It has been 12 years since the former FDC party president, Dr Kizza Besigye, first sought the Ugandan presidency. During this period, many NRM supporters and a number of news and political commentators have tried to draw attention to the image of Dr Besigye as an angry man, too angry to be head of state and whose only motivation for challenging President Yoweri Museveni is personal anger at the commander-in-chief.
The walk-to-work drama at which Dr Besigye was the centre of attention, the photo and TV images of riot police, burning tyres, opposition protesters being bundled onto police pickups or beaten by military police, were all given the interpretation of an angry Besigye at work.
The recent debate in the Daily Monitor between Mr Museveni and Dr Besigye in a sense has ended that perception.
As Dr Besigye stated at the beginning of his rejoinder to President Museveni, at least Museveni can now engage in a debate with Besigye rather than send police to surround the latter’s house when all he has been up to since 2000 is a debate on Uganda’s future and what went wrong with the NRM’s plans for Uganda.
Also, the Daily Monitor has since its founding in July 1992 been consistently branded “anti-government” by the ruling party, state organs and in his paper, by Museveni himself.
So it is satisfying too to see that this newspaper can become the floor onto which Besigye and Museveni meet to exchange views on Uganda and each given equal space by the paper.
Having put all that innuendo about Besigye and the Daily Monitor behind us, we can now, finally after 12 years, start discussing the substance of what Museveni and Besigye debated and finally get to weigh the merits of their arguments in their own right.
Interpreting the “debate”
The debate between these two men not only comes as a reminder that they remain the two leading political figures in the country, but it also raises questions about when and how Major-General Mugisha Muntu, the new president of the FDC, plans to establish a national presence for himself.
At crucial moments of national debate and crisis, from Nebanda’s death to the anxiety around the widespread national talk of a military coup, Muntu tends to remain quiet; not a good sign for a leader of one of the two main national political parties.
The perception this Museveni-Besigye debate leaves is that Besigye is still, for all intents and purposes, the president of the FDC and the main national opposition leader.
In terms of tone, Besigye was measured, formal, stuck mainly to the point and was polite to Museveni. That was quite clear. What was also clear was that Museveni was not. He started by ranting about the “lies” by the opposition, some internal saboteurs within his own party, the Daily Monitor and Besigye.
Obviously the irony of the fact that he was being offered full, unrestricted space by the Daily Monitor to counter Besigye was lost on him even as he denounced the paper.
Secondly, it still appears to have never occurred to the President, 27 years after assuming state power and even before that, experienced in the workings of government since 1970, that the primary role of the political opposition in the state is to be the main voice of skepticism about anything the ruling party and government do.
The opposition is a challenger for state power and as such in its appeal to the public, the media, foreign diplomats and civil society, it must by definition draw attention to the failings of the ruling party and seek to highlight the fact or the claim that if in power, it can do a much better job than the ruling party.
It is what goes on all over the world, including and especially in Western countries. Besigye is supposed to point out government failures. The FDC, UPC, DP, Jeema, Uganda Federal Alliance, the Social Democratic Party and others are supposed to be voices of dissent and disagreement with the government. The name for this is democracy.
To Museveni’s way of thinking, voices critical of his government’s policies, that try to explain to the public that they are struggling and suffering because of failed government policies and the failure in leadership by the President, are saboteurs. They are enemies of the state.