Since 2001, Dr Kizza Besigye, once a personal doctor, minister and senior military officer of President Yoweri Museveni has offered himself for election for the highest office in Uganda. In 2001 and 2006, he challenged Museveni’s election in the Supreme Court, opting out of that route in 2011 and 2016. He elected not to offer himself for the presidency in the 2021 general election, proclaiming focus on what he called ‘Plan B’. In this interview, Ivan Okuda sat Besigye down at his Katonga Road office in Kampala for a conversation that crosses the boundary beyond Uganda’s politics and reflects on the problem of Africa.
How have you been and what have you been up to?
I have been surviving, which in Uganda is a full-time preoccupation and it has become more so with the challenges caused by Covid-19 which rendered many of our colleagues and associates in the struggle to be extremely vulnerable. So when I talk about survival it is not just about my survival but also the people I work with and those I am in the struggle with. It is extremely difficult to live, to pay rent, have food on the table, meet medical care and so on, so it’s been extremely challenging going through the Covid-19 lockdown and the post-lockdown period that then merged into the elections. We had many candidates all over the place who were extremely hard-pressed to run campaigns and were appealing for help left and right.
So it’s been a rather stressful spell, the whole of 2020 and spreading into this new year but even in the midst of all that, my focus has never shifted from what I think is the most demanding work of our generation and our country which is to change the basis on which our country is run; that we can cease to be subjects of gunmen and become citizens. I have lived in countries outside Uganda where I have enjoyed easy means of survival but I also was able to witness firsthand what it means not to have the full range of citizenship where you are an alien, so that intensified my passion to pursue full citizenship in my God- given country and that takes total focus of whatever I do. Even when I am struggling to survive in terms of welfare, that is my focus.
The talk out there is that Besigye is a rich man, so when you paint a picture of ‘struggling to survive’ some people may think you are taking modesty too far
Part of that impression, which is definitely false, has been deliberately cultivated by our adversaries and they do so for two main reasons. One is to isolate you from the ordinary suffering of the people; to say to them, “you are wasting your time, this one is doing this to cause you trouble, he is in a different category, you are not the same.” Secondly, it is to drive the demand among our activists to say, “help us, you are in position to help us” and if I don’t help them, they conclude that I just didn’t want to help them.
Actually I faced this first-hand after the 2001 elections. These days they tend to tell people I am rich because I have a good house. In 2001, I didn’t have any home anywhere, neither in Kampala nor in the village because I worked for government and I couldn’t have made money in government. So I left after diligent service with nothing in terms of material gain. I was renting a house in Luzira where I was living with my family and after the elections, we had an office on Bukoto Street.
You know 2001 was one of the most violent elections in Ugandan history. Some people had been displaced from upcountry districts into Kampala as internally displaced people; we had many people from Kamwenge whom we had allocated to homes that could accommodate them. Their houses had been burnt and the people around Kampala had been traumatised; they were in jails, beaten up and had a lot of health problems that needed help. So there would be a lot of people at our office. I would arrive in the morning to deal with these welfare problems until very late in the night. Then one day I met an old friend who was in ISO [Internal Security Organisation] and he told me many people who were at my office everyday had been sent by ISO to pin me down and take any penny I may have in my pocket.
He asked me to come with him so that he could show me. He told me to park just below the ISO offices which were in Nakasero, near what used to be the French embassy at about 7:30am, take note of the people who came out and that I’d notice many at my office. I did as he advised and for sure they were being deployed to make sure that once they put pressure on me to raise money, they would come with stories that would attract sympathy from me. I was dealing with those I knew were genuine but I didn’t know who was affected and who was telling a lie.
However, having said that, I have never considered myself a poor man because poverty is really at heart. Whatever I have, I freely share. I do not have any ambition of building a portfolio of assets because at the end of the day, whatever you have amassed, you will leave it here and not sure where it will end. I am happy that I have only two biological children, the last one (Anslem) is in his final semester at college and will soon be an independent man, so I have no pressures at a personal level. I consider myself a rich man indeed in that aspect.
The other narrative is that you, and I mean you in its plural sense, get a lot of money from ‘bazungu’ to do what you are doing and whatever you do is to justify that kind of funding. Is that something you want to respond to?
First of all, I think that is really said and possibly given some attention by people who would not be serious at interrogating whatever they hear because what is it that the bazungu, (who I suspect are Western countries) would be wanting us to deliver to them? The Western countries actually have done everything they could do to promote, support and give succour (relief) to the Museveni regime all this time and for a good measure because he has been a good foreman for whatever they wanted him to do.
