What People Aren’t Saying About Besigye
By John V Sserwaniko
In the early 2000s, as I was growing up in secondary school, Dr. PK Semogerere and his DP dominated the opposition space.
Growing up in a political family, I daily read newspapers and followed these things with keen interest.
All one had to do then to become a political hero for opposition supporters was appear on Peter Bakaluba Mukasa’s Radio Simba Oluntindo program and say all the nasty things about Yoweri Museveni.
Alternatively you spoke at a DP rally at City Square (this used to be the venue) and say nasty things about Museveni.
Simba fm, that greatly revolutionarized radio news reporting, occasionally did live reporting of some popular speakers.
That is how Nsubuga Nsambu (RIP) became a house hold name and an opposition hero even when he was from CP perceived by many to be a small party.
Whoever appeared on a radio talk show eloquently criticizing Museveni and became the hero for opposition voters regardless of how small your party was.
That is how Saddam Gayira (now of PPP) and Hussein Kyanjo became opposition heroes. Kyanjo of the small Jeema party went on to become Makindye West MP beating Mukasa Mbidde whose DP numerically dominated Makindye.
For speaking so eloquently on Mambo Bado of the later years, Nambooze was accepted as a hero by disgruntled Ugandans even before she joined DP.
Many others deployed demagoguery and got opposition votes including Ken Lukyamuzi and Rubaga North’s Wasswa Lule.
Even taking Museveni or government to court was considered heroic those days.
That is how the Erias Lukwagos, Joseph Balikuddembe and others got their initial political capital.
Those were the standards of those years. A few got arrested and released shortly after or summoned to CID to face Chris Bakiza (he was very famous those days) and chanting crowds came to see them outside CID headquarters.
This partly is how Sebaana Kizito got the momentum with which he thumped NRM to become Mayor after Sebaggala got problems after 1998 Mayoral elections.
Sebaggala had somehow militarized these things relying mostly on UYD militants; Mike Mabikke, Godfrey Ntale (RIP), Keneth Kakande, Joseph Mujuzi, Moses Katabu etc. He always had militant processions but there was never teargas to confront them.
Police simply came took him away and grumbling supporters dispersed on their own.
Riding on his 1999 missive, Besigye challenged Museveni in 2001; almost coming from nowhere.
He was alien to many young opposition diehards. His speeches were militant and found a lot of favor with the opposition base that had been building starting with PK Semo in 1996.
The first teargas incident was in the nomination week for the 2001 elections. Sebaggala supporters, who without police interference had months earlier beaten up Francis Bwengye & Co who had forcefully occupied DP headquarters, stormed UNEB Ntinda offices protesting EC’s refusal to nominate their man on grounds of inadequate academic qualifications.
Led by Church Ambrose Bukenya of the DP headquarters, the Seyas (as he fondly called them) matched through town up to Ntinda were police dispersed them with teargas.
This was days before a frustrated Sebaggala ordered his supporters to back Besigye who was marketed as credible by PK Semo having closely worked with him in Museveni cabinet years earlier.
This is one reason the Bwengyes were against Semo accusing him of killing DP.
Why was he backing Besigye when the DPs like Bwengye were available to overcome academic hurdles Seya faced? It were these angry Church Ambrose rioters that Seya handed over to Besigye (the Hajji Alagidde slogan) at a ceremony at Pope Memorial Center near my parents’ home in Mengo.
Besigye, as we know, fled in August 2001 after numerous confrontations with security agencies commanded by CMI boss Noble Mayombo.
These militant youths-who in the campaigns climbed electricity poles to pin his posters & countered Mutale’s KAP operatives-retreated to their DP while KB was away.
They are what Seya used to mount pressure that forced Semo out in 2005. The thing is KB had used the 2001 campaigns to set new standards of opposition politics so high that the DP boys wouldn’t accept Semo anymore.
Seya made them think he would be as militant and principled as KB. As we know he cracked and joined NRM.
