Can’t walk, drive or fly? So why is Besigye’s star rising?

Sunday May 08 2011

Ugandan opposition leader Kizza Besigye arrives at Nairobi Hospital on a stretcher on April 29, 2011 night after he was injured in demonstrations in Kampala the previous day. Photo/STEPHEN MUDIARI

The battle between Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni and his archrival Kizza Besigye turned nasty on Thursday, April 28.

As has now been widely reported — indeed, the video has gone viral — the police used guns to smash the windows of Besigye’s car.

Then they sprayed teargas and pepper into his face, dragged him out and forcibly stuffed him into the back of a police pick-up truck, under a narrow metal bench.

Dr Besigye was subsequently flown to Nairobi where he was admitted to Nairobi Hospital for treatment. At the time of writing, he was still there.

There are some immediate questions the brutal police action raised.

For example, what crime had Besigye committed? He was driving to the bank to withdraw money.


Yes, Besigye had spent the previous two weeks trying to walk to work and being stopped by the police, who insisted he should drive.

He had spent Easter weekend in jail for walking and was released on bail on Wednesday.

Although he had promised to walk to work again on Thursday, he actually decided to drive to the bank.

Along the route, he stood up in the open roof of his car to greet his supporters. That is when the police and the military noticed and intervened — again. 

On Friday evening, Besigye made his way to Entebbe airport, from where he intended to fly to Nairobi for medical treatment.

He was still blinded by the pepper spray of Thursday.

At Entebbe, he was at first refused permission to board the plane, before Western diplomats pressured the government and he was allowed to fly out. 

This has spawned jokes in Kampala about how, since Besigye is apparently no longer allowed to walk or drive or fly, his best bet is to get a boat and sail.

The pictures and videos of Besigye’s Thursday ordeal went viral on the Internet as websites, microsites, blogs, microblogs, and Facebook and Twitter posts.

By 1pm Kampala time, the Besigye beating was among Yahoo’s top 10 global stories.

As Ugandans stood or sat glued to the TV watching the playing and replaying of these images, one got the sense that the country was under the rule of Idi Amin, not Yoweri Museveni.

The next day most of Kampala rose up in protest; and the government responded with the full force of the military and the police.

Nothing has yet united Ugandans across the political divide more than this single incident. People were asking: What is going on?

Political analysts have been trying to work out the underlying logic and rationale of Museveni’s sudden decision to embrace measures reminiscent of the very darkest years of Uganda’s history.

Yet logic and rationality do not explain the Uganda government’s current behaviour.

History shows that irrational and personal reasons can often drive political decision-making and therefore shape the destiny of nations.

In Museveni’s case, the explanation for his resort to violence may be found in his ego, not his political calculations.

It seems the person of Besigye, for both personal and political reasons, evokes the worst instincts in Museveni.

Quick to reprimand

Many people who have worked with him closely — in the army and State House — say the president is usually quick to reprimand those of his lieutenants who indulge in acts of torture and brutality against political opponents — or at least he tries to.

It is only when it comes to Besigye, State House insiders say, that they have seen Museveni actively encourage or passively condone gross abuses inflicted by the police.

Government handling of Besigye’s call for a Walk to Work campaign has been riddled with incompetence and lack of foresight from the start.

For example, it has left Besigye free to try to walk (and this time drive) to work.

It only intervenes when he has made his journey into a public area where he excites crowds of his supporters.

Each time it does this, the situation degenerates into a riot, sparking off more riots across Kampala and the country.

If the government does not want Besigye to go anywhere, why not place him under house arrest or keep him in jail — even if this means violating the law and the Constitution?

Besigye creates more constitutional and legal trouble for the government every time he leaves his house — he has been arrested four times for simply walking or driving — a crime that does not exist under Ugandan law.

Keeping him under house arrest, or in jail without charge, is bad, but certainly better than arresting him for walking or driving or flying.

In taking these strange actions, it seems Museveni is either overestimating his own capacity or that of Ugandans.

