The Electoral Commission this week released the roadmap to the 2021 elections. If you ask four-time presidential candidate Kizza Besigye, 2021 will be just another exercise, one which will be designed for only President Museveni to win.
But Dr Besigye will not rule himself out of it, and he will nearly certainly run for president again.
On the other hand, there is the newcomer on the political scene, Kyadondo East MP Robert Kyagulanyi aka Bobi Wine, who during a recent concert told revellers that he has his sights on the presidency.
Former Forum for Democratic Change (FDC) president Mugisha Muntu, who left FDC a few months ago and is in the process of forming a political party, has also not made a secret of his intention to challenge for the presidency, on two previous occasions unsuccessfully challenging Dr Besigye for FDC’s flag to challenge President Museveni.
The man who has been holding the ball since 1986 and has held off all tackles thrown at him until now – Mr Museveni – announced this week that he has a strategic purpose to serve in politics, and that he will not quit politics until he secures the prosperity and security of Ugandans and the African people.
President Museveni’s choice of stage to make that pronouncement bears a certain significance. It was before fellow leaders of three political parties – Uganda Peoples Congress (UPC), Democratic Party (DP) and Justice Forum (Jeema) – and on live television. It was during a highly-billed meeting of leaders of political parties with representation in Parliament, the first of its kind in Uganda. It was only FDC which boycotted the meet.
What are the men who are positioning themselves for a shot at the presidency doing, both on camera and behind the scenes? Sunday Monitor spoke to a number of players in the different camps for insights on what is happening, who is talking to who, and who is planning what as the country readies itself for another heated political encounter in two years’ time.
Museveni rooting for calm, talks
Speaking at the Inter-Party Organisation for Dialogue (IPOD) meeting in Munyonyo, Mr Museveni on Wednesday committed some time to castigating FDC for boycotting the meeting, wondering how a major political player can shun talks.
Mr Museveni said that even with people he disagrees with, he has always been willing to hold talks, which is why he has during his career dialogued with former presidents Milton Obote and Tito Lutwa Okello.
Sources familiar with the goings-on say Mr Museveni has since his controversial re-election in 2016 been keen on dialogue, and that at some point he made concession after concession to ensure that they hold direct talks with Dr Besigye.
Dr Besigye, who had competed for the presidency on the FDC ticket and until now maintains that he won by 52 per cent of the vote, was thought to have the potency to mobilise mass protests, especially going by the crowds he had pulled during the campaigns.
From President Museveni’s perspective, therefore, there was and there is still value in talking with Dr Besigye if only as a way of containing him.
Sources say President Museveni has been encouraged by how a tense post-election situation in Kenya was diffused by what has come to be known as the “handshake” between President Uhuru Kenyatta and his nemesis Raila Odinga, with whom they now seem to get along.
They both say they are willing to shelve their differences for a better Kenya. As a result, people who have attended meetings with Mr Museveni, whether under the auspices of IPOD or the broader National Dialogue Framework championed by the Elders’ Forum and the Inter-Religious Council, say Mr Museveni has continuously remarked that he is prepared to hold talks with all players, including with Dr Besigye.
In a further show of a softening his stance towards rival political parties, President Museveni has frequently remarked to those who have visited him, and he repeated it at Munyonyo this week, that he is willing to okay the funding of party activities by the State.
This is despite the presence of a mechanism managed by the Electoral Commission in which parties with representation in Parliament is financed according to their numerical strength in the House.
The money under this arrangement has been irregular and has not come in about a year, starving the rival political parties, which accuse the ruling party of being funded by public money.
The understanding among a number of players we talked to is that President Museveni is willing to order a release of funds to the parties under the existing arrangement, and also to fund IPOD, which is fundamentally financed by foreigners, most notably the Dutch authorities.
On a few occasions, sources say, Mr Museveni has remarked that Uganda now has the resources to finance such initiatives, and that it is a dent on our national pride to have our democracy financed by foreigners.
The feeling that emerges from speaking to Opposition players, especially that from FDC, is that President Museveni aims to disarm the Opposition through what they have called “time-wasting talks” that will come to no avail, while in the process making sure that the Opposition players do not engage in troublesome demonstration and other disruptive actions.
As the “diversionary” talks go on, those who subscribe to this thinking say, President would be busy using other organs of the State to mobilise the country for votes going into the 2021 election.
And with the money at his disposal, the other players suspect, President Museveni would infiltrate and disorganise the rival parties, making them even weaker going into the next election.
The chief promoter of such thinking is perhaps Dr Besigye, who has led the FDC group that is most opposed to holding talks with Mr Museveni. Whenever he has had to speak about dialogue with Mr Museveni, Dr Besigye has maintained that he is in principle supportive of the idea of talks, although he has at the same time reiterated that speaking with Mr Museveni is in effect a waste of time.