For a long time, Museveni volunteered to be an activist in the war on terror and we have deployed troops in that respect. He has been given accolades as being very critical for the stability of the region. He has been highly praised even when the locals had a totally different view. You remember he was called beacon of hope for democracy by president Clinton (ex-US president) and Tony Blair (ex-British prime minister). So what is it that they’d be paying us to do? What would they expect us to deliver? But on the other hand, any money that comes from democratic governments is accounted for unlike here where Museveni has tonnes of money in the room and gives people freely.
Any money of democratic governments is accounted for so to get it, you must have some write up, go through a process then the money comes formally through the banking system. You can’t go to an embassy and be given cash. There is no money from foreigners to any organisation in Uganda that cannot be openly traced. So if there was any money coming to our political parties, it would be signed for. Again, that narrative of foreigners helping Ugandans is a deliberate narrative to shield the regime from its failures. That’s one thing in which Museveni is consistent, in blaming everyone else except himself. He talks about the failures of his ministers as if they are appointed by any other person apart from himself. He comments about his government like an Opposition politician.
So I can positively state that I have never received any money from any foreign government directly or indirectly through any organisation and I wouldn’t mind getting support because there is also a narrative to suggest that foreigners don’t have legitimate interest in what we do. They do. First of all, a lot of what we are doing is advancing human rights. It’s not partisan, we are advocates of human rights and freedoms such as expression, representation, we are against ill treatment of citizens and rights have no borders. You cannot say, “I am killing my citizens so don’t disturb me. I have a sovereign right to kill my own people.” So because Uganda has committed itself to becoming part of the international community by signing the covenants on human rights (both international and regional), other governments have a legitimate right to see what goes on here, to promote human rights and support those who are supporting good governance.
Many parts of the Third World claim China is a better partner because it comes to transact with no questions asked, and there is growing resentment towards the Western countries because their modus operandi brings back the colonial mentality of master and servant, a kind of hierarchy of power to direct you on how to manage your affairs. Is that a fair assessment of the West?
I don’t think that is a fair assessment because the reason that they (the West) appear to show concern about governance issues is that it relates directly to the support that they give us (I am not one of those who believe that they give us aid but if I am making an investment like how Mr Museveni has been crying for investments in oil; if I am investing $3b in Uganda, I must assess the political and economic risks. Now if as is the case most often, the government is detached from the population and there is tension between the two, you are transacting and making agreements with a government that lacks popular legitimacy. Then you are putting your investment to risk and so to that extent, if you are attracting my money, I have the right to criticise and show concern and say you need to first sort this out, there must be rule of law.
China not asking questions will get in trouble because yes it is attractive for the governments to transact with no pressures, but you may have heard like in Zambia where there is a lot of hostility to China because of appearing to work with the corrupt regimes that do not represent the people to exploit those people and it will cause a serious problem I suspect, in the near future. I think if we don’t want interference, we should be strong. The reason we get interference is that we are vulnerable. If we can’t pay our own salaries and meet the recurrent expenditure of the Budget, how can we be independent?
Some observers of politics would be forgiven for suggesting that east or west, Kizza Besigye isn’t a desirable choice for the presidency because you’ve criticised China, written articles on odious debts of China and in some quarters I have heard, that the West also sees you as not exactly sucking up to them, and therefore both sides will look for a more amiable and easy-to-manipulate candidate
I have said time and again that I have never come into politics seeking an office, I have no ambition of becoming a president, absolutely none. I only have an ambition of being a full citizen and being in control of my country, having power in my country, and that power in my country also suggests that the leaders of my country must arise from the support of the people of my country and not of other countries.
Yes, I fully understand that in real life and real politics, these powerful interests have a lot of play which play indeed has plagued Africa and that’s why Africa is where it is, that is why the progressive independence leaders were murdered. That is why, though Africa is the most resource-rich continent in the world, its people are the poorest, living in humiliation. My mission is empowerment of people to assert their will rather than for me to navigate and become a leader in whatever kind of environment because I have said time and again, if I wanted to take that path, I would never have left the NRM [National Resistance Movement] because I was placed in positions through which it would have been easy to navigate and become a leader in the country. Even now it’s possible to conspire with some soldiers and overthrow a regime but the question is whether that will change the nature and direction of the country or not.
