What you need to know:
Milestone. The most enduring fighter against President Museveni’s government first went public 20 years ago this year. Isaac Mufumba delves into the whats, whys, ifs and buts of his epic journey.
It is 20 years since Col Dr Kizza Besigye penned the famous paper “An Insider’s View of How the National Resistance Movement (NRM) Lost the Broad Base”.
President Museveni’s response to the release of the document, in which Dr Besigye concluded that the Movement had lost its way, was that Dr Besigye would be court martialled for airing out his views in a wrong forum.
Until then, dissent and independent thought had been successfully curtailed, with Gen David Tinyefuza, now David Sejusa, who during the Constituent Assembly tried to oppose automatic extension of the Movement for another five years, left humiliated and forced to apologise and retract his comments during a meeting of the Movement Caucus.
Dr Besigye declared his intention to challenge Mr Museveni on October 28, 2000 at a hastily arranged press conference.
That Saturday, President Museveni and Paul Kagame of Rwanda were playing a game of football as one of the activities organised to celebrate a school reunion at Ntare School in Mbarara District. The news compelled Mr Museveni to prematurely leave the venue of the celebrations.
On November 1, Mr Museveni issued a statement in which he lashed out at him for unilaterally declaring himself a candidate.
“Besigye has gone about his intentions in an indisciplined and disruptive way. He has, without consulting any organ of the Movement, launched himself as a Movement candidate although it is well-known that he is in close collaboration with multipartists. Let us, however, assume that Col Besigye is not in cahoots with multipartists,” Mr Museveni wrote.
He accused Dr Besigye of having had a hand in the purchase of junk military helicopters from Belarus, before promising to write bi-weekly missives to “de-toxicate the toxins being administered” by people like Dr Besigye.
Dr Besigye’s rebuttal was quick. He invited the President to challenge him on, among other things, the existence of a military tender board and whether he often did not misdirect himself into thinking that he was the tender board. Mr Museveni did not respond. He also never fulfilled the promise to pen bi-weekly missives.
For several years, Mr Museveni had portrayed himself as the only man with the ability to control the army. The feeling that one could not be president without any links to the army had therefore become quite prevalent. That a retired colonel had risen to challenge Museveni gave reassurances to the fact that he would be able to reign in the army if he took charge.
Fourteen years of vilification and confinement of the political parties to their headquarters left them weak. So bad was the situation that being labelled a “multipartyist” often meant political suicide. The situation was not helped by infighting within both the Uganda Peoples’ Congress (UPC) and the Democratic Party (DP).
UPC was in disarray following a disagreement between President Milton Obote and Ms Cecilia Ogwal, over the former’s directive to party members not to participate in elections organised under the NRM.
DP was much stronger and expected to be the biggest challenge to the NRM but Mr Paul Kawanga Ssemogerere, the part leader, was reluctant to either take another shot at the presidency or endorse the candidatures of Mr Francis Bwengye and Mr Nasser Ntege Ssebaggala, especially after the death of Mr Anthony Wagaba Ssekweyama, the then DP publicity secretary on October 1, 2000, who had been tipped to take charge of DP in the run up to the elections.
Mr Ssebaggala had earlier lost the Kampala mayoral seat following his conviction for fraud in the United States of America.
Dr Ssemogerere backed Dr Besigye. Hajji Ssebaggala was also forced to back Dr Besigye after the Uganda National Examination’s Board (Uneb) declared that his papers were not equivalent to A-level, which is the minimum academic requirement for an aspirant for the office of the presidency.
Dr Besigye’s candidature was an instant hit with quite a number of people. One of them was the Secretary General of FDC, Mr Nathan Nandala Mafabi.
“When Dr Besigye penned that article which criticised the NRM for veering off course. I appreciated him for his honesty and I sympathised with him when he was threatened with reprisals. When he declared that he was going to run against Mr Museveni, I could not hesitate to support him,” Mr Mafabi said.
Dr Besigye hit the campaign trail running. His husky voice bellowed out a combination of policy issues such as the scrapping of graduated tax and reinvigoration of the cooperatives, sloganeering and rhetorical questions. Many remember him asking: “Omusajja akole kyi?” (What will the man do?) and the answer “Agende!” (He will go!).
The NRM government was to later implement his promise to scrap Graduated Tax.
It is difficult to assess Mr Ssebaggala’s contribution to Dr Besigye’s growth, but he assumed a role of chief campaigner. Many a time there were chants of “Hajji has ordered that you give Besigye your vote”.
Dr Besigye lost the election which was marred by claims of coercion of voters, violence and widespread rigging. In a report: “Not a level playing field”, which was published in February 2001, Human Rights Watch reported that “cases of violence and arbitrary arrests implicate army soldiers, military intelligence officers, the police, and the Presidential Protection Unit (PPU),” had been reported, but not investigated by the police.
In March 2001, Dr Besigye petitioned the Supreme Court to annul the elections on grounds of fraud. Though the court agreed with him that there had indeed been cheating, three of the five judges said it had not occurred to such a scale as to alter the outcome.
Flight into exile
Twice, he had been forced off planes as he prepared to leave the country. On March 17, he was hounded off a South African Airways flight before being hounded off a Kenya Airways flight on May 25, 2001. Internally, his movements had also been curtailed. On June 30, he was blocked at Lukaya on the Masaka-Mbarara highway as he was making his way to Mbarara.
