10 February 2013

Uganda: Basalirwa Believes in Defiance, Civic Action

At the peak of the Walk-to-work protests, Asuman Basalirwa would sometimes punch the air with clenched fists, targeting an imaginary foe in a show of his defiance.

Old habits indeed die hard, for the Justice Forum (Jeema) president has, since childhood, always faced the authorities with confidence or defiance when he has found their stand unacceptable. While at Mwiri Junior School, Basalirwa refused to join the school choir because he felt it was compromising his Islamic faith.

"One time I was forcefully conscripted into a choir, I protested and was suspended. My father was bitter with me," recalls Basalirwa.

Now 36 years old, Basalirwa has grown older and wiser, but he remains a hard nut to crack. Having been guild president at Makerere University, it was hardly surprising that Basalirwa rose to the apex of the Justice Forum so fast, becoming the youngest party president in country. He joins other party leaders like UPC's Olara Otunnu and DP's Norbert Mao, for whom the Makerere guild leadership provided a stepping stone to the national stage.

Prof. Anyang Nyong'o, the secretary general of Kenya's ODM, is another former guild president running a major political party in the region. Born in a polygamous family of 22, Basalirwa was raised in a politically-conscious family. His mother today serves as LC-1 chairperson at his birthplace in Bugiri district.

"Our parents inculcated the spirit of community service; I look at politics as a service," Basalirwa says.

At Kira College Butiki where he did secondary school, Basalirwa served as head-prefect. The appointment was like an apprentice to the future leadership roles he would take on. But the real test of his leadership credentials came at Makerere University.

"I planned to stand for the guild presidency when I was still in secondary school. I had developed a network earlier on, which backed me in my victory," he recalls.

But as the campaigns got underway, Basalirwa did not have the financial war-chest that some of his rivals had.

"I did not have money but had a network and the networks cut across. I even penetrated staff, like the late Prof [Adonia] Tiberondawa, Dr Tanga Odoi, Prof [Foster] Byarugaba, [Charles] Mayega and [Oweyagah] Afuna Adula."

Basalirwa says some of these staff members were his friends and they played a part in his victory by campaigning for him during lecturers. Although it appeared he would win, Basalirwa, who was standing on the DP platform, was confronted with another challenge. A DP-supporting student refused to bow out of the race. This division was a reflection of the fissures that were manifesting in Uganda's oldest party at the time.

The party, then led by Paul Ssemogerere, was faced with factionalism as Anthony Ssekweyama and Francis Bwengye, among others, pulled in different directions.

"When I sought for support through the mainstream DP, we were divided. The Medard [Ssegona] group supported Kabuga while Jude Mbabaali supported me. These were not ideological but parochial shenanigans," recalls Basalirwa.

Jaded by the conflicts within DP, Basalirwa reluctantly spoke to two Jeema leaders, Kibirige Mayanja and Hussein Kyanjo. At the end of the meeting, he announced his defection to Jeema. The election results appeared to endorse his decision, as he won convincingly. Today, Basalirwa looks back at the hey-days of the Uganda Young Democrats as a lost opportunity.

"UYD was the most influential group then but we had ideological issues and that is why the majority have ended up in NRM because we lost an opportunity to build a concrete and vibrant group," he says.

"Those who have not joined the Movement are quietly working with the NRM," he added in a hair-raising allegation.

As party president, Basalirwa does not tire speaking out against the excesses of the regime, but fears that public apathy and lack of faith amongst the youth, the elite and women, are working in favour of the NRM.

"Ugandans are generally pessimistic people. They think that political success is impossible. They look at Museveni as a fundamental factor that is impossible to dislodge," he laments.

Basalirwa adds that some in the opposition have a similar mindset - that power lies in money and guns - which is difficult to change.

He also believes that opposition parties need to stress the importance of ideology to their members.

"People often ask why I joined Jeema, yet I could have joined another mainstream party to make it easier for me to become an MP!"

He says Jeema is not about money, noting that personal cults exist in Uganda's politics because parties are not ideologically entrenched. Basalirwa also blames the restrictive legal and political environment for NRM's dominance of political life in Uganda.

"It's absolutely difficult. But the question is, should we continue lamenting? It's up to us to challenge this," he argues.

To challenge the status quo, Basalirwa advocates open defiance and civic activities.

"That is why we have refused to report to the police when summoned because the laws are illegal. We need to challenge the environment in the courts of law and through civic consciousness, like Walk-to-work protests," he says.

The Jeema leader, one of the promoters of the Inter-Party Co-operation (IPC), an opposition coalition in the 2011 elections, further points out that without working together, it will be a Herculean task to dislodge Museveni. He blames "inflated ego" among some of the opposition leaders for the failure to unite.

He also cites what he calls the "big party syndrome", and dishonesty amongst the leaders.

"Some of our colleagues still have historical nostalgia...We have also had a problem of dishonesty, for example the IPC framework was structured by DP but on the day of the signing they did not appear, is that honesty?"

Basalirwa also recalls that Otunnu's UPC had suggested a boycott of the elections only to surprise everyone by participating. He, however, acknowledges that there are now new efforts at joining hands.

"You have 'Chairman' Mao saying we need to work together, the other day Ambassador Otunnu said he is ready to talk to Museveni," notes Basalirwa.

The Justice Forum supremo looks up to former FDC president, Dr Kizza Besigye, Makindye West MP, Hussein Kyanjo, and Nelson Mandela - as his role models.

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