Kampala- The run up to the 2021 General Election has arrived early, and the first barbs have been thrown; battle lines drawn. The Opposition group that has drawn first blood went for the less likely, albeit usual target, Dr Kizza Besigye.
At Hotel Africana in Kampala on Thursday, the occasion was for what has been dubbed the “DP Bloc” to sign a pact that binds them. DP Bloc is made up of DP, the principal party; three-time presidential candidate Abed Bwanika’s People’s Development Party (PDP); former Makindye East MP Michael Mabikke’s Social Democratic Party (SDP); and a group led by former presidential candidate Samuel Lubega.
DP president-general Norbert Mao largely played the role of facilitator at the function where several speakers threw jibes at Dr Besigye, who on the same day, was in Kabale District on his mobilisation drive.
Kyadondo East MP Robert Kyagulanyi, aka Bobi Wine, who has in the past referred to Dr Besigye as his mentor, delivered his fiercest sting to-date against the four-time presidential candidate.
For close to a year, supporters of Mr Kyagulanyi and Dr Besigye have fought what was sometimes a vicious war, mainly on social media, but the two men remained largely civil towards each other except on a few occasions when the daggers seemed to be drawn.
The first incident was during the last day of campaigns for the Arua Municipality by-election in August last year in which the two men supported different candidates. Mr Kyagulanyi was in a procession with eventual winner Kassiano Wadri when their crowd came face-to-face with the rally of Forum for Democratic Change (FDC) candidate Bruce Musema, which Dr Besigye was addressing.
Mr Kyagulanyi, standing atop his vehicle amid blaring music, signaled the people Dr Besigye was addressing to join his group. Dr Besigye urged his crowd to ignore the other crowd and paused, until Mr Kyagulanyi strolled away and the rally continued. Mr Kyagulany’s group would later get into an altercation with presidential guards, which resulted in the shooting to death of his driver, Yasin Kawuma.
Presidential security claimed that people in Mr Kyagulanyi’s crowd stopped one of the cars in the presidential motorcade as the President made his way to the airstrip after addressing the rally of his party’s candidate in the race, Ms Nusura Tiperu.
Mr Kyagulanyi, Mr Wadri and more than 30 others were arrested and charged with treason over the issue.
Then on Boxing Day last year, the police blocked Mr Kyagulanyi from staging a musical concert at his beach in Busabala, Wakiso District. In the heat of the moment, Mr Kyagulanyi bemoaned the persecution that he said the government had put him through, pointing out that some Opposition players run petrol stations and they have never been closed.
The comment was interpreted as meant for Dr Besigye, who operates a petrol station in Nsambya, Kampala. Mr Kyagulanyi, however, also operates small petrol stations in Gomba and Butambala districts, in addition to a recording studio and other businesses, which too had not been shut down.
This prompted a response from Dr Besigye’s supporters, who pointed out that when their man started opposing President Museveni and fled to exile, his brother, Joseph Musasizi, who was running his petrol station and other businesses, was arrested and charged with treason and murder. He stayed locked up for years and, Dr Besigye says, Musasizi’s leukemia got out of hand because it could not be managed in prison. He died shortly after being released.
Despite those incidences, Dr Besigye and Mr Kyagulanyi had largely stayed civil towards each other in the public space until the Africana meeting when Mr Kyagulanyi pulled off the gloves.
He said he had “concluded that some members in the Opposition are only concerned about their positions and will fight any composition that threatens their positions”.
Mr Kyagulanyi added: “Don’t talk about democracy and stand four times and on the fifth time you tell people democracy doesn’t work. We believe it works. On that point, I will assert that democracy actually works and anybody who despises democracy is despising the people of Uganda.”
Mr Kyagulanyi’s comments were in reference to prior statements by Dr Besigye, who has on various occasions said President Museveni will not easily leave power even if he is defeated at the polls, like he claims he defeated him in 2016 and earlier.