So I clearly believe that foreign powers have been a part of our problem and not a part of our solution and I do not begrudge them for what they do because they serve the interests of their countries. I don’t think they serve the interests of their countries in the best way though, because it’s possible to have a win-win situation with fair negotiations and just relations because injustice will never lead to stability, whether that injustice is domestic or international, injustice and peace are contradictory.
Allow me ask a question that President Museveni asked a long time ago, “What is Africa’s problem?” That was a question that was asked in the 1970s in the University of Dar-es-Salaam debates where leading scholars like Dani Nabudere, Mahmood Mamdani and Yash Tandon debated the question, ‘What is Uganda’s problem? Is it Idi Amin?’ What in your view is Africa’s problem and Uganda’s problem for that matter?
That is a huge, complex question. I don’t think one can say the problem is this and pin point one area. I think it’s a multiplicity of sources of what we construe as Africa’s problem, but I think from the multiplicity of sources of the problem, it boils down to really being a challenge of knowledge. I think Africa is separated from the rest of the world by its deficit of knowledge and it’s by the multiplicity of the sources of the problem that you can interrogate that have brought us to such a level of low knowledge compared to the rest. Knowledge is the source of power and wealth and we shall need to navigate ourselves out of the situation of lack of knowledge and look at what led us here, and comprehensively address it.
I heard Mr Museveni very recently say that there are very few things in the world that he doesn’t know. If you have a person who can publicly say such a thing, it’s an indicator of the disastrous ignorance that Africa has because he has been at the helm for a long time, so if you don’t know that you don’t know, then you are a danger. For all intents and purposes, Museveni is now illiterate in terms of the 21st Century. If he had no aides and was asked to travel from here to America, he wouldn’t arrive. He would never navigate through the airport. He doesn’t even know how to use a laptop. So this [lack of knowledge] is extremely urgent if it is not corrected; I don’t see how Africa is going to survive.
For example, Japan which has no resources of any kind, save some fish in the ocean where their islands are, they have nothing, they live in the most hostile territory with earthquakes and terrible weather but they have been the second richest country in the world for a while, now pushed by China. What makes them what they are is knowledge. Now here [Africa] the knowledge that we had before colonial advent is all but gone. Knowledge that had been accumulated through centuries of our people is gone. My grandmother was an accomplished herbalist and medical practitioner. She would examine patients, make diagnosis, go to the field, pick up herbs and treat people and even patients from outside Uganda would come here for medical consultation from her.
These medicines she used had been passed over lineage of her parents for a long time. This disappeared. We had started mining and making implements for ourselves like iron, but there is nothing now, and you can see today there has been no formal education for a year and nobody is bothered. The amount of loss in terms of what happens between Uganda and other countries is immense. So, of course, now fleshing out what causes this knowledge gap is a whole lot of things but I think the most pervasive of all those is political management, how we organise ourselves. It is just that that led to our domination by foreigners in the first place and we have never emerged out of that because once people don’t have freedom, their innovative capacity is affected.
I think you make a powerful argument on the knowledge gap. In terms of the elite, whether it is the ruling party or the Opposition, civil society or the media, do you think that there’s a proper framing of what our issues and problems are?
That is precisely the problem. The people we call intellectuals are not intellectuals as far as I am concerned, and whether it’s the system that produces them or other factors that affect the development of our elite, it’s depressing when you listen to people making analysis in the media and how superficial they are. And indeed, intellectuals would be helpful in getting evidence of what’s going on, making suggestions that would help us out of what has been established. I frankly don’t see that.
In the1960s, I think we had better intellectual engagements. There was a lot of vibrancy in terms of ideas in the different universities like Makerere and Dar-es-salaam; that seems to have grossly declined. I don’t think I can immediately trace what has accounted for this decline. Whether it’s part of the influences of what’s been going on in the world and how our education has been funded and controlled, because again African governments have not made education a priority as a tool that will lift us from where we are. Look at how these countries that have excelled and pulled out of the quagmire have done. The Singapores, South Korea, what they focused on most is knowledge which we haven’t. We have instead focused on buying weapons and talking about infrastructure projects from which to steal, even then using external knowledge.
So that’s why I cite politics in terms of what has caused where we are; I think the political trajectory of African states, mainly the continuing domination of how we proceed, the external factors determining where research will take place, is what has made us become this vulnerable.
