Ugandan opposition leader Kizza Besigye has flipped the treason allegations against him on to President Yoweri Museveni, whom he now accuses of staging a coup d’etat against the will of the people.
Dr Besigye says he was arrested on polling day on February 18 for blowing the whistle on massive rigging. In the first exclusive media interview since the election, the opposition Forum for Democratic Change (FDC) leader claims that more than 300 leaders of his party were arrested to frustrate any legal challenge to the outcome of the elections, which international observers said were neither free nor fair. Dr Besigye claims that his multiple arrests and subsequent treason charges sought to prevent him from lodging a legal challenge against Museveni, who has been president since 1986.
“The detention of one of the candidates by another candidate is what constitutes treason. It is, therefore, paradoxical that it is me in the courts charged with treason and not Museveni, who is using guns to contain the rightly elected person,” he said.
Dr Besigye told judges, lawyers and election experts at the Annual Jurists Conference in Durban, South Africa, that he wants to pursue a non-violent strategy for change in what he signals as a break with tradition in Uganda, where there has not been a peaceful handover of power since Independence in 1962.
His forehead furrowing into the trademark four lines, his hair beginning to gray ever so slightly, Dr Besigye launched a blistering attack on President Museveni, an erstwhile guerilla comrade for whom he was a personal doctor.
Reeling off facts and figures about Uganda to a rapt audience, Dr Besigye recalled that when the guerilla war that put Museveni in power began, there were only 30 individuals and 27 guns.
“I bring with me my history and an understanding of the context,” said Dr Besigye.
He called on the international community to support structured dialogue that would lead to a peaceful transition in Uganda.
The leader of the opposition FDC tells KWAMCHETSI MAKOKHA that seeking the presidency is not the end of his struggle, but a push to change the system and hand the control of the country to the citizens
What happened with the last election in Uganda early this year?
On election day, I was arrested for identifying and insisting on an inspection of a house where most of the operation for rigging that election was taking place: A house where there were tonnes of pre-ticked ballot papers and where all the manipulations were being [co-ordinated].
We had located this house from insider information and insisted that it should be inspected. I was arrested and detained until the middle of the night, when I was released. The following day, as results were coming in, the police violently invaded us, fired teargas into the office and premises around about, and arrested us. Before that, one of the senior police officers had come in to inquire if we wanted to release the results of the elections. He said they were concerned that releasing results was the sole responsibility of the Electoral Commission. We could not release the results when voting was still going on, because a lot of areas round the city, which were closest to the Electoral Commission, did not receive their voting materials till the next day.
We told him that we could not release results when voting was still going on… but we were free to comment on results that had been announced at the polling station by the Electoral Commission. We were horrified to hear the same Electoral Commission announcing totally different results at the national tally centre from those released at the polling stations. Announcing what was presented at the Electoral Commission cannot be an offence, because that is why we are given a copy of the results.
This officer left, and what followed was the invasion and arrest on February 19. I did not become free again until May 11, when I escaped from them and appeared briefly in the city.
How did you escape?
My detention has been in my home and we have challenged it in the courts and politically, but it is sustained by acts of impunity by the Uganda police. They put a ring around the home, blockade the exits with police trucks and spikes and deploy soldiers all around the home.
What they are doing is illegal. There is no provision for it in the law. It is inhuman. If you are put in official detention, you are fed, but no one provides food for our home. It is intended to torture me and make my survival almost impossible. This encirclement is one I have been breaking simply to expose the fact that they are not efficient even in what they are doing. I cannot give you details of how I do it, but suffice it to say that in the last election, in nearly all the areas where there were major encampments of the police and the military, we actually won even by the results that were announced officially. This demonstrates that even the coercive forces or arms of government are desirous of change. The people they rely on are the ones who voted for me.
What was the effect of your arrest after the election?
Our Constitution provides that once the Electoral Commission has announced the final results, every candidate has 10 days to challenge those results. My capture and detention denied me that opportunity, as a candidate. And I was not the only one: Our party president Gen Mugisha Muntu was arrested, the chairperson and others.
Across the country, more than 300 of our leaders had been arrested at the time of the elections. What has happened since the election has been an overthrow of the will of the people of Uganda, using guns.
Everybody recognises that you cannot have a conclusively elected president if the constitutional process has not been available to all candidates. We do not have a conclusively elected president. Therefore, the detention of one of the candidates by another candidate — because Museveni who ordered my detention was the beneficiary candidate — is what constitutes treason. It is therefore paradoxical that it is me in the courts charged with treason and not Museveni, who, up to today, is using guns to contain what we believe is the rightly elected person. We have evidence, which we believe is conclusive, to show that we won the election and not Museveni.
Out of 28,100 polling stations, results for a sizeable number were not taken into account. In your own estimation, how many votes did you garner?
