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.
Similarly, from his attacks on the Daily Monitor at the start of his paper and what has been typical of him since he took power, with increasing frequency since the death of South Sudan president John Garang, President Museveni who leads a country with one of the largest number of radio stations in Africa, whose aides often boast about the media freedom granted by the NRM, does not seem to understand what exactly is the role of the media in a democracy.
As it is with his views of the political opposition, he sees any newspaper, radio station, blog, TV programme that consistently criticizes aspects of his rule or his government’s policies as saboteurs, on an equal footing with political and state security treason.
This is the “democrat” who has been praised endlessly since 1986 in the Western media and among most Western governments as the liberator who ended Uganda’s dark episode and restored democracy and the rule of law.
In the last four years, it is not this belligerent attitude toward the political opposition and the media (which represent or speak for the millions of Ugandans) or even the rampant corruption brought on by the NRM which has cost Uganda a whole generation of human potential and economic opportunity that has triggered a collective cry of protest from the West, but a bill proposing to restrict the activities of a tiny minority of Ugandans known as homosexuals.
In his submission responding to Museveni, Besigye showed that he is not just an angry ex-army officer or street hooligan but that he also has a good working knowledge of government. He was once a government minister and National Political Commissar, after all.
Museveni demonstrated once again his ability with facts, figures and data in percentages. One might say the debate was generally a draw between the two men.
But some things Museveni stated are intriguing. They reveal what’s going on in the country. The President stated several times that “enemies of Uganda” were at work. He painted the picture of a concerted, external and apparently creeping effort to undermine the NRM government.
As a head of state who receives daily or at least regular intelligence reports and briefings, we must take him at his word. But who are these enemies?
Certainly looking around the region, Uganda is at peace with most of its neighbours, even given the occasional tensions with Kenya, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Considering that Museveni’s rule is steadily resorting to personal rule and he can no longer distinguish between Uganda and himself, his statements about “enemies of Uganda” could more accurately be taken to mean “enemies of Museveni” or still more accurately, “enemies of the Museveni family”.
In his speech in Parliament in mid December, Museveni accused several young MPs, including the Butaleja Woman MP, the late Celinah Nebanda, of being in the employ of these “enemies of Uganda”.
This strong view on “enemies of Uganda” makes some of us re-visit the Nebanda death and yes, once again ask the question: Did that young woman really die of a drug over-dose?
And if Museveni now sees enemies all around him, from Parliament to the media, civic groups and the civil service, how much longer before an actual coup takes place or a massive clampdown and declared state of emergency to prevent a coup?