Daily Monitor’s Ivan Okuda talks to four time presidential candidate Dr Kizza Besigye.
What is your reading of the situation in the country?
Well the situation in the country has been one of anxiety. Not because of what is going on in Parliament but the difficulty in survival of most of the people in the country. I really don't know if NRM leaders are still in touch with the population to know the effect of the massive unemployment, deprivation and poverty across the country. Last week I moved around various areas which had bye-elections and literally the entire country is now turned into beggars. People standing on the roadside with stretched hands, begging for Shs500. So people's primary anxiety is lack of survival and now they relate this with lack of hope for change and what has caused it because very clearly this lack of survival is associated with the regime that's been in power for more than 32 years.
How do you reconcile that dire situation and NRM sweeping by-elections across the country? Voters have confidence in the system to say has failed them!
That is absolute nonsense because we are talking about a captive state. These people are in total captivity, elections have nothing to do with freedom and fairness at all. In fact what is now increasingly the case, credible people aren't willing to offer themselves to a sham election so actually that is why the turn up is very low.
Someone would argue, in the same election atmosphere you describe thus, FDC once in a blue moon wins and recently Bobi Wine won another by-election massively.
No! If it is an urban or peri-urban setting there is a difference. You have greater capacity of people who are emboldened by having greater information, media presence and exposure that deters them from doing what they do in rural areas. So they live close to each other and that gives them more courage hence are able to withstand the intimidation and rigging machinery than in rural areas. If you witness what goes on at the tally centres you would may be have an inkling of what type of elections they are. In fact if they want they can have 100 per cent victory as they control the entire system save urban areas .In Bunyangabo where I was last, the candidate distributed Shs100,000 per zone (an area within a polling station). It was formal. They even went to radio and announced, telling people to assemble and receive the money so it is more or less formal and once they do so, they intimidate them. So as long as there is free and fair election it is worthless talking about a win.
Doesn't this spell doom for the struggle you champion considering that with even a hike in urbanisation, majority of our population is in rural areas which, as you say, are susceptible to the vagaries of tyranny.
What I have said which is verifiable, is that the discontent is universal. Go as deep as you can and see the kind of reception we get when we go there. It is not correct that the support we have is urban areas, these are more emboldened and people are closer so they can act. We have more media here. The discontent is worse in rural areas because they are more neglected. The poverty is deeper in the rural areas. So what we require in this struggle is not the competence to protect a vote that you have in the election. We need people who are ready to support change and understand why they should support change. That is why we participate in these elections; to communicate and give people information, get them to understand that they have to struggle for the change that will end the conditions there are in.
Does this message actually resonate with the people you are talking about?
Absolutely! It is demonstrable. In the last election in an unprecedented way, you must have seen throughout the country, people turn up not to just show support but give money and food in support; they were not there to just clap but brought material support. These are people being bribed; they get from there (NRM) and bring to our side (opposition). This demonstrates they are not only aware of the problem but are aware they have to do something. Previously they would just say, "go ahead, don't get tired, we are with you." Now they are participating more actively.
From the French Revolution to the most recent revolutionary changes in the world the elite have created a pivotal role. Karl Max called peasants a sack of potatoes incapable of appreciating their role in changing their own situation. So you need the elite, do you have them?
What you need is not a mass of the elite but a mass of the population and just a small but critical mass of the elite.
Do we have that in Uganda?
Yes, absolutely. There is a danger of characterizing the elite as those with neck ties in law firms, banks, some kind of affluent business or profession. No. We have elite in the unemployed, lowly living people but who are actually educated and very conscious, have information they need to give others leadership and that is what we are focusing on. Unfortunately most of the people who have means today are inward looking, focusing on how not to endanger their means because if they are identified with the pro-democracy struggle the dictator can attack their means and this is not limited to this country. Where large sections of the elite act selfishly in protecting their narrow interests and not supporting the democratic struggle is not unique and doesn't worry us. We have a critical mass of the elite who have competences and identify fully with the struggle and a small section of those with means are ready to take risks for change.
With the exception of the transition from colonialism to indigenous rulers, all change of government in Uganda has had the military at the centre. From where you sit, is it a past that we can say is long gone? And if the military will play another role, to what extent on a scale of 10?