As the IPOD meeting drew closer, FDC called a meeting of the party national council to debate the issue of whether its leaders should attend it, among other things.
Dr Besigye, being an elected party leader from Rukungiri District, attended the meeting, and made interesting remarks.
In his cryptic message to the members, Dr Besigye said the only meaningful dialogue with Mr Museveni, who he calls a dictator, would be after they have fought him to exhaustion, forcing him to negotiate his exit. But dialogue under circumstances such as this when Mr Museveni is still strong, Dr Besigye said, would be a waste of time.
Most of the FDC leaders agreed with him, hence the decision for FDC to pull out of the IPOD meet. The party was castigated for missing the meeting, but FDC president Patrick Oboi Amuriat and spokesperson Ibrahim Ssemujju-Nganda described the meeting of the other party leaders as a “social gathering”.
Going by the current trends, Dr Besigye has solidified his position within FDC, which was sometimes under threat during the time Gen Muntu led the party. Mr Amuriat’s “one party, one line” stance, which saw a purge of pro-Muntu leaders during the same National Council meeting last week, is bearing fruit for Dr Besigye.
Dr Besigye, however, is not the all-in-your-face politician that he once was, these days taking many days out of the public eye doing what he likes to call “covert” work, which means that he has almost rebranded from the street-fighter politician he was for a long time.
During a meeting with a group that had called on him on one occasion, one of the people who attended the meeting told Sunday Monitor, the President Museveni remarked that Dr Besigye had transformed into a “guerilla politician”.
Sources say it is of interest to President Museveni what his two-decade nemesis spends time doing in his “covert” activities. On occasions when Dr Besigye has spoken about it, he has said in good time the fruits of covert activities will come to the fore, and that in good time he will share with some of his colleagues in the Opposition what he engages in covertly.
It is doubtful, however, how many Opposition players he may discuss his activities fully with, given the low levels of trust among Opposition members. Speaking to different individuals in the Opposition, it becomes apparent how much they suspect one another, with different people accusing others of secretly working with President Museveni.
As Dr Besigye looks over his shoulders to watch for what Mr Museveni is up to, however, he also seems to pay attention to the schemes of the new kid on the block Bobi Wine, who has captured the imagination of a number of change-seeking groups and individuals.
Dr Besigye has responded by publicly welcoming Bobi Wine into the fray, saying the war they have to fight is still far from being won, and that it needs fresh soldiers.
He has looked to diffuse any acrimony that threatened to arise between his and Bobi Wine’s supporters, and when Bobi Wine was adjudged to have invaded his rally on the last day of campaigns in the Arua by-election a few months ago, Dr Besigye played down the incident and said it is the ruling party that is looking to ignite fires within the Opposition ranks.
Those close to Dr Besigye say the strategy is for their man to get closer to the people by participating in more community events, including fundraisings, burials and weddings.
They believe that their man has cultivated sufficient countrywide support over the years, which he only needs to nurture by looking to remaining relevant and ensuring that he does not make a major mistake.
They believe that President Museveni may continue to have a stranglehold on the country for years to come and elections may not necessarily deliver their man to power regardless of how strong he is on the ground, and so the best strategy is for him to keep relevant and wait for Mr Museveni to drop the ball.
BOBI WINE, MUNTU
Those who are keen to fight Dr Besigye off the stage accuse him of keeping in the fight against Mr Museveni for so long, saying he should pass the baton to another Opposition leader.
Dr Besigye, in response, has always argued that leaders emerge and are not just given way, saying when Ugandans are finally tired of him, they will abandon him for another leader regardless of whether he steps aside from the struggle against Mr Museveni or not.
Will the leader who change-seeking Ugandans may tap to occupy the position Dr Besigye has occupied for the last two decades be Bobi Wine, Gen Muntu or another, or none at all? This is a question that only time can answer.
Those close to Kyadondo East MP say he is keen on keeping his challenge as a pressure group and not a political party for the foreseeable future, while Gen Muntu is in the process of forming a new political party, hoping to challenge Museveni’s National Resistance Movement.
Gen Muntu, who calls himself a ‘marathoner’, says he is in it long term even as he insists on building party structures before he runs for presidency .
Asked whether he would stand for the presidency in 2021 after registering the political party, Muntu said: “If you don’t have party structures you cannot lead the country and our focus is on building party structures and to have other leaders who will be representing us at all levels.”
As matters stand, whatever they say or do, it is clear that these four have their eyes fixed on 2021, barring a big surprise.