16 June 2019

Uganda: Can Besigye's Year of Action Deliver Uganda's Revolution?

Dr Kizza Besigye, Uganda's leading Opposition figure, despite the enormous challenges he has faced over the last 18 plus years and the seemingly insurmountable hurdles that lie ahead, vows to continue with his defiance campaign until President Museveni is pushed out of power, preferably before the 2021 elections.

"With the ever increasing corruption which has sucked in President Museveni, the militarisation of the State, the impunity of the police and the army, increasing poverty rates, Ugandans shouldn't wait for 2021 for another rigged election to take back their country," he said at the end of 2018.

Alongside some of his Opposition colleagues, they advanced 2019 as the 'Year of Action'.

The defiance campaign journey

In effect, this Dr Besigye-led campaign of resistance against President Museveni's rule, or what Dr Besigye and his allies would prefer to describe as 'misrule', has been going on since April 2011 when we had the walk-to-work protests shortly after the contested presidential elections of that year.

The protests were reportedly motivated by the high food and fuel prices and rising inflation rates pertaining then.

Those protests were, however, ruthlessly crashed by the security forces, leaving more than 10 people dead, hundreds injured or arrested.

This current phase, the 'defiance campaign', was effectively kick-started alongside the launch of Dr Besigye's presidential bid for the 2016 elections in 2015. Although he had earlier declared that he would not contest again if there were no reforms, following two elections that were believed to have been rigged and/or marred with gross irregularities, Dr Besigye changed his mind and opted to throw his hat into the ring after reportedly being prevailed upon by some colleagues in the Opposition.

However, in response to questions regarding his change of mind, with the same problem of an unlevelled playing field still pertaining, Dr Besigye is quoted to have declared viz: "We are participating to win this election... We shall win the flawed elections. We shall not win it by compliance but by defiance."

He consequently went on to campaign on his defiance message of the need for the people to "take back their power from the few who wield it with the help of guns".

Most Opposition presidential candidates rejected the outcome of the February 18, 2016, poll which gave President Museveni 60 per cent while the runner up, Dr Besigye had 35 per cent. Dr Besigye and his FDC party argued that they had in reality won the elections, with Dr Besigye saying that he had "sufficient empirical and incontrovertible evidence" indicating that he had won the poll with 52 per cent.

They demanded for an independent audit of the election results. With no prospect of that, as President Museveni prepared to be sworn in on May 12, 2016, Dr Besigye, who had been under siege at his home, beat the police cordon on May 11 and ended up at some mysterious place in the city from where he was supposedly sworn in as president-elect. A recording of the alleged ceremony was tactfully released.

The defiance campaign was on. The State proceeded to arrest him and slapped treason charges on him; which charges have remained pending to this day. But, that did not stop many from within the Opposition from addressing him as the 'Peoples' President', while his home at Kasangati in Wakiso District, where he has often been forcefully confined, became their 'State House'.

Other defiance activities continued. Perhaps, most prominent among them was the free-my-vote campaign whose central plank was the weekly prayers at party offices across the country.

They have intermittently continued with their defiance campaign in the face of warnings and threats from government, court orders banning them, arrest and confinement, and a generally heavy handed clampdown by security forces.

Revolutionary option vs Right of Revolution

In essence, what Besigye and company have been engaging in and continue to advocate is a revolution, albeit a nonviolent revolution. A revolution essentially entails a fundamental change in the status quo. On the political front, it is all about overthrowing a regime by a popular movement, in an irregular manner.

It can be violent, by force of arms, such as the NRM/A Bush War and the Libyan uprisings that overthrew Muammar Gadhafi with the help of imperialist forces, or nonviolent, such as the People Power Revolution, aka Yellow Revolution, in the Philippines and the Arab Spring that saw several regimes in the Middle East collapse - Tunisia and Egypt, in particular.

The right of revolution (or right of rebellion), as propagated in political philosophy, is the right or duty of the people of a nation to overthrow a government that acts contrary to their common interests.

