The Swedish Government has confirmed that it has been approached and, has accepted, to mediate planned talks between President Museveni and former presidential candidate, Dr Kizza Besigye.
“The government of Sweden is involved in supporting and promoting dialogue in many parts of the world, as part of its policy of conflict prevention and support to peace processes.
Sweden has been asked to facilitate a possible dialogue in Uganda,” Swedish Foreign ministry spokeswoman Katarina Byrenius Roslund, noted in reply to email inquiries from this newspaper.
The “discussions are still at an early stage”, she noted, adding: “When there is concrete progress to communicate, we will do so”.
Ms Annika Söder, the Swedish state secretary, has been agreed on by the principals as the mediator for the expected talks.
She flew into the country last week and held separate back-to-back meetings with the President and Dr Besigye on Thursday and Friday, respectively, in what knowledgeable sources described as “exploratory”.
Senior Forum for Democratic Change (FDC) officials, including party chairman Ambassador Wasswa Birigwa, attended Ms Söder’s meeting with Dr Besigye on Friday.
Dr Besigye has stood for president four times, three of them on FDC ticket, and the Supreme Court confirmed irregularities in the 2001 and 2006 elections, but decided that the anomalies did not affect the final outcome in a “substantial manner” to warrant annulment of the results.
After losing last year’s vote, which he claimed to have won by 52 per cent, Dr Besigye began what he baptised a “defiance campaign”, leading to repeated collisions with police that had placed him under virtual house arrest on the voting day, February 18, 2016.
A highly-placed source, which we cannot name due to the sensitivity of the matter, said the police were late last year instructed to quietly withdraw from Dr Besigye’s home in Kasangati, Wakiso District, as a confidence-building measure ahead of the expected dialogue.
But the police leadership, just like other government officials including ministers, have been kept in the dark about the overtures in which Uganda’s new Permanent Representative to the United Nations, Ambassador Adonia Ayebare, is playing a lead shuttle diplomacy role.
“I cannot comment on my (current) role or potential role in the process,” Ambassador Adonia said when contacted.
This newspaper, citing high-level sources, last month broke news of the imminent dialogue between the President and Dr Besigye aimed at resolving some of Uganda’s intractable national challenges.
Ugandans welcomed the initiative, with some proposing that such talks should include a broad spectrum of actors because Uganda’s problems are beyond what politics alone can address and the country is bigger than either principal political player.
Attempts by different actors to get the President and Dr Besigye, a four-time challenger, to the negotiating table, following some false starts over the years, began soon after the February 2016 elections. Those efforts were, however, revived last September.
The latest planned talks, however, are being convened as one between the two former presidential candidates and main political leaders in the country, and neither broadly as between the Opposition and National Resistance Movement (NRM) party nor a national dialogue.
Conveners hope a consensus between President Museveni and Dr Besigye, the two politicians with the largest followings in the country, will increase the prospects of a wider and an all-inclusive national dialogue.
In January, Dr Besigye told a press conference that he was open to political dialogue but that such talks should be mediated by a respected foreign mediator with capacity to enforce implementation of agreed terms.
The envisaged dialogue, he demanded, should be formal and within a properly structured framework; have a clear agenda; put in place a mechanism to guarantee implementation of outcomes; and, parties be treated as equal parties.
FDC open to dialogue
FDC chairman Birigwa, in response to inquiries about their meeting last week with the Swedish mediator, said: “We have always said we are open to dialogue as long as the criteria we have set are met. It’s an ongoing process. Dialogue is a good thing. We welcome any parties that may be interested in helping us achieve that goal.”
This newspaper understands that the Swedish state secretary was accepted by both President Museveni and Dr Besigye out of more than a dozen initial names, including former African heads of state, proposed as mediators.
A one-on-one meeting between the principals and a media briefing about the initiative, according to highly-placed sources, will likely precede the comprehensive dialogue planned for the coming months. Thereafter, trusted aides assigned by both sides will thrash out the details.
Issues flagged in the broad agenda so far include electoral and legal reforms, governance matters such as land and taxation, and the political leadership transition.
The push for clarity on Uganda’s political direction, a campaign involving political parties and civil society actors, has gained urgency due to concerns about transition from President Museveni to the next leader since the incumbent, under the current constitutional arrangement, would, on account of age, be ineligible to seek re-election when his tenure lapses in 2021.
Individuals familiar with the ongoing dialogue preparations, technically referred to as “talk about talks”, are cautiously optimistic because the consensus on a mediator and, in principle, on the broad agenda is considered an unprecedented progress which in theory places them closer to actual dialogue.
At the height of the post-election walk-to-work protests in 2011, the Elders’ Forum and a parallel initiative led by journalists Andrew Mwenda and Conrad Nkutu to get the duo talking flopped.
That year’s excessive election spending, double-digit inflation and opposition-led demonstrations and heavy-handed police crackdown dented foreign investor confidence and Uganda’s image internationally, plunging its economy into a tailspin from which the country is struggling to recover.
Asked about the talks’ initiative, a source close to the presidency last month said that: “The government is committed to dialogue. There are many initiatives going on, if one of them succeeds, the government will go with that.”
Soon after last year’s election, the Elders’ Forum alongside the Women Situation Room, which monitored last year’s presidential and general elections and initiated a parallel dialogue initiative, embarked on an ambitious project for a national dialogue and after shuttling multiple times between Besigye’s residence and State House, the teams are yet to register the expected advances on that front.
The current arrangement, which has resulted in agreement on a mediator and broad agenda, is a parallel initiative reportedly led by Ambassador Ayebare and is restricted in reach to the two leading presidential candidates alongside any of their political formations.
This newspaper understands that the conversations are happening in a highly controlled process that only very few and the most trusted lieutenants know about it.
Dr Besigye last month said “there are a myriad of people undertaking initiatives about talks and none of them has, to the best of my knowledge, (materialised) yet. At an appropriate time, if there’s anything significant, it will be communicated to you.”
A couple of months ago, this newspaper broke the news that the President and former premier and presidential candidate, Amama Mbabazi, were in preliminary talks with the latter’s eldest daughter Rachael Ciconco playing go-between.