The very militants that used to sing his name attacked him several times at public functions and became almost homeless after Semo was in 2005 replaced by Sebaana who turned out worse than his predecessor.
Mabikke tried to fill the gap but his militant views weren’t tolerated in Sebaana’s DP.
He quit and founded his SDP which also couldn’t match KB’s militant approach.
The original DP youths turned against Besigye after failing to match his standards.
Claiming Seya, Mabikke & Co were money-minded, some DPs like Erias Lukwago, Betty Nambooze (eventually joined DP), Muwanga Kivumbi and others flocked with KB without denouncing their DP membership.
In the meantime Besigye, who triumphantly returned from South Africa in October 2005 and bitterly ran against Museveni in 2006, had built his own support base.
His charisma was such that he was now able to do without DP and its militant youths who had embraced him 5 years earlier.
Muwanga Kivumbi had cultivated his own constituency under his pressure group against life presidency as term limits were being lifted in 2005.
These were youths from the Ugandan population-and not just DP. Many of these too sheltered under KB’s candidature in 2006.
Examples include Ibrahim Kasozi (now Makindye East MP). Kasozi had been Kivumbi’s deputy in poplar resistance.
In 2006 Kasozi and others formed the militant ring that sheltered KB as he was showered with teargas in that year’s chaotic procession from Busega to CPS where he was locked up ahead of the rape charges.
That (November 2005) is the day Kampala tasted unprecedented teargas. That day’s events clearly indicated the struggle, going into the 2006 campaigns, wasn’t going to be for the faint-hearted.
Having seen they couldn’t manage such confrontation, many DPs turned against Besigye openly criticizing him as a Museveni proxy.
This is the argument they made to justify why Sebaana, who was then Kampala Mayor, had to be a candidate. Whereas Sebaana performed dismally getting less than 80,000 votes with many of his aides trailing in lower elections, those defiant DPs (Lukwago, Namboze & others) who flocked with KB won easily.
That is how Seya, who many in DP had written off after he refused to concede defeat by Sebaana at Namboole, politically resurrected and was overwhelmingly elected as Kampala Mayor in 2006 thumping Peter Sematimba.
Seya jumped on the Besigye crowd and castigated other DPs for not backing KB.
His protégés like Mabikke did the same to retain the Makindye East MP Seat. Ofcourse Seya in 2007 fell out with Kampalans who accused him of selling out to Museveni the day he got a lift in his Cygnus after the ground breaking of Aya Hotel in Nakasero.
Mind you Seya first stood for presidency in 2006 against KB, Museveni and others but tactifuly pulled out on seeing Besigye had no candidate for Mayorship and DP’s Takuba was being rejected.
In absence of a strong opposition candidate, Sematimba was obviously going to win.
After the 2007 betrayal, Seya was resented and wherever he went militant youths who used to be his Seyas chased him like chicken thief. As they did this, they saluted KB for being consistent just like Semo had assured them in 2001.
THE STREET RIOTS
In eyes of his fans, KB had always been a militant but escalated after the 2006 elections and Presidential petition.
Reporters asked him now what next since Court hasn’t nullified Museveni. “I’m now going to the court Mr. Museveni went to in 1980,” is all he said. Days later he threatened Tsunami implying relentless street riots similar to what Muwanga Kivumbi pioneered in 2005 with his pressure group popular resistance against life presidency. Besigye started his street Tsunami way before we heard of the Arab Spring.
The topical issue after his 2007 Tsunami declaration was the continued detention of PRA suspects, including his brother Musasizi, even after getting court bail.
Shortly after the Supreme Court refusal to nullify elections, there was a morning opposition rally at Nakivubo. It was organized by Nabillah Nagayi, who had benefited from the Besigye 2006 momentum to become Kampala woman MP.
Ogenga Latigo who had just become LoP and many other FDC MPs attended this rally. Speeches were made condemning Museveni for re-arresting PRA suspects despite court granting them bail. Besigye was the last speaker.
