An interview with Dr Kizza Besigye
Looking at Dr Kizza Besigye one would not think this is a man with a treason charge hanging over his head. As we meet in a London hotel, he seems relaxed, telling me time away from Uganda is not wholly unwelcome.
Considering the year he has had, it is no surprise a change of scene is appreciated.
On February 18th Ugandans took to the polls in an election which saw President Yoweri Museveni pitted against seven other candidates as he looked to secure a fifth term in office.
For many, there was one man that stood between Mr Museveni and a victory which would see him extend his 30 years in power; Kizza Besigye, his former colleague, physician and the current leader of opposition party Forum for Democratic Change (FDC).
This was to be Besigye’s fourth attempt at the presidency, a challenge he first undertook in 2001.
From the get-go the 2016 vote was marred by controversy, authorities blocked social media on Election Day, there were reports of delays as materials arrived late at some polling stations.
Later that afternoon Besigye was arrested, accused of attempting to storm a facility where he alleged ballot stuffing was taking place. This was to be the first of many arrests that followed that week and throughout this year.
Days later the Electoral Commission declared Yoweri Museveni winner with 60.8% of the vote and Besigye runner up with 35.4%. Since then Besigye, his colleagues and supporters have been jailed, kept under house arrest and faced police violence as they carried out their ‘defiance campaign’, rejecting what he calls an ‘illegitimate president.’ (At one stage Besigye was arrested four times in 8 days)
Having spent two months in prison, Besigye is out on bail awaiting a trial date for his treason charge (result of his appearing at a ceremony where his party members swore him in as president); “The state is still carrying out investigations. The last time I went to court I told them I can make it easy for them. They gave me the particulars of the offence, namely that I declared myself winner of the 2016 elections and that I called for an independent audit of the polls. I told them yes I did, so they should commit me for trial, yet they are still investigating.”
One can imagine that even the most seasoned politician would be shocked at the string of events that have taken place since the February elections, yet for Besigye nothing came as a surprise. “I was prepared for the worst; I’ve faced a treason charge before, had a false rape charge put on me, been forced into exile, seen my loved ones harassed, my brother killed. When I was 26 I thought long and hard before walking away from a career as a doctor to join the bush war. I am 60 now and as was the case then, I don’t make decisions on a whim. The first time I decided to run for the Presidency I knew things were going to be thrown at me, I knew the nature of person I was going to challenge.”
I ask him if the Museveni he fought and worked alongside in the 1980s would recognise the Museveni of today; “During the bush war (which led to the removal of the Obote regime) I certainly believed in Museveni. There were sometimes worrying signs, but the circumstances of war meant that both he and us would justify decisions he made. After he became President I was a minister in Government and that was when we developed differences, largely over the rise in corruption. Leaders change when they realise they can get away with things, when accountability is not demanded of them and so corruption has become a system of governance in Uganda. “
While his steely exterior is admirable I question whether the last few years have truly left him unscathed and if there have been moments of regret or an urge to walk away.
A husband and a father, Besigye is married to the Executive Director of Oxfam International Winnie Byanyima, together they have a 17 year old son, surely his career in politics has had an impact on his family life?
“Of course, for starters I am an absentee father. In 2001 I was forced into exile, at that time our son Anselm was 2 years old. For much of his life he has been brought up by a single parent and is now at that age where he is becoming a man, a time where the presence of a father is important.’”
Does Anselm understand?
“I think he does and he has found ways to cope, but I do believe that the last few years have had an impact on him. I am not always sure about how much of the situation we are in he is able to accept.”
I challenge him on whether such a sacrifice, one involving being separated from your child, is worth it, ‘I am not sacrificing him. It is for him that I am making the sacrifice. So that we have a country in which we are equal citizens to pass on to his generation and those that follow. I have at various stages stepped back and reflected on my decisions and have no regrets or doubts.’
Our discussion turns back to Uganda and the elections. Two days after polls closed a US Government statement read ‘Reports of pre-checked ballots, vote buying, blockage of social media and excessive use of force by the police undermine the integrity of the electoral process. We call for the release of Kizza Besigye and the restoration of access to social media.’
Although statements like this have been made throughout the year by foreign embassies, for Besigye the role of the West ‘has often been part of the problem rather than the solution’.
‘Despite seeing the Museveni regime continue to hold problematic elections they have continued to fund and support him.’
Besigye credits this to Mr Museveni being “efficient in the art of manipulation” and successfully “marketing himself as part of a new breed of African leaders.” Secondly, his placing himself as being the person that could lead the war against terror in East Africa and bring stability to the region, (Somalia being one example) has meant the West depend on him. Despite this, Besigye believes Museveni aligning himself with Countries like China and Russia has meant “Western powers like the UK and USA are becoming increasingly uncomfortable with the Ugandan Government.”
I ask him why he thinks social media was blocked during the election period, “Social media’s influence in the political process is quite profound. Go to the remotest part of Uganda and you find people on Whatsapp, Facebook and Twitter. Furthermore, we have a youth unemployment rate of 62% to 84% depending on which statistics you are looking at. As the regime becomes more repressive and takes from public resources, there is no doubt in my mind that this group will tire. These are literate young people, whose ability to communicate has been enhanced by social media, the impact of which is very effective.”
It has been seven months since the election, is it not time that the FDC drop the defiance campaign and begin engaging in the political process through challenging policies and participating in debates in parliament? ‘No. We are not willing to give up the 2016 election. If we accept the results and move on, we are postponing a problem. Museveni will run again in 2021, already the process to lift the Presidential age limit in the constitution has begun.’
Besigye also rejects calls for dialogue between the FDC and the Museveni led National Resistance Movement Party (NRM); “After every election Mr Museveni engages with the idea of holding a dialogue. In 2006 he called for a meeting where the agenda, location and terms were set by him, hence I did not go. In 2011 we sent him a letter saying we must agree on a mediator, stakeholders and that the agenda must include management of elections. We never got a response.”
Critics have long argued that the FDC party are not a credible alternative to the current government and have little to offer, a point I pose to him “The FDC has not been given the space to develop as a formidable political organisation, in fact no party in Uganda has. However, this does not mean that we would be incompetent, furthermore, regardless of how Museveni goes, I believe there will be a transitional period where a strong national unity government will take office.’”
As our discussion comes to an end, it is evident that Besigye has no plans to back down; ‘The defiance campaign goes beyond Uganda, it is about Africans regaining their rights and challenging those that have exploited the culture of fear ingrained in us since colonialism. A reminder to them that the people are the masters and the Governments the servants, for far too long it has been the other way round.’
He rushes off to his next appointment and I am left wondering what the next few years will hold for Uganda, will there be defiant winds of change, or will it be a teargas laced breeze?
Only time will tell.
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Samira Sawlani is a writer/journalist specialising in politics, economy and development of East and Horn of Africa. A holder of an MA in International Studies and Diplomacy from the School of Oriental and African Studies, London. Aside from journalism she has also worked in the emergency humanitarian relief and refugee care sector. Twitter: @samirasawlani