Dr Besigye’s return to the political trenches: Reinvention or filling a vacuum? 

Police arrest political activist Kizza Besigye after he tried to leave his home in Kasangati, Wakiso District on May 23, 2022. PHOTOS/ ABUBAKER LUBOWA

What you need to know:

  • The former leader of FDC had not been involved in acts of civil disobedience for quite a while. That gave the NUP president Robert Kyagulanyi latitude to gain increased prominence within the Opposition space. But Dr Kizza Besigye is back in the Opposition frontline.

On Tuesday morning, Opposition leader Kizza Besigye beat a security cordon around his home in Kasangati, Wakiso District, and ended up in downtown Kampala to rally the public in a protest against high commodity prices and the apparent impotence of government to check the problem.
Dr Besigye was subsequently arrested and arraigned in court from where he was sent on remand.

His foray into town and the brief address in which he urged Ugandans to “wake up” and kick out a government that has so far failed to try and arrest spiralling commodity prices was akin to those from yester years when he took to the streets for different reasons, but the former leader of the opposition Forum for Democratic Change (FDC) party had not been involved in acts of civil disobedience for quite a while.
That gave the leader of National Unity Platform (NUP), Mr Robert Kyagulanyi, aka Bobi Wine, latitude to gain increased prominence within the Opposition space even before August 2020 when Dr Besigye announced that he would not be a candidate in the 2021 presidential elections.

Kyagulanyi build up
Mr Kyagulanyi, who campaigned and delivered victories for some Opposition candidates in diverse parts of the country, had proved himself to be quite resilient and tenacious even before his name got onto the ballot paper.
In July 2016, he was one of those that led protests against the introduction of the Shs200 daily OTT tax on social media and the one percent tax on mobile money transactions. Police labelled the protests as an illegal assembly.
Mr Kyagulanyi was also at the centre of the spirited attempts, including the physical fights, by the Opposition to stop the passing on December 20, 2017, of the age limit Bill.

Security operatives surround former FDC president Kizza Besigye's car before his arrest in downtown Kampala on May 24, 2022. PHOTOS/ ABUBAKER LUBOWA

He had also come face to face with death on at least two occasions; had been arrested on charges of possession of firearms and treason; had his music shows and concerts cancelled and; impeded from travelling around the country, but remained resolute.
It was against such a record and background that Dr Abed Bwanika, the president of the People’s Development Party (PDP), declared him the man of the moment long before March 5, 2019, when the former Kyadondo East MP announced that he would run for president.
“(Bobi Wine) is the one who has the electricity to cause change,” declared Dr Bwanika.

The campaign
Mr Kyagulanyi braved teargas and police blockades in many of the districts where he campaigned and had his campaigns interrupted following his arrest on November 18, 2020, for allegedly flouting guidelines on Covid-19.
He, however, remained determined, even defiant. He told court that his crime was to offer himself to lead the ouster of “a dictator”.
“This case should not be Uganda against Kyagulanyi, it should be Uganda against Museveni. It should be Museveni in this dock,” Mr Kyagulanyi told court.

Great expectations
Whereas Mr Museveni was declared winner with a haul of 5.85 million, or 58.6 percent of the vote, against Mr Kyagulanyi’s 3.48 million, or 34.8 percent of the vote, it was the first time since 1996 that he lost the Buganda and Busoga vote.
Mr Museveni lost Buganda with a difference of 614,677 votes. He garnered 838,858 votes against Mr Kyagulanyi’s 1,453,535.
So big was NRM’s defeat in Buganda that it lost 10 constituencies where its ministers contested. Those that lost included then Government Chief Whip Ruth Nankabirwa, ministers Rosemary Sseninde, Chrysostom Muyingo, Vincent Ssempijja, Amelia Kyambadde, Judith Nabakooba, and Ronald Kibuule, who all lost to NUP candidates.

Ministers Beti Kamya and Nakiwala Kiyingi, who had converted from the Opposition and contested the elections on NRM tickets, were also beaten by NUP candidates.
Mr Museveni lost Busoga with a margin of 32,197 votes. Mr Kyagulanyi got 437,059 votes against Mr Museveni’s 404,862, in an election that also saw NUP become the biggest Opposition party in Parliament.

Missing in action
However, Prof Sabiti Makara, who teaches Political Science at Makerere University, argues that given the activism in which Kyagulanyi was involved prior to the elections and the kind of spirited campaign he put up, he had been expected to do much more.
He argues that Mr Kyagulanyi’s invisibility and deafening silence are very conspicuous amid the chorus of voices calling for government to find solutions to rising commodity prices.
“I think there is need for political activism in the sense of people being on the front for the marginalised. I think when Bobi’s people got positions in Parliament and some other positions that they got, they possibly abandoned activism,” Prof Makara says.