On the same day, Mr Museveni while addressing a press conference at Kisozi, linked him to the bombs that had gone off in Jinja, Kasese and Kampala. He also challenged him to denounce Colonels Samson Mande and Anthony Kyakabale.
“Besigye should denounce their acts, if not, security will take interest,” he declared.
On August 17, that same year, he fled into exile. He has never revealed how he did it, where he passed or who helped him. He says he has never disclosed this because it might be necessary for him to use the same method again, the move left security agencies.
Return from exile
Dr Besigye returned to Uganda in October 2005 and hit the road, but was arrested on November 14 and charged with treason and rape in what was seen as a desperate attempt to keep him off the ballot paper.
His arrest sparked off riots. On November 25, the High Court granted him bail, but he was sent back to jail on charges of terrorism and illegal possession of weapons. He was freed on bail on January 6, 2006 to resume the campaign for President on the ticket of his party, FDC, which had earlier been registered while he was in exile.
Although he continued to campaign, his rallies were often disrupted and some of his supporters were shot and killed such as was the case in Mengo. A military truck also rammed into some of his supporters in Mukono, which led to a sharp disagreement between two officers of the Chieftaincy of Military Intelligence, Lt James Mugisha, and Ernest Katabazi over the unnecessary brutality. Lt Mugisha has since fled into exile amid threats from those he disagreed with.
Mr Museveni was declared winner with 4,109,449 or 59.26 of the vote against Dr Besigye’s 2,592,954 or 37.39 per cent. Dr Besigye petitioned the court, but once again three of the five judges upheld the election.
The 2011 campaign saw Dr Besigye attempt to do things a bit differently. One of the issues that had come up in previous elections was he appeared too tough, which was putting off, especially the female voters. A new Besigye, turned up dancing and smiling. He also had television adverts.
At the time the campaign kicked off, mobile telephone service providers, Warid Telecom, had just launched the
“Pakalast” package, which entailed loading airtime packages and “speaking on phone for long hours” the NRM was quick to latch on to it and incorporate it into its campaign slogan. “Museveni Pakalast”.
Dr Besigye, was quick to latch onto it, saying what Mr Museveni’s supporters were saying was poverty, bad governance, corruption, poor facilities in schools and lack of drugs in hospitals should continue. He would bellow “Poverty!” and the crowds shouted back “Pakalast.”
One of his main issues was the introduction of a loan scheme for university students. The NRM has since started implementing it.
Mr Museveni won with 5,428,369 or 68.38 per cent of the vote against Dr Besigye’s 2,064,963 or 26.01 of the vote. It was a surprise result given that Dr Besigye posted fewer votes that he had posted in the previous election. It should, however, be noted that the NRM spent huge sums of money on this particular campaign. The NRM, which had spent Shs15 billion on Museveni’s 2006 election is alleged to have spent in excessive of Shs20 billion in 2011, the highest figure ever. Nevertheless, Dr Besigye did not contest the outcome in court.
One of his biggest strengths has been the ability to reinvent himself and eclipse many who have emerged amid pomp. Following the setback suffered in the election, Dr Besigye latched on the rise in inflation from four per cent in 2010 to 16.2 per cent in 2011 to launch the walk to work protests.
With commodity prices soaring to unprecedented levels and the shilling sharply depreciating against the dollar, the campaign became popular. During the protests, he was brutally arrested and doused with pepper by a police officer, Gilbert Arinaitwe. He required treatment in Nairobi, Kenya but the protests and the arrest thrust him back into relevance.
Again in the run up to the 2016 general election, former prime minister and NRM secretary general Amama Mbabazi, had been seen as a major force who could eclipse Dr Besigye and eject Mr Museveni from office. However, despite the backing of DP, Mr Mbabazi could only manage 136,519 or 1.39 per cent of the vote in a race in which Mr Museveni was declared winner with 5,971,872 or 60.62 per cent of the vote while Besigye came second with 3,508,687 or 35.61 per cent.
It is difficult to explain why very many people remain loyal to him. Whereas Minister Beti Olive Kamya once criticised his style, claiming he is too combative to be a good leader, others who have worked with him insist he is a good leader.
“He is a good leader. He lets you make your mistakes. You learn along the way,” said former Leader of the Opposition in Parliament (LOP), Mr Wafula Oguttu, in a previous interview.
Mr Robert Kyagulanyi Ssentamu, also known as Bobi Wine, who campaigned for the eventual winners in Bugiri and Arua parliamentary by-election as Besigye campaigned for those who lost has now emerged as a potential contender for the presidency. The Kyaddondo MP’s arrival has seen many call on Dr Besigye to step aside. Will Bobi Wine outlast Dr Besigye? That is the question.
1975: Went to Kampala
1979: Joins Museveni’s movement
1982: Becomes Museveni’s doctor
1986: Named minister
2001: Challenges President Museveni in elections. Flees Uganda after losing
2005: Returns to Uganda
2006: Charged with treason and rape before election - later acquitted on both counts
Feb 2011: Loses election
April 2011: Injured during one of four arrests during “Walk-to-Work” protests
February 2016: Runs for president for a fourth time and declares himself the people’s president.
December 2019: Dr Besigye declares he will not quit the political scene unless he finishes his political war.