The struggle in Uganda is not about leaders but giving control to citizens

Saturday July 21 2018

Uganda opposition leader Dr Kizza Besigye

Uganda opposition leader Dr Kizza Besigye speaks during the launch of John Onyandos book "Kenya, The failed Quest for electoral Justice" at Intercontinental Hotel on July 16, 2018. PHOTO | MARTIN MUKANGU | NMG 

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The Ugandan opposition leader was in Nairobi for the launch of a book on Kenya's 2017 elections. He spoke with Victor Kiprop about democracy and governance in Uganda.


Two decades on, and four electoral losses, is the struggle dying?

Absolutely not. Change within a political process is often invisible until there is a watershed.

Some of the changes taking place in Uganda’s political process are mental, and that has been the most critical part of the struggle.

A significant mass of people in Uganda have realised that the source of their problems is not just President Yoweri Museveni but the system over which he presides.

The ruling National Resistance Movement had a clean sweep in the recent grassroots elections. Is the Forum for Democratic Change, the main opposition party in Uganda, losing ground?

I think the question here is the role of elections in such a system. The ruling National Resistance Movement could have won even 100 per cent and it would still mean nothing.

The elections were conducted using the queue system, where the voters register used was compiled by the regime and the polling ended up in chaos, because the actual residents were not on the register.

So, the question is whether you can use such elections to gauge the strength or popularity of the regime.

Elections in Uganda are meaningless, because they’re not a reflection of what the people think or believe.

In fact, most people don’t find it worth participating in them, and this doesn’t mean they’re not prepared to fight, as you saw in the turnout during the recent women’s march against violence.

Will you be running for the presidency in 2021?

The struggle in Uganda is not about electing a leader, but regaining control of the country: About citizens regaining influence in their country. That doesn’t have to happen in an election.

In fact, I consider that it is right to regain control of our country well before the next elections – by people standing up and telling the president 'you must now go home.'

However Museveni leaves office, whether through an election or an insurrection, there will have to be a transition period.

Are you calling for an insurrection?

Well, definitely. It’s a resistance struggle and it doesn’t have to mature in an election. It could happen within or without an election, once you have people saying enough is enough.

Once you have those people organised to say so in one voice, then it happens. We are getting there, and the regime is aware.

How do you plan to get there?

Our focus is on three areas. The first is to change the minds of the people to realise that the way to get power is not through voting but to make those who have it realise that they cannot go on.

The second is to organise that type of struggle, have visible and invisible structures, know who will rally people and have all those who want change on one side because it’s not a one man or party struggle.

The third is action – non-violent actions that we must take to break the sources of power for the regime.

The best example is the boycott of products and services from certain companies as was done last year by the opposition in Kenya.

There are older leaders with whom you parted ways, and an emerging crop of young leaders like Robert Kyagulanyi. Have you considered partnering with them on the struggle?

Our objective is to have those who want change, regardless of their positions in different political formations, to rally to achieve that struggle. But we have to be clear: It’s not an alliance of leaders but of the people.

Zimbabwe’s former president Robert Mugabe left after 40 years at the helm; Gambia’s Yahay Jammeh also left after 22 years. Were their exits an inspiration to you?

A change of leadership is not necessarily a change of a system. I don’t consider what happened in Zimbabwe a change, because it has not empowered the people who did not have power. Zimbabawe's a reconfiguration from within a system of captors.

You’re very critical of President Museveni, a man you fought alongside in the rebel war decades ago. Do you recognise the Museveni of today from the one of the 1980s?

Not at all. He’s totally turned around and against every objective that brought us together under the NRA.

He pointed this out in his book that the problem of Africa was leaders overstaying in power. But I’m not saying he changed, maybe that’s most likely who he always was.

Power doesn’t change people; it reveals who they really are.

If you were to be president today, what changes would you make in Uganda?

The post-Museveni leader must undertake structural changes that can entrench a democratic culture, and that would mean revisiting the Constitution to reflect the people’s wishes on how they want to be governed.

Second, the institutions need to be rebuilt to reflect the new reality, where power is with the people, and the law must become responsive to the people.

Third, we need national reconciliation. We have to revisit what has happened in our country, including the grave violations, and have a process of truth, justice and reconciliation.

We will also prepare for the first free and fair elections in Uganda, because if I were to become president, it wouldn’t be through free and fair elections.

Transformation would then begin in earnest, with socio-economic reforms that focus resources of the country on the people, not on regime survival.

What’s your opinion on the directive to offer protection to Ugandan members of parliament using the military?

This idea is a manifestation of a regime under siege. You cannot be touring your constituency in an armoured vehicle and call yourself a representative of the people.

The new taxes that they have imposed to sustain that kind of decadent system may be the last straw that breaks the camel’s back.