Is Dr Abed Bwanika a genuine Opposition figure, or is he a fifth columnist planted by the regime to disorganise its opponents?
That is one of the questions that have dominated the debate on the struggle against President Museveni in recent months.
In particular, Dr Bwanika is at war with Dr Kizza Besigye and his allies. A regular on a Saturday Luganda political talk show on Buganda Kingdom’s Central Broadcasting Service (CBS) radio, Dr Bwanika has distinguished himself as a critic of Dr Besigye, who he accuses of derailing or delaying the defeat of Museveni.
During the signing ceremony of the documents that formalised what is referred to as the DP Bloc, Dr Bwanika accused Dr Besigye of refusing his support in the lead up to the 2016 election. As polling day drew close, Dr Bwanika said, he drove to the headquarters of the Forum for Democratic Change (FDC) party and offered to avail his agents to protect Dr Besigye’s vote, who he claimed he had concluded would win the election. He said FDC officials promised to call him back, but that they didn’t.
FDC president Amuriat Oboi gave a one-worded response to Dr Bwanika’s claims: “Nonsense”.
In that election, Dr Bwanika came in fourth in an eight-man race, polling 0.9 per cent of the votes, with Dr Besigye coming second with 35.6 per cent of the votes. President Museveni was declared winner of the election that Dr Besigye still insists he won. The official results show that the incumbent polled 60.6 per cent of the votes.
During the campaigns, Dr Bwanika, who was running for the third time in a row, castigated voters in Buganda for donating money to Dr Besigye during rallies yet he, their fellow Muganda, got no such donations.
This was just a continuation of a not-so-good relationship between the camps of both men, which started in 2006. That year, Dr Besigye, who had just returned from South Africa and faced rape and treason charges that came with serving a short remand stint in Luzira prison, challenged in the Supreme Court the election results that showed that President Museveni had won.
Dr Bwanika, running for president for the first time, swore an affidavit in support of President Museveni, saying that the incumbent had won fair and square.
He proceeded to attend the swearing-in ceremony of President Museveni and declared that he would serve if Mr Museveni called on him. Dr Besigye and other Opposition players boycotted the swearing-in ceremony, accusing Mr Museveni of having rigged himself back into power.
Because of what they see as Dr Bwanika’s anti-Opposition conduct, a number of players allied to Dr Besigye have shunned Dr Bwanika over the years and publicly accused him of being a fifth columnist in the Opposition planted by the regime.
In return, Dr Bwanika accuses Dr Besigye of being a ‘mole’ in the Opposition, and continually claims that Dr Besigye’s refusal to step aside as the de facto leader of the Opposition to let someone else take up the mantle is evidence that he wants Mr Museveni to keep winning.
On his part, Dr Besigye doesn’t ordinarily respond to criticism by players within the Opposition, but he has recently made an exception of Dr Bwanika, who he usually singles out for criticism. He accuses Dr Bwanika of creating distractions for the Opposition and not showing up to actively battle their common opponent.
Bwanika the man
Dr Bwanika, 52, is a graduate of veterinary medicine who quit his career as an academic to join politics and registered a political party, the People’s Development Party (PDP), which he has used as a vehicle to contest in the most recent three elections.
In the lead up the 2011 elections, almost the entire executive of Dr Bwanika’s party defected to support NRM and Mr Museveni, although Dr Bwanika kept in his party and still contested for the presidency.
As the preparations for the 2011 elections gathered pace, talk of Opposition parties forming an alliance – the Inter-Party Cooperation (IPC) was intense, but Dr Bwanika stayed out of it. He still kept away from talks about forming an Opposition coalition for 2016 under the failed The Democratic Alliance (TDA).
But as preparations for 2021 gather pace, Dr Bwanika has taken the imitative and now says he will be a lead player in the search for unity within the Opposition in order to tackle Mr Museveni as a united force. He has made it clear, however, that Dr Besigye must accept right from the start that he won’t be the leader of the coalition. He has actually demanded that Dr Besigye retires from the struggle and lets younger people take over.
And because of these comments, Dr Bwanika has come under intense criticism.
Mr Harold Kaija, the deputy secretary general of the FDC party, says Dr Bwanika is part of a “very big project going on clandestinely”.
Mr Kaija says: “He only wants to derail us. It has been a huge project going on to pull Dr Besigye down because they feel they must work with Mr Museveni. That’s why he calls him a mole. They had a deadline to fail Besigye and that’s exactly what they are working towards. When you look at Bwanika, if he contested in 2006 elections, and several observers believe it was rigged, why did he go ahead to defend the election and swear to an affidavit for Mr Museveni?”
Mr Kaija further reckons that Dr Bwanika attacks Dr Besigye in order to pull him down and get an opportunity to become an MP riding on whichever wave then gains ascendancy after Dr Besigye’s fall. This is so, Mr Kaija says, because Dr Bwanika, in view of his past record, knows he cannot get an FDC ticket to run for Parliament.
‘Bwanika attacks all’
Mr Norbert Mao, the president of the Democratic Party (DP), however, differs from Mr Kaija, saying that Dr Bwanika has attacked everybody and not just Dr Besigye.
“Abed Bwanika has attacked everybody. When we were in Makerere last year, he launched a vicious attack on DP, saying the party had let down Uganda by failing to lead and despite being one of the oldest parties, it prefers and is contented to be a mere sub-contractor.”
Mao continues: “Then, he also attacked Buganda, and said despite being at the centre of the country with a big population, the kingdom has failed to influence politics in the country; he then launched an attack on Besigye saying he wanted to be a leader of every initiative and does not want to support others and, therefore, has misappropriated the struggle.”
Mr Mao says that democracy is about free expression of opinion, and that everybody is entitled to his opinion.
“I have actually never told anyone to defend me when I am attacked. The persistent attacks [on Dr Besigye] are opinions of Bwanika,” Mr Mao says.
Mr Mao, also a longtime critic of Dr Besigye, throws a word about Dr Besigye’s longevity in the Opposition, which has seen him challenge President Museveni four times since 2001.
Mr Mao says: “But of course if you have run for presidency for four times, obviously, your record comes under scrutiny after being around for 20 years; and I think that is fair. The answer is not to attack but to come together because we all have objectives to achieve.”
Mr Mao claims that Dr Bwanika explained to him that he was coerced into signing and swearing to an affidavit in the 2006 elections.
Mao says: “We talked to Bwanika on that thing [defending Museveni] because I don’t believe in backbiting. When Bwanika was being accused of being a mole, I went and talked to him and he told me what exactly happened on the issue of the affidavit. He said he was called by the late Noble Mayombo [former head of Chieftaincy of Military Intelligence] and threatened because he had already issued a statement saying for him his votes were not stolen because he never had any. So, the late Mayombo and other government officials forced him into signing it. At that time, he said, he was all by himself and was like an isolated animal.
But we believe he does not have bad intentions.”
Dr Bwanika, however, has not publicly offered the explanation that Mr Mao gives, and Mayombo is long dead. We were unable to contact Dr Bwanika on this issue because he was reported to be out of the country and his known phone numbers were switched off.
Dr Bwanika is at war with Dr Kizza Besigye and his allies. A regular on a Saturday Luganda political talk show on Buganda Kingdom’s Central Broadcasting Service (CBS) radio, Dr Bwanika has distinguished himself as a critic of Dr Besigye, who he accuses of derailing or delaying the defeat of Museveni.