Or possibly, Museveni has not recognised the attitudinal change driven by the structural transformation he has himself fostered in Uganda.

Uganda’s economic growth over the past 25 years of his leadership has produced a large and educated middle class; and masses of less educated youth have flocked to towns to gain access to the benefits of economic growth.

These youths, unemployed and perhaps unemployable, are the militants in Besigye’s ranks. They have the numbers, the time and everything to gain from rioting.

Secondly, Museveni’s campaign to “demystify” the gun and his efforts to bring the army under control have been extremely successful.

This has transformed the way people view violence; they are angered by it and are not afraid to confront the army and the police even when they are armed with tanks.

Whenever Museveni employs violence, he demoralises his supporters while energising his opponents.

Across the political spectrum, Ugandans of all political persuasions — in the army and the police, in the Cabinet and the opposition, in political parties — everywhere are united in opposition to the way the Besigye issue is being handled.

Ironically, Museveni has inadvertently united Ugandans against an evil he once fought against — state-orchestrated violence — and to which he seems to be retreating in the evening of his presidency.

Drafted to down the riots

Museveni’s personal and family image may suffer significant damage because on Friday, his son, Lt-Col Muhozi Keinerugaba, also commander of the Special Forces, was drafted in to put down the riots in Kampala.

For many, it seemed the regime has run out of loyal officers to keep its hold on power, hence the need to rely on family and kin.

Muhoozi is a nice guy with good manners and an intellectual disposition.

The last thing Museveni needs is to place his family at the centre of this fight; and to soil Muhoozi’s character and reputation by associating him with such brutality.

Where will all this lead? Museveni is ignoring the lessons of history. Big social changes do not begin big.

A small event seemingly isolated has the potential to grow into a political tsunami.

It is not what Besigye is doing that is actually building the political momentum of resistance in Uganda.

Instead, it is the particular way a faction inside the government has decided to react that is driving a political transformation.

For the first time, Museveni is involved in a big political fight without a vision of how it will end.

For example, what is he trying to achieve through the violence?

Does he think the attacks against Besigye will force the opposition leader to suspend his campaign?

Anyone who knows Besigye will tell you he is not the kind of person to be scared by such tactics.

Besigye is one of the most resilient and determined politicians in present-day Uganda.

Given that Besigye will not retreat, what are Museveni’s options?

Keep arresting him every week — to what end?

After his humiliating defeat at the presidential polls in February, Besigye has little to lose and everything to gain from political protest.

On the other hand, Museveni has everything to lose and little to gain from beating up Besigye.

The president conducted a clean campaign — using money, the social media, campaign posters, automated telephone calls and television and radio ads — and came across as a civilised leader.

Where he had previously beaten, maimed and on occasion killed to win, this time the worst he did was pay cash for votes.

Every day Besigye walks to work or tries to and is arrested, he wins public sympathy and gains national and international attention for his cause.

On the other hand, every time police brutalise him, Museveni soils his reputation and his electoral victory seems a fraud.

After the election, Besigye tried to convince a disinterested donor community and the Ugandan public that he had been robbed.

Only his fanatical supporters shared his view. Now, claims that Museveni stole the vote are gaining currency.

Besigye, who was in retreat, is now on the offensive; Museveni, who was on a roll, is now on the defensive; Besigye has the initiative, Museveni is only reacting to him. Things have changed quickly.

Uganda is now on a highway with four major exits: One exit leads to Saudi Arabia; the current scuffles may be quelled by a combination of force and financial bribery. It is Museveni’s best scenario.

The second exit leads to Bahrain and Yemen — a protracted struggle between government and protesters that enters a stalemate with an uncertain future.

The third to Tunisia and Egypt, where the regime collapses with some pressure from international creditors. Museveni would not like that.

Finally, and God forbid, the fourth exit... to Libya, where peaceful protests turn into armed rebellion, violent and bloody.

All these scenarios are possible.

Andrew M. Mwenda is the managing director and publisher of The Independent, a weekly current affairs newspaper in Uganda