If politics is the problem, how does one explain the fact that we framed that as a problem, in the case of Uganda; in 1971 Idi Amin had the 18-point justification for his over throw of the government of the day and he basically put Milton Obote and Uganda Peoples Congress at the centre of the problem. Then he had many years of proving himself to be another problem, and whoever succeeded him in 1979 was still put at the centre of the problem. Some people say Mr Museveni will exit the stage tomorrow as a function of either biology or factors beyond his control, and a new problem will emerge. So how can we cut the chain of these problems?
That’s why I’ve been saying that the greatest investment should go to empowerment of ordinary people. Now formal education is very critical in doing that but civic education is equally important in getting people to know how states function and what their role is in those states, and what effort they need to make to move the country in a positive direction.
The drivers of change must come from below and not from above. I don’t believe in this whole thing of saying that you are a good leader, a good person, and you will cause the changes, so remove the corrupt one and put yourself. The guarantors for good governance should be the people not the leader. Building competences at the bottom is the best investment you can make and that’s why political actors, media, civil society should invest in that civic empowerment as much as people; once people are awake and active, they’ll demand that we invest in the right places and invest in people, that the biggest budget will go to education and research, the demand will go to the right places.
What was the most outstanding observation in this election?
Frankly, his propaganda and so on. The control of State institutions and more pointedly the Electoral Commission (EC) again has been constant. With this particular election, remember that while it was going on, he sacked senior managers of the EC. The gerrymandering of constituencies is another constant factor, creation of new municipalities and cities, all aimed at manipulating the electoral map. The EC is the one supposed to demarcate constituencies, but that has been long forgotten as all are created by Museveni, through the loophole that was created in the law by making administrative units constituencies.
The polling day malpractices, pre-ticked ballot papers, arresting of polling agents, all the things that we have faced in the past were exactly the same and eventually, fake results manufactured from their own tally centre that are fed into the EC. All these things have been exactly the same, now hiding under the cover of Covid-19 of course they escalated the violence but frankly I haven’t seen anything that is extraordinary in this election.
You didn’t find the central Uganda vote slipping out of Mr Museveni’s hands extraordinary considering that he has, since 1996 always considered Buganda a bird in the bag?
Nothing was different from the past, save for the extent because in every election Mr Museveni procures it first by deployment of force to frighten the country, terrorise his opponents and to eventually control polling stations. So use of force is standard and has been escalating as his genuine support declines. Two is the use of money.
These are the leading tools. Remember in 2011, he raided the Central Bank and caused an inflation overnight of more than 30 per cent which he realised was a problem and which has destabilised the country economically since. In this election, he literally closed off government, only spending on Electoral Commission, State House, defence and the statutory payments.
The third tool he employs in every election is the control of the media and domination of information flow and the challenge that we really need to engage with more seriously is that what he has and what he has not, nobody knows in all elections because if one is manufacturing results and using narratives to accompany those results, it’s very difficult to know what the truth is. In the elections that I participated in, he first had the narrative that the political north was against him because he had deposed leaders from there and the rest of the country was with him.
Eventually he started a war there and destroyed that region, the political north.
So Museveni does two things; first he excludes those that he assigns that narrative, they will not be receiving services and appointments and he concentrates the patronage where he claims to have support and indeed those patronage networks, because they are concentrated there, they are in the media and the population spending. They are the brokers of that patronage. They start creating a semblance of some support being there whereas really not.
They steal, deploy media and money to create impressions. In the last election when Kasese [district] was said to have voted against him, never mind that other places voted him out, he excluded them, went and hammered them, destroyed Kasese then sent Gen Salim Saleh with Operation Wealth Creation to rehabilitate people and now create a new patronage network. In the last election indeed there was greater enthusiasm in Buganda without any doubt, part of which he also cultivated.
There were agents and these were agents from him, who started saying, if you recall the Abed Bwankia campaign asking, “What is wrong with Buganda? Why do you vote for Besigye? Don’t you have your own?” Of course, it appeared like he was saying that he was a candidate with Besigye, he (Bwanika) is a Muganda, why would Buganda vote Besigye and not their own? He had airtime on CBS and used to quote Bible verses to make his point.
So that was deliberately cultivated together with the narrative that Besigye is the same as Museveni, one is controlling the front door, the other the back door, they are part of the same 50-year plan. So he cultivated that campaign, mainly to deal with me and to some extent Forum for Democratic Change (FDC) which he saw as one of the emerging problems he was facing so he wanted to put those problems down and create a new situation.