He declared he was walking to Luzira to forcefully release PRA suspects and urged those able to accompany him.
He started his journey on foot and by the time he reached Steers Jinja road, he had a huge crowd besides him. Police unleashed teargas and images of a tearful Besigye graced newspapers the next day.
He was finally subdued and blocked at Jinja road/BAT opposite UMI and briefly detained at CPS. To me, that is the day defiance was born. Besigye defiantly kept returning to the street and FDC national chairman Suleiman Kiggundu was always besides him.
The police response also increasingly became radicalized. KB and Kiggundu would be arrested like chicken thieves.
One Saturday in 2006 KB appeared on CBS’ Saturday political program and declared he was going to City Square for a rally with or without police permission. Police heavily deployed to stop him but the man from Rukungiri still turned up and got brutally arrested along with elderly Dr. Kiggundu who was publicly molested by guys fit to be his grandsons.
Similar confrontations became so many such molestations ceased to make news. Museveni subsequently used Seya-led KCC to justify the banning of political meetings at City Square after seeing Besigye’s relentless intentions to use it for his Tsunami.
THE NEW POLITICS
This was unprecedented in opposition. To match KB’s standards, the DPs rode on the Kayira issue and organized a few street riots.
They also joined Beatrice Anywar to organize the Mabira demo majority of whose “Commanders” were DP youths uncomfortable working with KB. Because there was an open invitation, KB participated in the Mabira demo and DP for sometime enjoyed media publicity.
However, the attitude in DP changed after it was claimed some of the DP Commanders on both Mabira and Kayira issue were moles planted by then very powerful Gen David Sejusa.
That is how the DP militant cells evaporated and the Sebaana leadership was also critical of street riots yet to many frustrated opposition supporters it was the way to go.
Confrontational politics then gradually became a monopoly of the FDC under Besigye as Party President. DP leaders resorted to weekly press conferences which couldn’t get much publicity.
Supporters started pressurizing party leaders with “we don’t see you.” Instead of adjusting, the DP leaders felt KB was inadvertently causing them problems and that is how the enmity intensified.
When ex-Buganda Katikkiro Mulwanyamuli joined opposition politics and went to KB, many in DP felt their party should naturally have been his home given his background.
DP fans felt he shunned DP because its leaders were generally in oblivion and invisible in news media. Yet to gain the required visibility it was no longer enough to eloquently attack Museveni at news conferences or radio talk shows. Besigye had clearly demystified all that because of the very high standards his riots and confrontations with police had set.
The contemporary situation requires that for any opposition leader to get publicity and be seen to make news, they must do what Besigye is doing if not more. The dilemma is this means taking physical risks, an experience too painful for many to even ponder. This to me is the reason many DP leaders, for instance, hate KB.
It’s not because they have eaten Museveni’s money as they are often falsely accused. It’s because he has set the bar so high many can simply not fit in. This is the reason why many of the elected opposition leaders are either openly part of KB’s defiance or don’t openly criticize his modus operandi. The likes of Latif Sebaggala, Medard Segona, Mathias Mpuuga and a few others fall in the latter category.
We have the Nabillah Nagayis who strategically acquiesce to KB’s approach at election time and only dissent publicly after getting elected back to office. The bitter truth is Besigye’s modus operandi is the new way to do opposition politics in this country.
It has nothing to do with structures which even NRM (that has been winning disputed elections) doesn’t have. Granted FDC might be devoid of structures as critics have consistently been saying but even NRM isn’t any better yet it continues winning elections.
In fact FDC, financially constrained as it is, arguably has more visible structures than NRM’s. And we must stress NRM has been winning for many other reasons and not because it has better structures parse. As an active political reporter I know, with certainty, that this is something many senior NRM leaders privately admit.