Well hard to say. In fact because all political changes have been mediated apart from as you said, the activism for independence, also because Mr Museveni has been drumming up the message that he can only be removed by those who use the same means, he says he killed his animal, went through the furnace, that message plus the history, has been pointing our people to the use of violence to change. Our duty has been to disabuse them of the benefits that accrue from such a change because whereas we used violence to remove the military regime in 1986, the change has demonstrated that use of violence undermines democratic change because by the time the war is won the civic institutions right from the family, cultural, religious and other non-state institutions are crushed and there are no checks and balances that can now compel victors to hand over to the power to the people. Armed struggle recreates dictatorship. That is why we have advocated and part of our mission has been to persuade people that we need to change the system of governance through non-violent struggle.
Is there a chance in hell that that change can, as has happened for all regimes since 1962, come from or be influenced from an internal military faultiness?
That can happen. Of course. There is always a possibility for example now the regime is in collapse. The economy is in collapse and those holding guns on behalf of the regime are not rewarded because, forinstance, for the military, both here and in Somalia their money is stolen by leaders of the military; they create these Wazalendo things, deduct their pay and steal it. The salaries aren't enhanced in constant with the cost of living so people in our security services cannot make ends meet and pay fees for their children or even afford a meal. They have lost hope. This disgruntlement has been and is building and the sad thing is that when the dictatorship becomes insecure it gets more armed people to secure it. The more armed people they get the less they have to give them so there is always internal decay that can engender a takeover by the military. Whereas I wouldn't want to answer your question on the scale of 10, I can say I would absolutely not be surprised if it happened and in fact, there have been attempts at mutiny, if we are to believe what this military junta tells us. So what you are asking about has been attempted, at least from what the dictator and his henchmen tell us. Even if a military coup happened, however, that doesn't mean we shall have ended the dictatorship, the reason it is important to have citizens that are empowered with information to subdue whichever formation of armed people there are so that even if the army overthrew Mr Museveni they would then know they have to subordinate themselves to civilian authority and that is the purpose of non-violent struggle.
Let's come to the raging age limit debate. Can you clarify what your position was in the Constituent Assembly when this issue came up?
Well you see we have a disastrous section of the elite in this country which may be, now that you ask that question, have been running around with quotes of what I said in the CA, part of that pathetic section of our elite who never study what takes place, analyse the same and use it to anticipate what is happening.
[In] the draft Constitution, which came from views expressed to the Benjamin Odoki commission, there was no upper age limit but a lower age limit of 40 and my views were expressed on the basis of that so it should be understood that this was not part of the debate on how we make the transition since we had sealed that.
My view that remains, was that imposing an age limit of 40 was not necessary, at that time in any case, life expectancy was 42 in Uganda. I didn't think it was necessary because age and education and other matters should be resolved by the voters as campaign issues. So the age limit hasn't assumed the importance it has because of the reasons for or against having the age limit. No. It has assumed that importance because all the safeguards that had been put to engender the very transition in our country from military rule to a democratic dispensation have been knocked down, so this has assumed importance because it is the only one that can force a change of leadership. Not a democratic transition but at least a change of leadership and that is why it is specifically related to Mr Museveni.
How did the 75-year age limit come about if it wasn't part of the draft constitutional framework?
Through an amendment I recall well by Lieutenant Noble Mayombo who introduced it then there was debate. Mayombo was Mr Museveni's hatchet man so there was suspicious that he was being used by him to introduce this amendment to lock out former President Milton Obote. A number of other amendments Mr Museveni wanted to sneak in came through Mayombo including article 269 that effectively banned political parties.
What was your view then on this Mayombo-Museveni proposal for the 75-year bar?
I didn't debate it if I recall. I debated what was in the draft (40 years). We had moved an amendment to remove the 40 years with some people and that is what I was debating.
I have talked to some people who were in the CA that insist you actually didn't find the 75-year age bar necessary so your opposition wasn't restricted to 40 years.
They can say anything. I have told you my position. My position is that I didn't support the age limit that was proposed of 40 but even for argument sake even if I opposed the upper cap of 75, the reason for my opposition of the lower age limit wouldn't be different from those I used to oppose the upper one, so you don't need particular research to know my views on the upper age limit. If term limits hadn't been knocked down this debate wouldn't have been there at all. It's only come up because term limits were abolished so now treating it as a debate in isolation is completely dishonest. My view on whether age should be an issue of a constitution or an election matter remains, including the view on education as a requirement for elective office.