But Mr David Lewis Rubongoya, the secretary general of NUP, does not agree with that thinking. He says his principal remains active in other aspects of what he described as “a struggle against dictatorship”.
“He is visible in other things. Not everyone will be on the streets. There are many other times he has done that, but we read times, we read seasons and we decide when to do what. And we always guide our people and tell them what steps we are taking,” Mr Rubongoya says.

Big boots
Talk that whereas Mr Kyagulanyi had emerged as the face of Opposition he had been tested, especially by events in the immediate aftermath of the election, and found wanting has been rife in Opposition circles.
A personality in one of the leading Opposition parties who preferred not to be named for fear of stoking up fires between his party and NUP, argues that the security forces brief siege on the NUP boss’ home in January last year had forced Mr Kyagulanyi into beating a hasty retreat.
However, Mr Patrick Wakida, the head of social research firm Research World International, defends Mr Kyagulanyi, saying those who often criticise the Opposition in Uganda do not appreciate the conditions in which it operates.

“Being in Opposition in this country is very difficult. They will attack you as a person, they will attack your relatives, your family and your business. What you see happening might be as a result of the realisation of the kind of political space that we operate in. Sacrifices of that nature, especially at an early age like that of Bobi Wine, are very difficult to make because it is about life and death,” Mr Wakida says.

Musical concerts like Kyarenga, which Mr Kyagulanyi had planned to take place in Mandela National Stadium, Namboole, and his One Love Beach were blocked by police. That lends credence to Mr Wakida’s argument.
Mr Wakida argues that any change in political behaviour was because of the need to adapt to prevailing conditions.
“So I don’t think that it is that he has changed how he should be behaving, but if he has done so, he is responding to the narrowing (political) space,” Mr Wakida says.

Matters have not been helped by the fact that the Opposition does not seem to ever be able to agree on any common or collective action.
For example, whereas the leaders of NUP, Democratic Party (DP) and Alliance for National Transformation (ANT) claimed last week that they were in support of Dr Besigye’s planned protests, they insisted that they did not have to join him on the streets.
It was another display of lack of unity of purpose that has plagued Opposition politics for quite a while now. That failure to rise above party and individual differences was evident during the 2021 general election, and the elections of the Speaker and Deputy Speaker of the 11th Parliament and again the speakership elections that followed the demise of Jacob Oulanyah.

For example, during the March 25 election of the Speaker and Deputy Speaker, Opposition’s candidate in the race for job of Speaker, Mr Asuman Basalirwa, managed only 66 votes against Ms Anita Among’s 401 votes in a House that has more than 100 Opposition MPs.
Prof Makara says the disunity in Opposition, coupled with NUP’s decision to abandon activism, created a vacuum which Dr Besigye has now moved to fill.
“The alternative voice to the official voice is really silent. They became an official Opposition side and that does not work for the politics of Uganda. People want to see somebody active and really pressing government. That is how Dr Besigye becomes relevant when he comes up like he has come up,” Prof Makara says.

Former FDC president Kizza Besigye (right) and NUP president Robert Kyagulanyi announced a new alliance against President Museveni in June 2020.

Filling a vacuum or reinvention?
The question, however, is what Dr Besigye’s game plan is. Dr Besigye has a long history of always being able to reinvent himself and even over shadow those who emerge with lots of aplomb. 
In 2011, he latched onto rising commodity prices to launch the walk-to-work protests, which ended in his brutal arrest and hospitalisation in Nairobi, Kenya.
Former Prime Minister John Patrick Amama Mbabazi had been seen as a major force that would split the NRM vote and weaken Mr Museveni ahead of the 2016 general election, but he came a distant third with 136,519, or 1.39 percent of the vote, even when he had the backing of DP.
So is he moving to fill a vacuum created by Mr Kyagulanyi’s inaction in recent times? Or is he seeking to reinvent himself as we prepare for yet another election cycle? 
Prof Makara and Mr Wakida believe that he is moving to fill a vacuum.

“People want to see somebody active and really pressing government. That is how Besigye becomes relevant when he comes up like he has come up. So the relevance of Besigye is good at this time,” says Prof Makara. The question is, can he sustain that momentum?
Mr Wakida, however, thinks that it is also about reminding Ugandans that they have a dangerous substitute lying in wait.
“You have watched the Opposition, almost quiet on issues that affect the ordinary person. So you needed a leader and I think by coming back there are two things that he is showing. He is telling you that this is what a true Opposition leader should be doing, but also that I am available for service in case you need me,” says Mr Wakida.
Can he sustain the campaign? That is the question.