it alone rather than in combination with other parties. The UPC has also decided to pull out of the IPC because it calls for a boycott of the elections while the Forum for Democratic Change (FDC) prefers participation in the elections. According to Dr Besigye, not participating will be giving Musesveni a blank cheque. The IPC now therefore is composed of all the other parties represented in parliament as well as Suubi and the DP group under Mr Sam Lubega. Dr Besigye supports the idea of the opposition working together because on top of giving one voice, it enables the optimal use of resources. He noted that resources are, and indeed are always, a challenge in an election. He said that the IPC will continue to call for the change of the current electoral commission and review of the voters’ register even if it means the postponement of the elections.
If elected into power, the IPC intends to:
- Trim the cabinet: the cabinet now consists of 70 ministers some of whom Museveni does not recall very well.
- Cut the defence budget and improve the living conditions of soldiers. Currently the foot soldiers live in appalling conditions. Also separate the army from politics. Currently 10 army generals sit in parliament and vote on the side of the ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM).
- Deal with corruption that has become a cancer on the country.
- Create and encourage a vibrant civil society.
- Heavily invest in rebuilding the infrastructure. The economy cannot function under the current infrastructure, most of which was built under Milton Obote’s first government in the 1960s.
- Re-introduce the cooperatives.
- Invest heavily in agriculture.
- Invest in harnessing the country’s vast water resources for economic, social and health gains.
Dr Besigye’s address took just over 2 hours after which contributions and questions were raised by the public. I was the first to take to the floor and my contribution was mainly observations or suggestions.
I agreed with Dr Besigye on the issue of fear and propaganda. I noted that some people even as far as S Africa fear what the patriarch may do to them if they say something in public yet some in Uganda who are facing the system come up openly against it. I also noted that propaganda is a big tool that even countries like the US use. In my observation, the NRM does not have a good propaganda machine – or even an existing propaganda machine – outside the country and yet the opposition has failed to use this space. I also supported participation in the elections. On the opposition side, I informed the IPC president that from my observation stemming from online debates, discussions and informal forums, there is huge discontent in Uganda against the current government. However the general feeling is that the opposition is still not offering the viable alternative people are yearning for because they are not really addressing issues but rather opposing. Also opposition politics are mainly found in cities and the boardrooms of Kampala. I noted that for all his faults, Museveni knows how to campaign and despite the fact that he is the incumbent, he campaigns tirelessly to all corners of the country.
The IPC president conceded that whatever he may criticize Museveni for, he acknowledges two things in him: one, he works hard for his bad plans. He doesn’t sleep. Secondly, he plans. He knows what he wants in 10 years time and works carefully on it. But he added that the notion that the opposition is only opposing is part of the propaganda that the government is feeding on people to the extent that some are beginning to believe it. He said some of the government’s implementations have been picked straight from the opposition books – for instance the abolition of graduated tax and increase of teachers’ salaries. He also said that previously they had only managed to campaign on the eve of the lections but that this time, they have had four years to campaign and have reached all the grassroots. For the first time, the opposition will have trained representatives at each and every polling station. In response to a question from the audience, he also said that the IPC will introduce an electronic system where their agents will post results immediately after counting so that the IPC can announce their results without waiting for the electoral commission.
There were wise words, words of encouragement, the contributions got heated and sometimes emotional. A Ugandan doctor at one of S Africa’s universities asked Dr Besigye that doesn’t he think Uganda is a failing state? Dr Besigye agreed that it’s indeed a failed state and that “a state is as strong as its institutions are”. He said Somalia for instance is a failed state because all institutions had been destroyed by the previous government such that when the patrimonial system collapsed, nothing remained.
On the question of Buganda nationalism, Dr Besigye said that he supports federal. He said he doesn’t see what’s wrong with people safeguarding their cultures within the broader context of the country. he said what the Baganda are asking for is indeed theirs. He posed the question “if you are returning things to the Indians, why not to the Baganda what belongs to them?”
A UPC supporter commenting on Dr Besigye’s treason case said the only treason Dr Besigye committed was to leave dying patients at Agha Khan hospital and go to fight a democratically elected government. Of course this caused a lot of laughter. However he also asked that wasn’t Dr Besigye part of the corruption when he was still part of the NRM. Dr Besigye replied that he can explain how he worked for his things and is open to any scrutiny. Dr Besigye responding to a similar question referring to human rights says he actually supports an investigation of all past wrongs.
Another contributor remarked that maybe UPC is right and elections are a waste of time. He noted that twice Dr Besigye has won the lections and even the courts confirmed that but Museveni went on to become the president. His opinion was that elections will never remove Museveni and that the opposition must seek alternative means. Dr Besigye responded by saying he knows how difficult it has been and they have to keep on trying. According to him, even with the rigging, vote-buying and election violence, victory is possible as has happened in Mukono recently. He also noted that Museveni has never defeated him in Kampala.
On a question on privatization, Dr Besigye said this is the biggest institutionalized scam Uganda has ever faced and in his opinion should be investigated at one point in time. It was an “accumulation scam” by a few individuals leaving the majority impoverished. All public assets were given away for the benefit of a few people – a classic case of a few exploiting the majority like happened in the S African apartheid state.
On a question of massive exposure of the rottenness in Uganda abroad, Dr Besigye observed that exposure alone won’t help. “People are not altruistic – i.e seeking the general good of all. As long as there are private gains, many (USA, Britain, S Africa e.t.c) will look away to protect their gains. At the end of the day, it’s us to drive the change”, he said.
Asked if he wasn’t concerned about his security, he answered that his security is the people. He said when he was in prison on charges of treason, a principal judge was sent to convince him to accept house arrest. He said he told the judge that if he was guilty, he should stay in prison and that if he was innocent, he should be released. He noted that the judge was sent to do all this because of the pressure from the public. He added that even if he were to be killed, those who would have killed him would find him there too. He said that fearing death in such a struggle would be a betrayal to all those who had died. His own brother had been arrested on treason charges, they were together in prison and he is now dead, but the struggle continues.
Asked if he was angry, he said he pleads to being angry at the injustices in the country but he is not bitter.
The discussions were followed by a gala dinner organized by the FDC South African chapter and more informal interactions continued.
As an observer, and as a person who listened and interacted, I must say I was very impressed by the way he came across. I sensed this was the general feeling among all those that packed the Johannesburg venue where this engagement took place.
I look forward to hearing from other parties too about what they have to offer.
PS: I would like to clarify that I am neither a journalist nor a reporter. I am in fact a university mathematics lecturer and also venturing in the field of financial engineering. I am only writing this out this out of my own interest, firstly in writing and then sending out the message. Bear with me please if the reporting falls short of journalistic standards.