Now as that was going on, a popular leader emerges in Buganda and that group of Bwanika embraced the popular leader and promoted the narrative. So yes to some extent, there was also a whipped up Buganda nationalism but make no mistake, Robert Kyagulanyi was not only supported in Buganda, he was supported everywhere else, but now Museveni chose, and that’s why these results you must take with a pinch of salt, to advance the narrative of divide and rule, he now excludes Buganda and claims it was sectarianism, even when in Ankole, there are many polling stations where he has been given 100 per cent of registered voters, which, of course, was not the true voting.
So there are two things. One is that Museveni has been using divide and rule like the colonialists did to pit one group against the other progressively in different parts as his years have been going by. But secondly, there are also regional demands. Buganda has legitimate interest. It has been passionately demanding for federo and it’s legitimate. There is nothing illegitimate with a region projecting its demands. And so I think that enthusiasm also had that legitimate demand inbuilt in it but Buganda is the only region in Uganda that is truly cosmopolitan, in fact, it is very difficult to know who is and who isn’t a Muganda in Buganda. So I don’t think that there was any sectarian voting at all.
When you look at not less than 60 Members of Parliament by a party (National Unity Platform) that has been around for hardly six months, a fairly impressive performance in the circumstances by presidential candidate Kyagulanyi, some people are saying this has taken away your shine. Do you think that your shine or FDC’s shine has been stolen by a new formation?
I think it’s a misplaced narrative because if my shine, if I had a shine at all, was pegged on the numbers we have in Parliament, it was wrongly assessed because our struggle is not about Parliament at all and people are elected into Parliament for different reasons. You now have a representative in Parliament of PPP [People’s Progressive Party] which didn’t even have a presidential candidate or support one. You have parties like Gen Mugisha Muntu’s which had a very active political campaign nationally but nobody in Parliament, so would one interpret it that PPP has a greater shine politically in Uganda than Alliance for National Transformation? I don’t think so.
My sense is that the country’s focus must remain on liberation of our power which is not in Parliament; even if we had 200 MPs of the Opposition, there wouldn’t be any significant change. You saw soldiers go to Parliament to beat up everyone. Museveni has said on many occasions, that if Parliament continues to take itself seriously he can abolish it. So anybody who takes Parliament seriously in terms of the struggle we are engaged in to my mind is missing the point.
In 1980, Democratic Party had 51 MPs, UPC had 74, UPM had one and even he won by default because the DP candidate was gunned down during campaigns and people just gave Dr Crispus Kiyonga a protest vote. Museveni who had no MP goes to the bush. Honourable Ssemogerere goes to Parliament with his 51 MPs.
By 1985 when the UPC government was overthrown, I think half the members of DP had already left but more importantly, Museveni who had no MP by that time was ready to take over the whole country. So he picked his struggle correctly. Parliament wasn’t where the power was. Power was in the guns, so he looked for the guns and everybody followed him, and DP has never recovered.
I hope Ugandans don’t waste their time thinking that you’re doing well because you have more MPs. All those are used as divisive mechanisms to create an atmosphere where NUP becomes a rival of FDC and that we are fighting for supremacy in the prison.
Where and how do you see this whole Museveni system ending because he has secured himself another five years and is already doing press-ups for 2026?
It’s extremely difficult to predict what happens in opaque systems like we have. There is no transparency anywhere, there are no functional formal institutions as the system depends on informal institutions.
What is very clear is that the regime is very vulnerable on account first of all, of a very weak economy that it now depends on borrowing even for the most basic needs of a regime, on account of a dysfunctional security system; they are recruiting and training more people but anyone who casually examines the security system sees that there’s huge discontent within the security system, the contradictions are evident and sometimes they are at war, and this goes on in all formations; ISO, ESO [External Security Organisation], SFC [Special Forces Command], CMI [Chieftaincy of Military Intelligence], then you have the military under the two Muhoozis, the formal CDF [Chief of Defence Forces] and the informal CDF and the complications that arise from all those.
You now have what appears to be increasingly disenchanted international community which for long gave support and succour to the regime.
So it’s clear that the regime is very vulnerable. What isn’t entirely clear is what kind of competences there are within the population and civil society to bring it down. Clearly Museveni has also become quite aged and incoherent in his thinking and actions. He is bound to make many grave mistakes so anything can happen.
My focus is that we must do everything in our own power to have the capacity to keep the country together and to guide it onto a different trajectory once the NRM junta has totally collapsed, which is bound to happen sooner rather than later but as I said, only God can know when that will happen.
This interview was commissioned and first published by the East African Center for Investigative Reporting’s online publication, www.voxpopuli.com.