Dr Kizza Besigye has been the leading opposition candidate in the last three Ugandan Presidential elections, twice as president of the Forum for Democratic Change (FDC). During the rule of Idi Amin (1971 – 1979) he studied medicine at Makerere University. In 1982 he joined the NRA forces in the Bush War, acting as Museveni’s private doctor. After Museveni took power, Dr Besigye was appointed State Minister for Internal Affairs. Shortly before the 2001 elections he stepped down from the Movement government and entered opposition politics. As well as challenging Museveni for the presidency in 2001, 2006 and 2011, Dr Besigye has also become an important figurehead in various Ugandan protest groups, including Walk-to-Work, Activists for Change and 4GC. Angus Barry interviewed Dr Besigye on 28th October this year in Oxford. Angus is a student at the University of Oxford. This is part one of a two-part interview.
How would you describe the campaigns you have used over the years?
Every campaign was different…I declared my intention to contest at the beginning of November 2000. And the election was in February of 2001, so I had about three months in which to prepare and to campaign. The campaign itself lasted about 40 days and Uganda is not very well connected by road infrastructure. In many places it is very difficult to reach, sometimes impossible, by vehicle. It was quite challenging. We had to move day and night literally without any rest. I had my support staff running after me with meals and I would eat between talking points.
Also, 2001 was the most violent election our country has ever had. We lost about eight people directly as a consequence of their support for my campaign. Three were gunned down at our rallies and others died in different parts. And many were maimed… imprisoned… tortured… to an extent that there was actually a formal parliamentary inquiry into the violence of that election.
Did the police harass you during the 2001 campaign?
Actually at that time it was not the police, it was the military. The police were even treated by the government as subversive, not supportive. Because the police [force] had been inherited from the previous regimes, it was not disbanded, whereas the military was entirely disbanded as a new [regime] came. The police remained, trying to sustain professionalism.
So they were not very much involved in the violence and criminality of the 2001 elections. It was the military and more so the military guards of the president, which was called the Presidential Protection Unit. In my home area, Rukungiri, a battalion of that unit was stationed for the entire duration of the campaign. I think they believed that that would be where I would have a lot of support. It terrorised people. On the day I held my campaign in the district it was violently dispersed towards the end of the rally, shooting and injuring very many people – and killing one in the process, right there in front of where I was.
Violence was the mainstay of the campaign period. Starting with 2001, they deployed troops to patrol all areas around polling centres. They just keep on moving from the night before, throughout the morning. They were passing the message to people that if you voted for me, war would break out.
With Uganda’s history I guess that’s a strong message
Yes, it is. Indeed this was going to be only the second election after 30 years or so, because of the wars we had gone through. People did not want to again go through the trauma of leaving their homes, going into internal displacement, fleeing to exile or having their economy disrupted.
And did you find that this happened across the country, or was it in specific areas?
In many parts of the country, but more so in southern Uganda because there was war in northern Uganda and many of the people [there] were living in camps. Those who were not in camps had fled the area and come to the South. So the population in northern Uganda was small and it was the strategy of the regime then to show that Museveni’s support was in the south.
Part of the campaign was that ‘You see, Besigye is being supported by the northerners. If he wins, they are coming back.’
Because of the trauma which the north had had for all those years, they were indeed supporting anyone who was opposing the regime. So I had massive [support] in the north, though obviously the numbers had dwindled because of the war.
Where did you find the most positive responses to your campaign?
Well I must say it was throughout the country. That’s what shook Museveni deeply; we had tremendous support all over the country.
Mark you, I did not have any organisational structure, because I had no political party. In the case of Museveni, he was using the NRM structure – which starts at the village and had officials all the way to the national level. I had no structure at all. Our supporters were actually organising themselves even without my knowledge and forming committees, forming campaign teams [and] raising money for their campaigns.
There were many irregularities on the polling day, partly through arresting of agents [and then] stuffing ballot papers once our agents were not there. They would bring pre-ticked ballot papers, just to put them in the boxes. They got into trouble in quite a number of polling stations, where the number of votes declared was more than the registered voters!
How did your campaign strategy change from 2001 to 2006?
In 2006, it was an election under a supposedly multiparty system. We had some kind of organisation that had structures in the country, which could organise and appoint officials. So we [the FDC] were structurally stronger. But I had been in exile for 4 years prior to the election. I [arrived] on the eve of the election; in fact I [reached] Uganda on the 26th of October. The election was in February. I only stayed 14 days during which I was appointed formally by the party as the flag bearer, as the presidential candidate. I think it was 10 days after that election I was then arrested and charged with treason, terrorism, illegal possession of guns and rape. Three of those charges were capital offences and the national nominations took place while I was still in prison. For part of the campaign I was in prison. I only got bail in January, a month before the elections.
How did you deal with that, personally?
First of all I expected it, so I was not taken by surprise. Even before I left South Africa, where I had been living, I had been informed that if I went back I would be arrested and charged with some of those offences.
Many people were telling me that information – the purpose of which I believed, and still believe, was meant to scare me so that I didn’t attempt to go back. When I went back I pretty much expected that I would be arrested. Many people had already been arrested while I was still away and charged with treason, and in their charges I was associated with them.
Were any of them successfully convicted?
No, no. None.
I have been arrested countless times – I can’t count them. Even now I have possibly about 30 something criminal cases pending against me. I was supposed to be in court today.
But at no time, including all those capital offences, has government ever even established a prima facie case. I’ve never had to defend myself on any of those charges. They are clearly trumped up, intended to deny us freedom and scare, scare our supporters and to exhaust our means.