So on the one hand the reasons now I very strongly support this are two. First it is our Constitution. When you make a constitution you don't only support what is in the constitution that you subscribe to. When we swear to protect and defend the constitution you don't say I will protect provisions that I personally agree with. So even if this was made a constitutional provision without my support it becomes the Uganda Constitution. A Constitution is a foundation of the nation. You just don't change at whims of a dictator without grave circumstances. Certainly you cannot change it for an individual. There are many provisions I had different views about but I cannot isolate them now. It is our constitution. We must uphold it. Secondly and most importantly, it is the only safeguard we have for a peaceful change of power.
Assume Museveni lost in 2021 and you won, won't we get that transition? Won't the population have asserted itself as the true safeguard for peaceful change?
Then you have not listened to my campaign from 2001, I have been saying if you elect me we shall have to organize a transition. You asked that, "if you won.." Of course and indeed we have defeated Museveni all the time. He has only refused to concede and hand over power. He has overthrown the will of the people and every five years he has been committing treason. So you should ask, if Museveni concedes not if you won the election. So if he concedes we must organize a transition and get a government of national unity.
Someone in their 70s reading this interview might as well yawn, sip their juice and say, oh well, that is what they all say, since 1962, every leader has come promising heaven. What is this new promise sir?
The new promise cannot be from me, this is why we painstakingly go out to rally and awaken the conscience of the population. The transition must be driven by the population.
From 1981 todate, Museveni's outlook to acquiring and retaining power has been violence and maximising the instruments of coercion. You preach non-violent change. Isn't there need to create an equilibrium in this political space?
Oh! Nonviolent actions are very potent in taming those exerting violence. If, for instance, we decided that from tomorrow and we if had organisational competence on ground, we won't bring food to the city or towns, we withhold our food country wide, what would happen? Would the regime deploy soldiers to collect matooke and sell it?
Two words in that sentence, "Organizational competence". Your party president loves those words and your critics say Besigye is a God sent orator, man has the gift of the garb but on organization he is a disaster. Zero! Below average.
Well but is it just a mission by Besigye? If it is doomed to fail? It is a mission by all who are affected by what is going in so if I am a great orator as you say, and my oratory abilities communicate to all of you including you Mr Okuda who is interviewing me, what needs to be done and you understand it, why should it be only me to have the ability to organise and go ahead and organise?
What would creating and enhancing that organizational competence involve?
What we mean by organizational competence is building leadership at different levels of our community, so that you have leadership from grass roots that connects people to bigger elements of the society. That takes identification and training. It doesn't come without equipping them with the necessary information and skills.
How feasible in this in the current circumstances and how much have you done in that regard?
That is what we do all the time.
And all the time you lose these cadres to the NRM...
Some will cross over, some will not but it is not the cadres that are critical. The population is critical. If our message wasn't going through you wouldn't see the changes I described where Mr Museveni goes around paying people and I go around and they instead pay me with their hard earned earnings as a contribution to the struggle to liberate the country from this dictator.
Back to the age limit. What are you doing to thwart Mr Museveni from his life presidency project?
Well first of all as you may have heard we are advising our people to direct their concerns to those whom the dictator has hired. These characters live among our people, their families are known, their children go to schools of the communities and I think people can put sufficient pressure on them to realize that the dictator who has hired them may not be the entire answer to their lives and to that extent they can rethink their nefarious actions of being used by the military junta. The nonviolent struggle stretches beyond parliament. You have seen the action of Makerere University students, who alongside other students, on their own, can actually stop this.
What happens in the most likely case that the constitution is actually amended?
Even if the provision isn't amended that doesn't mean the struggle has ended. Even if Mr Museveni is not on the ballot, that doesn't mean we have made a transition so the struggle to empower citizens to take charge is one that is not limited to this article of the constitution. It (struggle) is one that must go on till the entire transition takes place and even then they remain as active citizens to ensure those they put in leadership work for them.