Moments after Mr Kyagulanyi made the comments critical of Dr Besigye, Mr Daniel Muwonge, who backs Dr Besigye, posted on Facebook: “Two years ago, in Kyadondo (East) by-elections, Besigye’s picture was used as symbol of unity and strength, by the same man who has today called Besigye all sorts of names. Struggle continues.”
Mr Muwonge posted a picture of Mr Kyagulanyi’s campaign poster, with the picture of the youthful legislator sandwiched by that of Dr Besigye to the right and Kampala Lord Mayor Erias Lukwago to the left.
Before Mr Kyagulanyi spoke, Dr Bwanika had his go at Dr Besigye.
Dr Bwanika said: “I have heard one person who has now perpetually become a presidential candidate and wants to become one again. I have decided, whether I will remain alone, I will ensure that Ugandans don’t vote that presidential candidate again. I will work on it. It is my mandate because I am aware he is not among those who are coming; he is among those who are going. Therefore, we will not give him space again.”
In all the three times (2006, 2011 and 2016), Dr Bwanika has run as a presidential candidate, he has contested with Dr Besigye. Dr Besigye has on all occasions been the main challenger against Mr Museveni and Dr Bwanika an also-run.
But bad blood has always flowed against the two men, with Dr Bwanika ever on the offensive, while Dr Besigye’s backers accuse him of working for President Museveni from within the Opposition.
After the 2006 election, another bitterly contested election, Dr Besigye went to court to challenge Mr Museveni’s victory. Dr Bwanika, who was a candidate in the same election, swore an affidavit in support of Mr Museveni’s victory.
“I read and heard from the media that one of the candidates had since petitioned court challenging the outcome of the election and as a Born-Again Christian and peace-loving Ugandan, who is interested in the rule of law and democracy, I deem it my duty to come forward and state what I know to be true about the election,” Dr Bwanika’s affidavit reads in part.
The candidate Dr Bwanika referred to was Dr Besigye. Since then, Dr Besigye’s backers accuse him of being a fifth columnist within the Opposition ranks.
In the last election, Dr Besigye kept receiving money from his supporters across the country. During a rally in Luweero, Dr Bwanika took on the voters, asking them why they don’t give their fellow Muganda (Bwanika) money and support yet they gave it to Dr Besigye (who is not a Muganda). He repeated the charges in a few other places.
Dr Besigye and his team have also pointed at comments Dr Bwanika makes on a talk show on Buganda Kingdom-owned radio, Central Broadcasting Service (CBS) fm and accused him of promoting tribalism within the Opposition ranks.
In December last year, Dr Besigye said a catchphrase Mr Kyagulanyi introduced – Mwebereremu (fight for yourselves) – had tribal intonations. This was interpreted as an attack on Mr Kyagulanyi. Dr Besigye quickly issued an apology for the “misunderstanding”, and later explained that his reference was to the way Dr Bwanika uses the word to address Baganda on CBS radio.
Mao, Mabikke and Muntu
On his part, Mr Mao, who ran for president in 2011 and came a distant third as Dr Besigye was again the closest to President Museveni, did not deploy his oratory skills at great length but ensured his message was concisely delivered.
Mr Mao said to Mr Kyagulanyi: “We are very happy that you have jumped into the pool and you are causing displacement, which is not a bad thing, after all when our leaders become misleaders and our mentors become tormentors and freedom of expression becomes a target of oppression, then opposition becomes our position.”
Mr Mao was partly referencing lyrics of one Mr Kyagulanyi’s hit songs. Mr Kyagulanyi has previously referred to Dr Besigye his mentor.
Another co-principal in the DP bloc, Mr Mabikke, also had a message of his own.
“For too long, the centre stage in the Opposition has been dominated by mediocre leadership. They are not up to the task; they are no match to the challenge we confront; they have got no ideas; and they have no plans but just want to stick at the helm,” Mr Mabikke said.
Former FDC president, Maj Gen Mugisha Muntu, was also in attendance, invited as a guest, just like Mr Kyagulanyi and Jeema president Asuman Basalirwa. Gen Muntu and Mr Basalirwa did not aim barbs at Dr Besigye or any other Opposition player.