This takes me to what I consider defective arguments by MP Abdul Katuntu, Andrew Mwenda and others regarding Uganda’s very anomalous political situation. Katuntu says FDC hasn’t won elections because it has KB’s defiance instead of structures. To him KB’s defiance is the reason over 35% of the eligible electors didn’t vote in 2016.
Mwenda improves on Katuntu’s argument by implying Museveni won’t fall until opposition gets a candidate better than KB. He says the two inadvertently are mutual political allies depending on each other for political survival and continued relevancy.
The following is what I take away from Mwenda and Katuntu’s views. Besigye’s bad politics, as Mwenda calls it, isn’t sufficient to explain why so many have been staying away.
In 2006 we had Miria Obote and Sebaana Kizito whose brand of politics was the exact opposite of Besigye’s belligerent politics as Mwenda calls it.
The 35% or so that resented KB’s approach would find alternative in Miria or Sebaana or even the more youthful and eloquent Abed Bwanika.
They don’t have to vote Besigye. That they didn’t go for either of the trio is proof there is something Mwenda and Katuntu aren’t saying. In 2011 we had the very charismatic Norbert Mao, a man of peace and actively opposed to Besigye’s belligerency.
The 35% or so abstaining voters still didn’t vote him. He is way much younger than the Besigye & Museveni tired NRA war generation.
Better still we had Jaberi Bidandi Ssali a man of great experience whose approach is the direct opposite to KB’s.
The Mwendas, Katuntus need to tell us why the abstaining 35% didn’t find this ex-Museveni strategist good enough.
He wasn’t vindictive and neither did threaten to detain Museveni on becoming President. In 2016 we had someone way far more experienced than Besigye in Amama Mbabazi.
He had support of DP leadership and even Otunnu’s UPC but still the 35%, who Mwenda says despise both Museveni and KB, didn’t vote for him. By the way Bwanika, who was running for 3rd time, was still there but the 35% still didn’t find him good enough.
To me, this is indicative Mwenda’s argument isn’t defect-free. Its instructive Ugandans must look beyond what Mwenda has been saying and find the answers to our political dilemma.
Hon Katuntu says it’s his strategy that works and gives the example of his Bugweri County where he says most elected leaders are FDC but doesn’t explain absence of multiplier or spillover effect in nearby Constituencies within the same Iganga district.
He has been deploying this winning strategy for over 15 years but his FDC colleagues in nearby constituencies haven’t been able to apply the same and thump NRM! It’s also true as he says that it’s his strategy (he says not defiance) that has delivered so much for FDC in Bugweri but one may also say its KB’s approach (and not Katuntu’s) that has been delivering against NRM in Rukungiri, Kampala or even Semujju Nganda’s Wakiso district.
Nabillah in Kampala has been winning since 2006 basically because at poll time she tactifuly embraces Besigye’s modus operandi and not because she built party structures parse.
Kawempe South’s Mubarak Munyagwa will say the same as will Besigye’s allies in Nansana Municipality, KCCA, Mbale, Masaka and other townships.
Nandala Mafabi will tell you it was the Besigye approach that enabled him paint Sironko district blue in 2011 and not party structures parse. In Ntungamo Municipality, as we all saw, Gerald Karuhanga deployed more than just good structures to prevail over Yona Musinguzi who seemed to have entire security apparatus behind him.
It’s also true there are many in FDC who share Katuntu’s view on the Besigye approach and one may ask how come FDC hasn’t been winning elections in their areas.
The party is certainly not full of Defiance adherents only. Katuntu has previously implied defiance adherents are a minority in the party. Question then becomes what have all the others opposed to defiance been able to accomplish.
Do they need permission from KB to be able to do what they believe is right and best way to take their party forward? And besides why doesn’t Andrew Mwenda start a party to offer that missing 3rd force alternative since, to him, both Museveni & Besigye aren’t good enough to appeal to the 35% or so that have been abstaining from voting? He certainly doesn’t need anybody’s permission to do so.
The writer is a Red Pepper political journalist