An interview with Kizza Besigye: part two

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In the first half of his interview with Dr Besigye, Angus Barry asked him about his electoral strategies in the 2001 and 2006 elections, including the charges brought against him and his supporters.   After contesting the 2011 elections Dr Besigye stepped down from the FDC presidency.  However he has remained in the opposition spotlight, especially through his work with various Ugandan protest groups.  In this half of the interview Angus asks Dr Besigye about the current state of Ugandan politics, what mistakes he feels he has made and his ‘campaign of defiance’.

 How would you describe the 2011 campaign?

In the 2011 campaign, we had the best kind of preparation of all the three. First of all, in all of the five years between 2006 and 2011 I was free – [I was] disturbed by all these cases, but I was not in prison. I was able to move around the country and interact with people on the grassroots several times.

We were able to renew all our grassroots structures and the FDC [Forum for Democratic Change] had elections from the polling stations.  And we had training of our leaders.

What do you think about the creation of new districts?

[That is] part of the patronage system.  One of the things we were saying we need to reconstruct is public administration.  In a small country like Uganda, why should we have nearly 400 members for Parliament?  Each one earning a basic take home [income] of about 10,000 dollars a month!  Then you have all these district leaders – we have 112 districts, with a whole establishment on top of each – and nearly 80 ministers in government.  One of our messages has been we need to reconstruct this. In 2011 we were able to do all that and we had a very effective campaign, and we had an effective infrastructure to manage that election.

… This time there was much less violence, even less than 2006 and certainly much less than 2001.  One thing which substantially changed was the use of money.  After the 2011 elections we had inflation that shot up from 5% to 30%

Especially with food prices?

Across the board, whether it is soap, water… [etc.]. And, of course, the government tried to explain it by saying that there were international issues of [rising] fuel prices. But that is certainly not the reason. The reason is that there was printing of money – equivalent to 800 million dollars (2 trillion Ugandan shillings), without the authority of Parliament. They authorised it after the elections, retrospectively. So [there was] tonnes and tonnes of money, which was poured all over to bribe election officials, to bribe the voters, to bribe religious leaders, the chiefs, anybody.  There had always been bribing, but certainly not at the level we saw in 2011.

What mistakes do you think you have made during your campaigns?

In 2011 there was the tricky matter of having a coalition, called the Interparty Cooperation. The idea had been to have the main opposition parties rally around one candidate.

In the end, it did not materialise. A number of important elements within the cooperation broke off.  In the process, we squandered a lot of time trying to keep everything together internally and trying to weave all these things together. Precious time that would have been used to actually go out there and influence the voters was wasted. It ended up generating very confusing messages, because some of the people who broke off from the co-operation remained in the race [and] were saying they were candidates of IPC.

So voters were confused about this ‘IPC’ and ‘FDC’ and the other parties. That certainly had negative impact on the elections.  So much in fact that immediately after the elections the main feeling within our party (the FDC) was that we should not try to have another alliance with these parties again.

Do you think there will be another attempt for an alliance?

I think it is strategically beneficial.  But part of the failure of [the IPC] is what is expected – it is the invisible hand of the regime.  They would use some of the elements within the political parties on the table to frustrate, to delay, to cause confusion…  So [managing] to achieve it effectively, maintain it to the end, have effective messages and contain the infighting is quite a Herculean task.

I read an article recently in which you accused the educated upper classes of being ‘selfish, opportunistic and self-serving’ in respect of their politics.  Do you think that is still true?

Well actually it is.  It is about the majority, certainly not all, but the majority of the political elite – that is the intellectuals at the universities, the people who are working in the banks, the corporations, and so on. I think they find themselves in the dilemma of choosing between their own security, stability and comfort, and their own conscience. They clearly know that things are going wrong and the system is wrong.  If you discuss privately there is nothing they don’t know.  But they chose to keep quiet and not talk about it – or even talk for the regime – because if they don’t they will be sacked.  And, of course, the regime, through the patronage system, is actively attracting them with favours of appointment, of promotions, of material benefits.  You find some who deliberately go in the media and write things they clearly know are not true.

You are very famous for the Walk to Work protests, what demographics did you find turning up for those?

They were the ordinary people: the market people, the riders of the boda bodas… You hardly find any of those middle class people. But in the evening they will be sending you quiet messages [saying] ‘we actually support you people, you keep on!’

Are you still part of 4GC?

Oh yes.  I believe it is the only realistic, peaceful avenue to having a transition to a democratic dispensation.  What we are dealing with in Uganda is a military regime.  NRM was not the one that captured power; it was NRA, which took over the reins of power in 1986.  It [the NRA] is still the real power that controls state authority.

How do you look back on your time in the military?

With disappointment; I had never set out to be a career military officer.  I only joined a revolutionary movement that sought to create political changes. I did not seek to become a career officer.  It is those changes [that] our effort unfortunately failed to generate.  Indeed, the military that we helped build was used to subvert that very intention.

So, you find that all other institutions are really emasculated – the real power is in the military.  In that kind of situation I am very sure that no kind of election can cause change.

Where do you see the changes coming from?

There must be transitional bodies.  The kind of transition I am talking about is, for example, after Kenya had its disaster 2007.  There was a negotiated transition with some kind of mediator, which now agreed on how to reconstruct the constitution, how to build a new judiciary, how to build the new institutions to manage the elections, how to build the security organisations.

Now that will not happen by the regime voluntarily saying ‘this is a good thing, come and see it and we negotiate this’. There has to be internal pressure which delegitimises the military establishment and the only process [capable] of doing so, to my mind, is the popular defiance organising those demonstrations.

Did you have that opinion when you were running for election in 2011?

Right from 2001, I have never been under the illusion that we are going to go to the elections and the electoral commission will announce a different result – because it is not our electoral commission. The question has been appropriately asked ‘if you know that election is going to be that rigged, why do you participate in it?’ We do so for two major reasons. One is to use the platform of the election, with the help of the international torch on the country, to actually rally people – to carry the message, rally people and empower them.  That is precisely why we are now able to have demonstrations that paralyse the system.  Two, for organisation.  I can send one message now and it goes to all parts of the country in an instant, because we have all those networks.  But we believe that the election will not have benefits beyond that, so we must get to the stage where the defiance campaign takes the upper hand.

What do you think you are going to do next?

The defiance campaign.  In fact that is why I stepped down from the leadership of the FDC.  The defiance campaign cannot be run on the basis of the party.  It must be a broad front.


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