The ones that were not taken into account were over 2,000; but we won 52 per cent of the vote. We do not have all the returns from all the polling stations because some of our leaders were arrested and some of the results were captured from our agents and others from our headquarters. But we have evidence from areas where we have no results of what those results ought to have been. That is why we are confident and have been demanding an audit.
Were you sworn in as president of Uganda?
That is a matter before court; commenting on it would be sub judice. What I have said, even in court, is that we won the election, and when you win the election, you should form the government. It is for saying that I won the election that I am being charged with treason; that I should not have said I had won and there should not have been a swearing-in and things like that.
It is the second time you are dealing with charges of treason. Previously, there was rape and possession of firearms. How do these charges make you feel?
The guilty are the ones who are always afraid. I am innocent. Anybody who sets out to challenge a dictator, to force a dictator to leave office, has to prepare for grave consequences. I am harassed, teargassed, imprisoned, shot at, but I am around, thank God. Many of my colleagues have perished; they are no longer here. I cannot feel sorry for myself as the most harassed or persecuted. There are many people, but I may be the most visible of them.
It has been speculated that you are about to enter the Guinness Book of Records as the most arrested person. What do you think is the purpose of these arrests?
There are two purposes: To discourage me to the point where I give up, and to cause fear among the population so that people can say if the person who is our leader is being treated like that, what will happen to us?
That is the intention: To send a chilling message to the population. Although it may have had some initial impact, I am happy it is also having the opposite effect. It is getting people more annoyed, more resolute and to be emboldened to stand up for their rights.
I have been seeing young people who are boldly challenging the police… who come back the following day without fear. The time of fear as a source of paralysis in our society is gone.
What did you do when you went into exile?
We remained very active. The 2001 election occurred when the Constitution of Uganda did not allow for multiparty politics, but it created the evidence to show that this was a flawed system.
Museveni had been arguing that he had been having a no-party system, but the 2001 showed that it was a one-party system. He was endorsed as the candidate in preference to me. He was supported by an organisation, contrary to what the no-party system he talked of provided for. So, when I was out, we organised ourselves into a formal political institution called the Reform Agenda. It could not be registered as a political party, but for all intents and purposes, it became an effective political structure that went to all districts. We launched it in Lusaka before our leaders went back and introduced it in all the districts.
We went to the constitutional court and were able to register our party, Forum for Democratic Change, and I returned home as a leader of a formal organisation It was a tactical withdrawal to that extent.
You have contested the presidency four times, the last perhaps reluctantly. When are you going to stop?
Elections, whether won or not, are not the end of our struggle. Our struggle is not just for leadership, it is a struggle to change the system — to have a system where citizens are in control of their country.
We have a country where citizens are subjects; they have no power at all. They serve the wishes of the leaders rather than the other way round.
Our struggle is a liberation struggle. Elections can be a facilitator of that struggle, because people can rally support without being criminalised. They still interfere with our right to move around, but it creates that opportunity.
We do not go to the elections with the illusion that by casting a ballot alone, the dictator will declare himself defeated and hand over power. What we believe the election will do is to intensify the transfer of knowledge to have a confident and aware population; an organised population that can then, through the defiance campaigns that we have been involved with, weaken and overcome the dictatorship and institute a process through which we can have democratic governance.
You haven’t practised medicine in many years. Do you miss it?
Quite obviously. I am sad that I was not able to progress along the career path that I had chosen, but, on the other hand, I know that even if I had progressed along that path and became one of the most successful practitioners or specialists in whatever field, I would not have any impact in our country. Most likely, I would be doing it from a foreign land.
When I abandoned the profession, I had already been in exile. We do not succeed in getting good health care from good professionals, but good health care policies that ensure good professionals and proper funding. The work I am doing to impact public policy is more fundamental and profound than if I had continued sharpening my tools and intellect in the medical profession.
Are you a wealthy man?
I am not complaining. Wealth is a whole spectrum. I have never set out to accumulate wealth. I am happy if I can sustain myself, but you are raising a pertinent question. The choice to go into campaigns like I have been involved in entails a huge sacrifice. Part of the sacrifice in my case has been the loss of a family, because my wife is out there working. Presently, she is the executive director of Oxfam; before that she was in New York with the UN, before that in Addis Ababa with the African Union. Our children are in foreign lands too.
I run a business in Kampala — not very well for obvious reasons — but I sell fuel. I have animals; I farm, and as long as I can put food on my table, I am not complaining.
You were Museveni’s personal doctor, trusted minister and friend. What do you think of him?
In many ways, I pity him because he invested heavily in trying to cause change in Uganda and made major sacrifices. I think God was on his side: He succeeded in getting the opportunity to implement what could have been the greatest kind of agenda for our people that we had – transformation.
Having invested himself that way, having made sacrifices, I feel pity for him, as he is going to bow out as a pariah — as someone who has become a huge problem for our country.
It is not a legacy that is commensurate with the kind of investment that he made and the struggle that he waged for change in our country. But that is his choice – he has chosen short-term rewards: self-aggrandisement, self-enrichment, self-promotion and so on. He has chosen not to leave any positive legacy, which is a shame.