Belief in this right has been used throughout history to justify several revolutions or rebellions, including the English Civil War and the French and American revolutions during past centuries. As might be common knowledge around here, the alleged rigging of the 1980 elections by Milton Obote's UPC has always been advanced as the reason as to why some 'bandits' took to the Luwero bushes in 1981 and returned victorious in 1986.

Dr Besigye and his associates, who include Kampala Lord Mayor Erias Lukwago, have always cited Article 1 and 3 of the Constitution of Uganda, among others, to justify their activities, drive and language which effectively call for a non-violent revolution.

Article 1(1) says: "All power belongs to the people who shall exercise their sovereignty in accordance with this Constitution." This clearly implies that the peoples' common interests are supreme to the political leader's wishes, and that the people do not fully or entirely cede their powers to any authority. Other sections of the Constitution provide more clarification and direction. That comes out shortly.

Article 1(4) states that: "The people shall express their will and consent on who shall govern them and how they should be governed, through regular, free and fair elections of their representatives or through referenda."

This section addresses the question of rigging elections, which tantamounts to an affront upon the peoples' common interest, as well as a violation of the Constitution.

On the other hand, Article 3(4)c states that: "All citizens of Uganda shall have a right and duty at all times to defend this Constitution, and in particular, to resist any person or group of persons seeking to overthrow the established constitutional order." Article 3(5) accords immunity from prosecution to anyone who acts in accordance with Article 3(4)c.

I believe this background forms the basis of the defiance campaign or non-violent revolution being championed by Dr Besigye and his associates. Not surprisingly, Dr Besigye, who has been charged with treason but has never been presented to the High Court for trial, keeps on insisting that they should proceed and try him since he admits saying that he won the elections.

Why revolution might not succeed

If we are to go by what we have witnessed thus far, there can only be too little hope for optimism on the part of those who seriously yearn for change. There is a great deal of apathy among Ugandans, from the elites to the masses, in as far as matters to do with their fundamental rights and freedoms are concerned.

Largely because of our scarred history of wars, indiscipline from previous armies and the anarchy and chaos that prevailed shortly before the NRM/A took over, many Ugandans, especially the older generations, tend to fear and harbour strong reservations about anything that may lead or end up in any form of violence. They would rather trade their freedoms for peace. The common saying, especially among ordinary Ugandans has been: "At least, these days we can afford to sleep."

Meanwhile, most of our elites are ensconced in some kind of comfort zone and don't wish to suffer any convenience. A good many hold fairly well paying jobs or can afford to somehow make ends meet through 'initiative'. They, therefore, do not want to rock the boat.

Opposition politicians and their political parties, who are supposed to be spear-heading the change agenda, are too divided, distrust each other, and sometimes spend more time at each other's throats than they spend fighting the incumbent. They don't motivate the masses to follow them. The hand of the State in some of this confusion cannot be ruled out.

On the other hand, we have a government that is clearly so paranoid about anything that seems to threaten its hold onto power, and will spare no means and no weapon from its well-stocked arsenal to mercilessly quash any such attempts.

The extreme ruthlessness with which the walk-to-work protests of 2011 were contained left many Ugandans and, indeed, the entire world dazed. The same applies to the manner in which Opposition politicians with the potential to threaten the regime's hold onto power have been handled.

The hypocrisy and double standards of the West, especially the so-called 'leader of the free world' and 'global policeman', the US, is another factor. They preach and enforce democratic ideals, respect for human rights, the rule of law and good governance very selectively and subjectively. They will seek to enforce them in respect to leaders who are 'stubborn' or independent minded such as the late Gadhafi and Robert Mugabe, the ex-Zimbabwean president, but will either look the other way or make half-hearted, hypocritical noises when it comes to their proxies and puppets. They actually quietly facilitate the latter category.

