If President Museveni’s government has excelled at trying to stop Dr Kizza Besigye practising opposition politics, Besigye has matched the state with unmatched resolve and defiance.
A survey by The Observer shows that over the last five years, the former FDC party president has been arrested at least 28 times, charged in court at least six times, and locked up in Luzira prison once.
The statistics suggest that Besigye is the most arrested opposition leader in the country with far too frequent run-ins with police if we are to judge him on the yardstick of Dr Paul Kawanga Ssemogerere, who retired in 2005, after a quarter a century as president general of Democratic Party.
Besigye’s jail-bird status could probably be best compared to that of Ignatius Musaazi, Uganda’s Independence struggle hero. According to various sources, Musaazi is said to have been arrested at least 37 times by the colonialists, before they eventually left in 1962.
Although Besigye handed over leadership of the Forum for Democratic Change last year, he is still arguably the most prominent opposition politician. He seems to pull crowds wherever he goes drumming up support for his mission of unseating President Museveni’s “corrupt regime”.
The security forces have tried several manoeuvres to stop Besigye – and his political allies – including temporary house-arrest, violently arresting him and bundling him on pickup trucks like a common criminal, even entertaining (some say ‘organising’) vigilante groups to stone or clobber his supporters.
Yet Besigye retains a puzzling aura of defiance that even shocks some of his closest allies. One politician once described an incident last year, where Besigye behaved like a man from a different species.
“There was a lot of tear gas pumped into our car; it was total chaos. We were crying and taking cover. But Besigye looked tough, as if he wanted to go and face the police,” the politician said.
In an era where politics is on the verge of being reduced to a salary-fetching occupation, Besigye’s apparent nerve and pluckiness raises several questions: what really drives him? What is the future of such opposition leaders pitted against quasi-democratic incumbency? And what does this mean for emerging democracies?
The Observer conducted the survey by looking at media reports of confrontations between incidents involving security forces, mostly the police and Besigye between July 2008 and July 2013.
In 2011, Besigye, 57, was arrested at least 11 times and charged in court five times. The year 2011 was very particularly harsh to Besigye because of the controversial “walk-to-work” campaign against the government which had just been re-elected. Opposition politicians said they were protesting spiraling inflation – which topped 30 per cent. They blamed the problem on mismanagement of the economy through irresponsible public expenditure.
In one of the worst incidents, a military intelligence operative was captured on video smashing Besigye’s vehicle with a hammer and dousing the politician in apparent pepper spray. In 2012, Besigye was arrested at least 10 times. During these occasions, our research shows that he was simply dragged to police, detained for some hours in the police cells until the evening and was later released without charges being brought.
Many times, Besigye’s offence ultimately appears to be turning up in town and waving at the public. Once enthusiasts start following him, the police comes in to take him away. This year, the opposition, apparently inspired by Besigye, re-launched the activism crusade under 4GC, an acronym for Uganda’s motto, For God and My Country.
This followed the banning by the Attorney General of another loose grouping, Activists For Change (A4C). And the clashes have started again. So far in 2013, Besigye has been arrested five times, detained twice and charged three times with offences relating to “staging violent protests” and “inciting violence.”
However, according to our research, in 2008-2009, Besigye enjoyed a “honeymoon” with police. We have found out that during this period, the police never clashed with Besigye intensely compared to years between 2010 and 2013. In fact, 2011 and 2012 was too intense for police that government re-invented the colonial law of “preventive arrest” to contain Besigye at his home in Kasangati.
During this period of preventive arrest mechanism, Besigye’s home was besieged and he was under surveillance and stopped him from travelling to the city 11 times. In this period, Besigye defied police surveillance and attempted to walk to the city, but the episodes turned bloody and he was shot at with a rubber bullet on April 14, 2011.
Again on February 21, 2012, Besigye was taken to Case clinic after his left leg was hit by fragments of what his aides called an ‘explosive device’ that was lobbed in his direction by police. This followed a running battle between police and then A4C supporters at a planned rally in Katwe.
But there have also been embarrassing incidents, when the eagle-eyed police kept watch at Besigye’s home only to hear that Besigye is in the city centre. It is not yet clear how Besigye managed to beat the surveillance and get to Kampala.
One question, then, is: what drives Besigye to such levels of unbreakable defiance?
Some argue that he is possessed with an activism demon that will never leave until Museveni’s government falls. Others say Besigye is fighting for the voiceless Ugandans. On his part, at least going by the interviews he has conducted with both local and international media, the resolve for activism rotates around the need to fight for the marginalized.
He has also severally made reference to trying to return to the core values that inspired the Museveni-led guerilla war that brought the current regime to power in 1986. More recently, Besigye has lambasted the elite in Uganda, accusing them of being selfish in prioritizing their jobs and businesses – without caring to fight bad governance.