At the end of 2018, Dr Besigye declared 2019 “the year of action”, vowing to intensify mobilisation against President Museveni, with the objective of forcing him out of power before the 2021 election. Dr Besigye insists that he won the 2016 election and that Mr Museveni is in office illegally.
To break the impasse that followed the 2016 election, different groups tried to broker talks between Mr Museveni and Dr Besigye, and Dr Besigye put carrying out an audit of the 2016 election as one of the conditions. Papers were drafted for the two principals to sign and at different points, the mediators were cautiously optimistic that talks could happen, but the process eventually collapsed.
President Museveni got on a programme of his own and efforts to remove the age limit for presidential candidates gained currency on the one hand, while on the other hand Dr Besigye went underground building structures to further his politics.
In February, Dr Besigye launched what he calls the People’s Assembly, the equivalent of a parliament for his People’s Government, which he established when he declared himself winner of the 2016 election and a video of him being “sworn-in” as president surfaced on social media on the eve of President Museveni’s swearing-in on May 12, 2016.
After launching the People’s Assembly at a national level, Dr Besigye and his allies have proceeded to launch regional assemblies simultaneously in the different regions of the country, and say they have a plan to launch assemblies further down to districts, sub-counties and villages. The assemblies being launched are composed of people mobilised through covert activities over two years.
In all these activities, Dr Besigye enjoys the backing of the FDC-led by Mr Patrick Amuriat, who had one of his key promises during the campaign for the party’s leadership “to reclaim our (2016) victory”. Dr Besigye also enjoys the backing of non-FDC members like Mr Lukwago, who is the vice president of the People’s Government, and Mukono Municipality MP Betty Nambooze, who is the spokesperson of the People’s Government.
To become FDC president, Mr Amuriat defeated Maj Gen Mugisha Muntu in a fallout that eventually saw Gen Muntu quit the party and is in the process of forming another party, the Alliance for National Transformation (ANT). Gen Muntu also attended the DP Bloc signing ceremony on Thursday and was later that evening the guest on NTV’s “On the Spot” programme. On all occasions, he steered clear of attacking Dr Besigye or any Opposition player.
On Thursday, Dr Besigye clashed with the police, but eventually held processions through the town and addressed his supporters in the council hall of Hamurwa Town Council, Rubanda District. This was after the police blocked him from addressing rallies that had been planned to happen at Hamurwa and Bubare playgrounds.
Explaining the decision to block the outdoor rallies, Mr Ramathan Tai, the Rubanda District police commander, said: “The permission that was granted to them was to hold an indoor meeting, but not a public rally. That is why we never allowed them to hold one.”
Making of the DP bloc
The DP Bloc started with the grand union in which former members and those affiliated to the party, were supposed to return to the Norbert Mao-led group.
On May 23, 2018, the party held a grand union at Makerere University and invited local and international guests. While the international guests on the invitation list, such as Dr Klaus Schuller, the managing director of Germany’s Christian Democratic Union, opposition leaders Raila Odinga (Kenya) , Mr Nelson Chamisa (Zimbabwe), former Mombasa Senator Hassan Omar, Mr Fikile Mbalula from South Africa and Dr Paul Williams from UK, made no show despite the party confirming their presence, several local politicians attended.
These included former Leader of the Opposition in Parliament Winnie Kizza, former FDC president, Maj Gen (Rtd) Mugisha Muntu, Kyadondo East MP Robert Kyagulanyi, Jeema president Asumani Basalirwa and PDP president Abedi Bwanika.
More reunion fetes were lined up, but so far, less than a handful have happened, including one in Masaka and Mukono. The Masaka event was characterised by violence from supporters allied to warring members, forcing Mr Mao to suspend the events, citing hooliganism.
In February, police blocked the reunion event organised in Jinja Town. The party had since gone silent on the activity until the April 4, MoU signing ceremony.
Additional reporting by Robert Muhereza and Shabibah Nakirigya