So, in a case like the one of our man who closely cooperates with them on issues such as Somalia, South Sudan, the so-called war on terror and, possibly, a few other things that we might not know about, and he is not encumbered by any such bothers like laws, parliamentary oversight or accountability to the citizens in whatever he wishes to do , which therefore makes him very convenient for their geo-strategic interests, you cannot expect much from across the Atlantic no matter how much cruelty and savagery you are subjected to here.

Uganda: A lost cause?

The non-violent revolutionary drive in Uganda, minus considering its merits, suffers from what I may call 'Besigyeism'. It was initiated by him and has largely been sustained by him. His foes have always used this to make it look like Dr Besigye is just a bitter man who has personal scores that he is all out to settle with his nemesis - President Museveni.

They have depicted him as a very bitter and angry man; a matter, perhaps, not helped by his natural demeanour and manner of talking. Some have even gone to the extent of arguing that he is just an attention seeker; that his defiance campaigns are nothing more than a ploy to remain relevant.

But then, as many Ugandans are likely to agree, there may possibly be no other Ugandan well suited to such a daunting and unenviable task of keeping the Sabalwanyi's government on its toes. Besigye has absorbed all the battering he has been subjected to, endured all the mud that he has been rolled through, remained standing and remained true to his cause.

Role

For those that desire change and those that wish to see the regime kept on its toes, especially in a situation where Parliament has been turned into some kind of walking stick for the chief executive, like him or hate him, this man has a valuable role to play.

However, when it comes to him, the 'hammer', removing the bicycle 'cotter pin', if I may employ his own metaphor from the 2001 campaigns, I, for one, would never wish to take his place even for a second.

Whoever has followed the Sabalwanyi's political-military career may appreciate this. There is hardly anything he will rule out when it comes to swiftly and decisively dealing with anything that threatens the stability of his deeply entrenched cotter pin.

In an interview with journalist Andrew Mwenda in exile in Zambia in 2005, former Ugandan president Milton Obote (RIP) observed thus: "People like Mugisha Muntu, Kizza Besigye and Eriya Kategaya are going to find out, or have already found out, especially Besigye, how far Museveni is willing to go to hold and retain power. He will employ any level of violence, commit any amount of atrocities to block a democratic process that may get him out of power." [The Monitor, April 4, 2005].

Well, that was 2005. The late Eriya Kategaya did not remain in Opposition long enough to find out. Gen Mugisha Muntu has steered clear of any form of confrontation with the State; preferring to concentrate on quietly building party structures.

When it comes to what Dr Besigye has endured since then, that is a well-documented story. So, let everyone judge for themselves whether the old man from Akokoro was merely talking like a bitter and jealous co-wife.

But then, the Sabalwanyi himself derided those Arab generals who were sent packing by ordinary people, saying they did not spend 13 years fighting like he did.

Nevertheless, taking lessons from the other successful non-violent revolutions, they did not occur with prior deliberate planning. Most of them were near instantaneous, triggered by a particular incident that caused the underlying tensions and frustrations to boil over. The difference was with the Philippines where it was drawn out. But even then, it was precipitated by the Aquino assassination while the final straw was the crude rigging of the 1986 poll.

The most important issue to note here is that such revolutions become necessary when those in power stop serving the common interest and instead behave like the country is their private estate and they are only doing the citizens a favour to rule them.

They resort to hanging on to power at all costs, yet increasingly becoming insensitive to the needs of the people. They turn against their own citizens, deny them most of their fundamental rights and freedoms, and freely terrorise them. When that happens and the time is right, it cannot be stopped.

Non-violent revolutions

Most of the recent non-violent revolutions that succeeded were essentially home grown uprisings spurred by the prevailing unfavourable or hostile conditions in those countries.

These have always ranged from high standards of living, chronic government corruption, high levels of poverty, high unemployment rates and despotic or dictatorial rule.

Cases here include the People Power Revolution in the Philippines in 1986, the Tunisian Revolution of 2010, the Egyptian Revolution of 2011, the Algerian Revolution of April 2019, and the still on-going Sudanese revolution.

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