Some commentators like Andrew Mwenda have argued that rather than expend energy on this constitutional amendment, organize to beat Museveni in 2021 when his rigging machinery will not outsmart the Museveni fatigue in the country
You know I hardly find it attractive to respond to that character called Mwenda. Frankly it is disgusting to see someone in your own eyes turn into the thing he has become because Mwenda was a very reasonable fellow. The process of seeing someone become a turncoat is painful. The struggle we are in is not for selection of leaders, that will only come after a free and fair election. Our is a struggle to change systems from military dictatorship to one where people have power.
Certainly selection of leaders is part of that equation sir!
Whether Museveni is a candidate (in 2021) doesn't matter. We have defeated Museveni hands down, we defeat him all the time. General Sejusa who is more informed than that Mwenda fellow told you and indeed other NRM leaders, I heard Barnabas Tinkasiimire too admit we have always beaten them. Museveni is the easiest to defeat because he has led to the destruction of the country. Everyone knows he is responsible for the massive unemployment, poverty, death of social services, corruption, criminality going on and insecurity of our people. So Museveni is the easiest candidate to defeat and I wouldn't be worried any day about Museveni. It is not just about Museveni. He can go but the military junta can remain although his departure may make the struggle a little easier as he has built this criminal and mafia machinery.
Perhaps his machinery would crumble the day he exits the stage...
Not entirely. Being the father figure he is, he can continue being a dictator while out of office. Gadaffi ceased to be president around 1980 and was just a brother leader of the revolution so Museveni too, still as NRM chairman, a position from which no one will remove him, can continue to do all kinds of things and make himself father of the revolution as Gadaffi. If Museveni doesn't hold official power that allows him masquerade around the world attending conferences, yes that may ease our struggle but not necessarily that his departure means dictatorship has been defeated.
Some say only death can stop Mr Museveni. The West is in bed with him. He firmly controls the military, and all state institutions are run by the click of a finger. Other than what in law we call an act of God, what can stop him?
Idi Amin whom he is following as Uganda's second life president was life president and declared himself so, he wasn't like this one who is struggling to become one. But the reality was different from what Museveni's inspirer on this life presidency believed. I cannot predict the future but reasonably aware of the dynamics as they are, I can confidently say that it will not be possible for him to be life president as his inspirer Amin.
Is this age limit debate, if the momentum can be sustained, a window to negotiate his exit as the Kenyans did with Arap Moi?
That struggle is critical not focusing only on whoever is in power to realize that it is not tenable to hold on, that they can negotiate their exit, that pressure is necessary for that but also after that and the pressure is building. I doubt that Museveni is the type that will realize when it is no longer tenable.
Daily Monitor reported about talks between you and your former boss in the works. What happened to that line?
Well in general we have been very clear that we would welcome a dialogue that especially helps us to conclude the 2016 elections because they were not concluded. I was illegally detained by the junta and we have a judgment of court to show I was in illegal detention, to the extent that provisions of the Constitution on how elections are concluded couldn't have been undertaken. We have evidence I won the election that is why we set up the people's government. So any effort to harmonise our view of 2016 will be extremely welcome.
Does this mean soon we shall have you and Museveni on a roundtable?
Well that is best put to him, on our side we are ready to discuss transition anytime.
NRM people say they have nothing to discuss with an election loser you must wait for the next election.
This is why I say I won't force dialogue; it is up to them. I continue to work on getting them out.
What is the price, if any, if they fail to talk?
The price is a whole range. You have seen how similar dictators have met their fate. The choice is theirs. The biggest cost is not so much the loss of their own lives because their lives are already spent. The biggest loss is the legacy that will forever be a shadow on the country. Don't think Hitler hadn't done anything the Germans didn't like but they will never recall any good he did.
With a handful of opposition and progressive NRM MPs, some of whom are bought by the system, is there a chance they can stop the age limit amendment?
Well you should also understand that this is not an opposition-government divide, that comes from misconception that our political elite purvey. People opposed to this amendment are from all political persuasions outside parliament and even in parliament. I suspect that in parliament Museveni will be surprised what type of opposition he will get on this but this is not so much about parliament which is constituted in a particular way. Museveni started with 20 guns and won because the people were with him. If the junta trusts its support on this issue why doesn't it allow us just one day to express ourselves on the matter?