From the Daily Monitor Archives: November 6, 2000
(Background: Dr. Kizza Besigye wrote a landmark critique of the NRM in late 1999. He was threatened with court-martial. He was spared after intervention by elders from Rukungiri. Plans were afoot to arrest him in late 2000. Although Besigye had had no interest in being president, and with nobody else in the NRM brave enough to take on the incumbent, he declared his candidacy for president in the 2001 election.)
Letter to a Kampala Friend
By Dr. Muniini K. Mulera
November 6, 2000
Truth to tell, I had hoped that Colonel Dr. Kiiza Besigye would be court martialed for his critical analysis of the state of the NRM/Movement late last year.
My enthusiasm for the court martial was not because I relished the prospect of Besigye being dragged before a military court whose verdict was almost certainly a foregone conclusion.
Rather it was because I had hoped that in the course of his defence of the Besigye Testament, as his document should be really known, the Colonel would have used the opportunity to expound on what, in his informed opinion, had gone wrong with the Movement for which he had sacrificed so much for so long.
Since the Besigye Testament had articulated serious views and concerns that had been whispered by numerous citizens, including many stalwarts of the Movement, and written about by braver men and women in the pages of this and other newspapers, it would not have been Besigye alone on trial, but the Movement itself and its leadership.
As I awaited news that the court martial would proceed, I remembered the trial of another African man who, thirty eight years earlier, had been hauled before the courts of his land on allegations of inciting persons to strike illegally and of leaving his country without a valid passport.
Conducting his own defence, the accused man had used his extraordinary power of oratory and deeply held convictions to turn the tables on his accusers. His trial had become their trial.
Although at the end of that trial, on November 7, 1962, he was convicted and sentenced to a total of five years’ imprisonment, Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela had used his accusers’ court to deliver one of the most devastating indictments of the apartheid regime in South Africa.
Less than two years later, Mandela was back in court, for the now legendary Rivonia Trial, accused of having embarked on a campaign to overthrow the government by violent revolution.
This time he chose not to give evidence in his own defence or to be cross-examined. Instead he delivered a supremely eloquent statement which once again turned the spotlight on his accusers and placed the government of South Africa in the prisoner’s dock with him. The rest is history.
So while I had fully expected Besigye to be found guilty and punished for his “crimes”, I had hoped that he would use his formidable powers of oratory and persuasive argument to force a serious and public examination of the Movement, its leadership, and the country as a whole.
Thankfully, Tingasiga, my disappointment that the court martial had been called off was very short-lived, for Besigye’s entry into the race for president has offered Ugandans an even better opportunity for self-examination than what the military court would have provided.
Whereas the Colonel would have been the lone defendant before the court martial, today the defendants are Besigye himself, Museveni and the other leaders of the Movement.
Whereas Besigye would have been tried before a small court of his military colleagues, probably behind closed doors, the defendants are now being tried before the court of public opinion. Surely this cannot be bad for the Movement and the country. It is certainly very good for democracy.
Now Tingasiga, I do not know much about Besigye. I certainly do not know what he stands for, beyond what he wrote in the Besigye Testament and in his candid essays of last week.
I must await his election manifesto, more information about his conduct and performance as a public servant, and critical analyses of his character and record by those who know him, before passing fair judgement on him. Certainly I will be watching with great interest the way he conducts himself during the presidential campaign.
But it is fair to say that his entry into the presidential race has, in my view, given the democratisation process a shot in the arm.
Hitherto it has been difficult to dispute the allegation that the presidential elections were a farce, given the absence of a credible challenger to the incumbent president.
Until now, all the other contenders had been easily dismissed as intellectual or political lightweights, or that folks like Paulo Ssemwogerere and Aggrey Awori represented a culture which the National Resistance Movement had been created to fight.
Even Museveni’s most loyal supporters will be hard-pressed to dismiss Besigye’s candidacy or to minimise his stature on today’s political landscape.
Indeed the venomous reaction by some Movement leaders that has greeted Besigye’s entry into the race is convincing evidence that he is a man of substance.
Like Yoweri Museveni, Besigye is a true national hero. One of only two medical doctors who devoted their lives to the liberation war in the Luwero triangle, he was found worthy of appointment to the key position of National Political Commissar by none other than Yoweri Museveni himself.
Possessed of a Museveni-like stubbornness in his defence of his core beliefs, he is already demonstrating an ability to respond with equal measure to the verbal missiles hurled his way by his former comrade and boss.
Though it is too early in the game to be certain, these two men may be equals in more ways than one. It may take us a bit of getting used to but the country may finally be in a position to choose between two viable alternatives.
Of course each man will have throngs of unquestioning supporters who will probably be less interested in their policies, visions and records than in demonising and vilifying their opponent.
Already, Besigye has been accused of having “imposed himself on the Movement following clandestine, conspiratorial consultations with some unknown personalities” and the dreaded multipartyists.
Which reminded me of Mandela once again. During the Rivonia Trial, the prosecution alleged that Mandela and his co-accused were under the influence of foreigners or communists.
To which Mandela replied: “ I have done whatever I did, both as an individual and as a leader of my people, because of my experience in South Africa and my own proudly felt African background, and not because of what any outsider might have said.”
I am confident that there are many Ugandans whose judgement will be guided by reason over passion , and who will be very eager to hear serious debates of the of key issues rather than accusations and counter-accusations of who is backed by who.
Fortunately, significant differences between the two men are beginning to emerge. For example, the two men have already staked out their positions on what democracy under the Movement system means.
“Colonel Besigye has gone about his intentions in an
indisciplined and disruptive way,” the President wrote last week.
“ 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 multi-partyists. Let us, however, assume that Col. Besigye is not in cahoots with multi-partyists. By unilaterally declaring himself a candidate, he creates a problem for the Movement.”
Thus to Yoweri Museveni, the Movement is a one-party state. How else do we interpret his castigation of the “indisciplined” Besigye who had imposed himself on the Movement?
To Kiiza Besigye the Movement is “broad-based, inclusive, and non-partisan, and shall conform to the principle of individual merit as a basis for election to political offices.” To Besigye every Ugandan of sound mind, who fulfils the constitutional requirements to run for any political office can do so without seeking approval from any individual or organ of the Movement.
Which of the two men’s versions of the Movement represents what the Ugandan voters supported in the referendum on June 29, 1999, is a matter which will surely generate lively debate in the coming days.
The Museveni-Besigye contest has all the makings of a battle of the Titans. May the best man win.