The Sankara trial, and Besigye-Museveni affair

Wednesday October 13 2021
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Author, Charles Onyango Obbo. PHOTO/FILE

By Charles Onyango-Obbo

On Monday The Daily Monitor had two stories about former Opposition Forum for Democratic Change (FDC) leader and four-time presidential candidate Dr Kizza Besigye.

In one, Besigye listed various reasons why he was “too angry” to stand against President Yoweri Museveni in the January 2021 General Election.

On the other, The Daily Monitor reported that the treason case against Besigye for allegedly swearing-in himself as the president following the disputed 2016 election, had been withdrawn. The withdrawal of the case was done in December 2019, but it was not followed with the formal process in court, it reported, so unsurprisingly Besigye’s lawyers said they were unaware of it.

On the same Monday, one of the big Africa news headlines was the beginning of the trial of 14 men accused of the complicity of the murder of the dashing and charismatic Burkina Faso then-president Thomas Sankara almost exactly 34 years ago.

The main accused, Blaise Compoare, Sankara’s bosom ally and comrade, who is alleged to have masterminded the assassination, didn’t show up for the proceedings. Having plotted the killing of Sankara, Compoare took power and ruled as a corrupt dictator for 27 years until he was ousted in popular protests in 2014, and exiled to Ivory Coast where he still lives.

At first glance, there is no link between these three events – until one takes a close second look. Museveni and Besigye might not have been as close as Sankara and Compoare, but were close enough. Besigye was Museveni’s doctor in the bush during their armed struggle and was the National Resistance Movement (NRM’s) chief ideologue in the first years of its rule.

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There is a common story of betrayal, except that unlike in Burkina Faso, in Uganda’s case it is Museveni who stuck the knife in Besigye’s back. And, of course, Besigye has had a longer life. He’s now 65, but Sankara was only 37 when he was slain on October 15, 1987. 

Sankara often referred to as “Africa’s Che Guevara”, has become a revolutionary and progressive icon on the continent. His image is still popular on car stickers, t-shirts, and stories about him have a habit of going viral on social media. In the tracking work that we do for the “Wall of Great Africans”, we have found that he is the deceased African leader whose brand becomes more popular with every passing year.  He is only rivalled by the (DR) Congolese nationalist and independence leader Patrice Lumumba.

Assassinated at the younger age of 36 in January 1961, Lumumba still evokes strong and powerful emotions, and together with Sankara, are the most referenced African leaders of the last 50 years by sub-Saharan millennials on social media, blogs, historical podcasts, and political art. It is easier to see the enduring appeal of Sankara with the present youth. Lumumba’s is much more complex.

Besigye is nowhere near Sankara’s or Lumumba’s iconic status, but in a future list of Africa’s top 50 Opposition politicians of the early 21st century, he will likely place very high.

A lot of that will depend on what he does next. The Daily Monitor quoted him saying that after staying away from the 2021 election; “Silence could not help, let’s now stand and face each other in the eye and see what will come out. So now I have come fully.” It isn’t clear whether he meant that he was jumping back in the electoral fray.

However, there is no doubting Robert Kyagulanyi (more popularly known as Bobi Wine) eclipsed Besigye, and every other politician, in his meteoric rise to Opposition doyen from 2019 to the election, and immediately after. Bobi Wine seems to be struggling to figure out what Besigye was a master at – what to do to remain relevant after you have fairly lost or been robbed at an election (eg. the post-2011 “Walk to work” protests, and post-2016 “Defiance” campaign).

So it is that reflecting on the trial of Sankara’s alleged murderers this week, and Besigye, I do see one thing in common. Sankara is partly idolised because he didn’t last long enough in power to turn into a nightmare, undo his good works, and fill jails – and graves – with his rivals. In cutting his life and rule short, Compaore and his fellow conspirators unwittingly cemented his place in history.

In cheating him at the polls as many times as they have, and brutalising him so shamefully, the Museveni machine too could have helped place Besigye on a historical pedestal. 

Because he never became president, he and his cronies have not plundered the treasury; he has not oppressed or killed us, and he has not had to wallow in nepotism. 

In 10 years from now, history might not only show that Besigye lost elections four times. It could also tell that he was four times lucky.

Mr Onyango-Obbo is a journalist, writer and curator of the “Wall of Great Africans”. 

Twitter: @cobbo3

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