There has been understandable skepticism by some and cautious relief by others upon learning that President Yoweri K. Museveni and Dr. Kizza Besigye have agreed to talk.
Others have expressed outright rejection of the idea because they want nothing less than an immediate national dialogue representing a broad spectrum of interests.
Without doubt, a national dialogue is an absolute requirement for a peaceful reversal of Uganda’s intractable political crisis. Such a national dialogue must not be another opportunity for negotiating elite differences and power sharing arrangements.
It must be a serious conversation that is aimed at resetting the country’s GPS to change direction from the current journey towards national implosion, to a more hopeful one that creates a just and peaceful society for all. However, a headlong rush to a national dialogue without first creating conditions for its success is a bad idea.
Whereas they are not the cause of Uganda’s unending crisis, Museveni and Besigye represent the two dominant political forces that threaten to collide in mutually assured destruction. For nearly two decades, the president has used his formidable power to humiliate and contain his opponent. However, like a venerated Roman Gladiator, Besigye has stubbornly refused to yield an inch, fighting back with words and limb. Following last year’s presidential election, both men claimed to have won. The country edged closer to the precipice.
One cannot overstate the deep chasm and animosity between them. Without cooling down the overheated temperature of the Museveni-Besigye contest, there is very little chance that a national dialogue will survive. That is why talks between these two men are an essential prelude to a broader national dialogue.
There are encouraging signs that both men may be seriously interested in the process. First, they welcomed the idea when it was presented to them more than six months ago.
Second, the two men kept the discussions under wraps, helping to build mutual trust that each one was serious about talking.
Third, the decision to talk and the agreement on the mediator was theirs, not that of their political parties. Fourth, to affirm his willingness to find peace with his old comrade, Museveni ordered the removal of the police that had kept Besigye prisoner in his Kasangati home. This was quietly done in December 2016.
Museveni seems to have taken his NRM and government colleagues by complete surprise. As late as February 21st, Frank Tumwebaze, the ICT minister, was rubbishing reports of possible Museveni-Besigye talks as a Monitor Newspaper scheme “to give relevance to Kizza Besigye after his defiance campaign has hit a snag.”
A number of cabinet ministers have confided that they were completely clueless about the process. Even as I write, the cabinet has not been officially briefed about this development.
Likewise, the deputy secretary general of the FDC declared the reports to be lies and “an attempt to tarnish the party’s name.” He did not explain how talks between two old comrades-turned-rivals would tarnish his party’s name.
To their credit, Museveni and Besigye kept potential spoilers away and worked with seasoned diplomats to negotiate and agree on a foreign mediator.
Ambassador Adonia Ayebare, the Ugandan Permanent Representative to the UN in New York, played a critical role in the process. His long experience with peacemaking in the Great Lakes Region and elsewhere in Africa was put to good use once again.
Now that they have agreed to meet, Museveni and Besigye should attempt to create an atmosphere of a shared destiny for all Ugandans. Their language and actions should elevate peace and diminish violence. Their talks should be forward looking, based on mutual respect, founded on a desire for lasting peace and a willingness to compromise without sacrificing fundamental principles of truth and human freedom.
To do this, each one should appoint a small team of negotiators – four at the most – fully empowered to speak on behalf of their principals. They should be moderate, agreeable individuals, with the capacity to contain their emotions. It will be important to keep the hardliners off the negotiators’ lists.
They must be on the lookout for certain danger signs. First is the risk of expectations that are not anchored in reality. For example, the demand for an audit of the 2016 elections is easy to understand and theoretically desirable.
However, under what law and what does an audit of that election really mean? Who has custody of the 2016 ballot boxes? What has been done to those ballots and other documents? And what if the audit showed that the real winner of the election was Besigye? Does anybody believe that Museveni would yield power to Besigye on the basis of an election audit?
Looking backwards may relieve some of the pent-up anger, but it may open a Pandora’s box, with potentially dangerous consequences.
Second, going into the talks with the Northcote Hall spirit of “either we win or they lose” will bring the process to a rapid end. Entering discussions with predetermined positions, and failure to understand each other’s fears are two common causes of failed talks.
In the end, the outcome will depend on Museveni and Besigye. They have the potential to become healers of the land. If they genuinely want sustainable peace and shared progress for all, they will bend over backwards to reboot our failing state.
Our country has a poor track record when it comes to national dialogue and other conferences. The Lancaster House Conference in 1961 set the stage for the disaster that followed from 1964 onwards. The Moshi Conference in 1979 was a politically incestuous gathering that focused on the delegates’ voracious appetite for power, not on the interests of Ugandans. The 1985 Nairobi Peace Talks aborted before the ink on the Agreement dried.
The prospect for success this time round is rather small. However, Ugandans of goodwill stand ready to support all efforts towards a peaceful settlement. Count me among them.