In an interview with the Associated Press on April 20, shortly after he was charged with participating in an unlawful assembly, Besigye said: “The greatest majority of our people are completely marginalised. They can hardly afford a meal a day. Those who are in towns cannot afford accommodation. They have no access to healthcare ... the healthcare system is completely broken down. Young people cannot hope to get a job at all, and so there is a state of hopelessness that has engulfed our people.”
Besigye also vowed to continue with protests against the regime, even when he admitted to the UK Guardian that his life was in danger.
His stance could be compared to that of Morgan Tsvangirai, the 61-year-old leader of Zimbabwe’s Movement for Democratic Change (MDC). The MDC leader has been a thorn in President Robert Mugabe’s flesh. But since 2009, he is in a unity government with Mugabe –as prime minister – the result of an election marred by accusations of widespread rigging.
Museveni and Besigye working together in a unity government seems a rather remote prospect, given the two men’s apparently deep mutual loathing. This suggests that Besigye’s future trajectory would be difficult to predict. According to Sabiti Makara, a senior lecturer at Makerere University Department of Political Science and Public Administration, Besigye is defined by struggle and that his place in history will be that of a president that never was.
“He is living in the struggle but the government is not allowing him to move on,” Makara said.
He, however, argues that generally “people who start struggles will not be presidents”.
Asked how Besigye’s struggle is likely to end, Makara said: “He might retire from politics like any other individual, given the fact that party structures have been taken over by some other individuals like Mugisha Muntu.”
Augustine Ruzindana, the FDC secretary for Research, who has observed Besigye for a long time, argues that his resolve is historical.
“What drives Besigye now is the same as what took him to the bush,” he said.
Besigye abandoned his medical job at Aga Khan hospital in Nairobi, Kenya, to join President Museveni’s Luweero bush war struggle (1981-86). For FDC treasurer general Jack Sabiti, Besigye’s legacy will be defined by his resilience and insistence on the struggle, even when things seem desperate.
“This is not a simple struggle,” Sabiti said on Saturday. “We are dealing with people who can’t see sense in what he is doing. But soon Ugandans will realise what he is fighting for.”
5 years of 'struggle': Key incident involving Besigye and police
Jan 27: Besigye arrested at Katonga road and detained at Kira police station.
Feb 11: Masaka hospital authorities and police blocked Besigye’s visit to distribute bed sheets and foodstuffs to patients.
March 01: Besigye and other opposition leaders are briefly detained at Kawempe police station, after a rally they were due to address in the area was dispersed by stone-throwing vigilantes who seemed to operate in some kind of loose alliance with the police.
June 25: Police banned Besigye from some parts of the city and imposed a road chart upon him. He was arrested and detained for a day for what police called inciting violence.
June 28: Police trailed Besigye from his home to Crane bank headquarters on Kampala road.
June 5: Besigye and seven 4GC activists were arrested and accused of staging violent protests in the city. Buganda Road court released each of them on non-cash bail of Shs 1m each.
July 22: Besigye was picked from his home and held at Nagalama police station in Mukono. He was released on bond the same day in the evening.
July 23: Besigye was arrested and charged at Buganda Road court with inciting violence. On his way home, police tear-gassed people on Mabirizi plaza and towed Besigye’s vehicle to Kampala central police parking where he was inside for several hours.
Jan 19: Besigye violently snatched off Ssezibwa road and detained without any charge for more than six hours at Kira Road police station.
Jan 24: Police attempt to arrest Besigye after a rally in Namungoona, a Kampala suburb, but were thwarted by stone-throwing youths.
Feb 21: Besigye was hospitalised at Case clinic after he was hit by fragments of an explosive device that was lobbed in his direction by police in Katwe.
Feb 24: Besigye was held for several hours at night inside Omega Healing Centre in Namasuba, after a disagreement with police upon which road to use after a rally that took place outside the church compound.
March 26: Besigye, Kampala Lord Mayor Erias Lukwago in court over murder charges, following the death of policeman John Michael Ariong during a mayor’s tour gone-bad.
April 1: Police placed Besigye under ‘preventive arrest’ and his vehicle towed by a police breakdown truck on Luwum street to Kasangati police station.
Oct 1: Police arrested Besigye after a city face-off. He was bundled into a police van and driven to Kasangati.
Oct 4: Police blocked Besigye’s car and diverted him to CPS where he was held before being driven to Kira division police station.
Oct 9: Police besieged Besigye’s Kasangati house on what they called ‘preventive arrest’ so that he does not interrupt independence celebrations.
Oct 25: Police held Besigye hostage for seven hours at City hall. He was planning to inspect city markets with Kampala Lord Mayor Erias Lukwago.
Oct 27: Police stopped Besigye from travelling to Kabale district to attend burial of a family friend. The standoff with police took three hours in Mbarara town.
April 11: Police arrested Besigye over walk-to-work demos. He was bundled onto a police pickup truck as he attempted to walk from his home.
April 14: Besigye was shot on his right hand by a rubber bullet and admitted to Mulago hospital. He was later briefly arrested before being taken to Kampala hospital in Kololo.
April 18: Besigye was arrested as he attempted to resume walk-to-work