Are your differences with Museveni personal?
If they were, they would be much simpler to deal with because they would be involving only me and him, not the whole country. This is a question that has been mainly asked because of the misinformation that my wife was a friend of Museveni and that our falling-out may have something to do with that. It is quite far from the reality. First of all, when I fell out with Museveni around 1989, there was no relationship between me and Winnie [Byanyima], whom they claim could have been a source of misunderstanding.
Second, I am not the only one who has challenged Museveni. His childhood friend, Eriya Kategaya, stood up in 2003 and said enough is enough.
Just recently, his prime minister Amama Mbabazi, challenged him publicly. Our party president Maj-Gen Mugisha Muntu, who was his army commander for nine years, has challenged him publicly.
The constant theme has been how he responds to these challenges. He has not responded to them any differently from how he has responded to me. What may be different is how they have taken the assault that came their way. The aggression with which he has attacked anybody who has come up to oppose him has been exactly the same.
What is the trouble with Uganda?
It is the same trouble with most of Africa. It is the trouble of having very narrow control on power. It was most profoundly brought about by the colonial takeover of our countries —the artificial creation of these countries, which were formed from many nations being forced together, and collectively losing our rights as citizens.
When the colonial powers left, it was not a change of systems, it was a change of the managers. The struggle remains the same, to regain control of our countries, and once the control has been regained, to transform them into democratic entities through the building of relevant institutions so that we move from personal rule to institutional rule.
Is there a window for dialogue with Museveni?
Yes, part of our engagement with the international community is to attract them to encourage that kind of a process and participate in it. Part of the problem of having a dictator for 30 years is that domestic institutions and even leaders of opinion within the country become so weakened and compromised that you cannot rely on them to mediate between the dictator and others.
We need some international engagement in the process of that kind of dialogue. It is a dialogue we are anxious to have. It can lessen the suffering of the country; it can reduce the cost of the transition. Since Independence, no leader has handed over power peacefully, so every change of leadership has been violent and destructive…
This is what we were keen to avoid in the next change. We are keen on dialogue, but it must be structured, where we have a proper mediator who is respected by everyone in the process; where we have some guarantees that what comes out of that dialogue will be respected. We are keen on dialogue, but it must be structured. It is the elements that make it structured.
In February, you appealed to the international community to support democracy in Uganda. How did that go?
The primary role and drivers of liberating our countries will have to be ourselves, the people of Uganda. It is not something that can be changed from outside. It will be changed from the inside but it will become that much easier if the international community with which we are integrated helped us to stand with the people of Uganda in bringing pressure to bear on the regime to undertake dialogue that can lead us to a transition.
Part of the reason dictators are willing to go down with their countries is because of the fear of retribution, the fear of the crimes they have undertaken, the fear of the loss of the great wealth that they have robbed from citizens. We feel that if there was some kind of an international mediation, it is possible to allay those fears and provide some sort of guarantors for dictators to step aside and for countries to continue in their transformation and development without dictators being the focus of retribution and revenge.
As part of the transitional process, there ought to be a process of truth, accountability and, more importantly, reconciliation.
How did they respond?
The international community is interested in what is going on, because it is not just a question of Uganda. It is the whole region’s problem. If one could find a mechanism for successful transition in any of these countries, it would be a good template that could apply across the board. I think the international community has woken up to the fact that protecting dictators does not help them in the long run.
There is sympathy for what we are doing. I cannot speak for them as to what they will be willing to do, but as the domestic struggle intensifies, they will come in with positive engagements.
The election of Donald Trump as president of the United States represents a growing shift to the right… What does it mean for Africans?
I think the challenges we have in Africa will be primarily be resolved by ourselves. In fact, I am glad that even the capacity of the West to provide funding and patronage has the greatly reduced because of their own problems. That will give us the awakening that we must stand up for ourselves and face our challenges squarely.
Trump or Clinton, I would not be that excited. We have just had Barack Obama for eight years and our situation has not changed. We should not be overly concerned about who is running these countries outside. The outcome of the struggles by the people in the US and wherever give us more leverage because previously the focus has been on how to take our resources for use in their development processes.
As they go through their internal reorganisation, this is the right time that for Africa to seize the opportunity to launch its own era of development without that much interference, as there has been in the past.
You came to Durban to give a keynote address to judges, lawyers and policy experts from Africa. What was your message?
As legal experts, they can make a great contribution to raise public awareness; advocate and defend legal frameworks, support the building of institutions that can engender a transition to a democratic dispensation. This includes the independence of the judiciary and other arms of government and to also consider supporting citizens by rendering pro bono services and public interest litigation.
It was a great opportunity to relate to the legal professionals but also to members of an institution whose mission is to advocate and work for good governance, democracy and the rule of law, which are tenets on which the sustainable development of our country will depend.