The Independent (Kampala)

Uganda: The Museveni-Besigye Debate

I have been following with keen interest the debate in the press between President Yoweri Museveni and opposition leader and activist, Dr. Kizza Besigye. From the standpoint of a democratic society, their media interviews and articles are a sign of healthy debate.

In many ways therefore, Ugandans should be proud that the President and the most potent symbol of opposition to his government are engaged in a debate.

From a tactical point of view, I felt Besigye was able to secure a major victory. He has demonstrated Museveni's inability to live and act within the law especially in the army and in his relations with parliament. Besigye's devotes a lot of time on how first son, Brig. Muhoozi Keinerugaba was recruited into the army without following established procedures; Museveni's choice of fashion reflected in his persistent use of a military uniform in spite of having retired from the army; how Gen. Aronda Nyakairima, the Chief of Defense Forces (CDF) salutes generals Salim Saleh and Elly Tumwine etc.

From a strategic point of view, however, Museveni must be celebrating. He has successfully kept Besigye engaged on minor issues that are of interest only to a small fanatical fringe of his critics. It is very possible that the vast majority of Ugandans find the issues Besigye is raising either minor or even irrelevant to their daily challenges. Almost every opinion poll on the attitudes of Ugandans towards government has shown that issues of vital concern to the electorate revolve around security, the economy (jobs, incomes, and poverty) and public service delivery.

But I know that Besigye takes little interest in opinion polls, a factor that has limited his ability to craft a message that resonates with voters. Instead, he wrongly assumes that the issues on which he disagrees with Museveni are shared by the vast majority of the voting public. This has been a major hindrance in his ability to appeal to a growing number of citizens increasingly disappointed with Museveni's government.

Indeed, I suspect Museveni is keeping this debate alive but focused on his fashion preferences and who should salute who in UPDF to divert public attention from more fundamental issues that have beleaguered his presidency lately; like the increasing cost of living, poor agricultural policy, poor service delivery, rampant corruption, declining rate of economic growth and slow or stagnant rate of job creation.

In many ways therefore, Besigye is the opposition leader that Museveni prefers. For then, they are able to engage in a debate on issues detached from the reality of most Ugandans. I could feel the glee in Museveni's responses - a sense of comfort regarding the issues under discussion. Assuming Besigye had challenged the president to explain why, if parliament is that subversive, it was possible for him to pass the amendment of the constitution to remove term limits on the presidency. This was perhaps the most difficult thing to ever be attempted by the president through a "recalcitrant and subversive" parliament. Why did he fail to do the same for Bujagali?

It is true Uganda's parliament's populism borders on being subversive to the national interest. But that does not make its subversion insurmountable whenever Museveni has needed his way. Rather, term limits affected his desire to retain power (and therefore a pecuniary interest) while Bujagali threatened Ugandans with darkness. I am willing to stand with Museveni against parliament and others who are blocking Karuma or the Entebbe expressway because of the productivity gains our country will get if these projects take off.

But why is our president not wearing his battle fatigues to push these vital national interests through a recalcitrant parliament like he did with term limits? I don't care if Museveni wears an army uniform, a kanzu or Kaunda suit if he is able to push through large investment projects that will resolve transportation and energy bottlenecks our country is facing hence creation of jobs and increased productivity of our economy.

We need to engage the President on alternative policies for the country that would create jobs, increase and quicken trade, accelerate economic growth and deliver public goods like dams, roads, hospitals and schools; and public services like better health and education services. Agriculture, the sector on which 68 percent of Ugandans depend for a livelihood, has been growing at an annual rate of 1.9 percent for twenty years while population growth is 3.3 percent. This means that our country has negative per capita growth in food production. What is the president's solution to this?

Yet Besigye constantly harps at Muhoozi and how he joined the army - as if Besigye himself used proper procedures to do so. The NRM broke the law to wage war against an elected government, looted cooperative stores to feed its troops, robbed banks to raise money and killed to capture power. How and why Besigye, who was part of such an enterprise, comes to believe that such a movement would be sanitised by power is always beyond me. We are reaping what was sowed in Luwero - impunity.

Back to Muhoozi: he is a very lucky man. His greatest promoters are his most virulent critics. Perhaps Museveni, like most human beings, would prefer his son to become president one day. I would also love my son to be president and if I had an opportunity to position him for such a job, I would try my best. The best way to promote a Muhoozi candidacy is to make him an issue. Repeated debates about Muhoozi's presidential ambitions are good for his brand - for it registers in people's minds that he is a contender for the job. Any silence on him is detrimental to this interest.

From this perspective, Besigye is to Muhoozi what Museveni was to him. From November 1999 when Besigye wrote his stinging criticism of NRM up to October 2000 when he declared his presidential bid, Museveni pursued Besigye with relentless zeal. Every day Besigye's name was in the press with the President seeking to have him prosecuted. Inadvertently, Museveni was building the profile of Besigye as his most potent challenger, a profile Besigye used to launch his presidential bid. Besigye's relentless efforts to make Muhoozi an issue will help Muhoozi's profile - and effectively launch the first son's presidential ambitions; if he wishes to run.

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