Love him or hate him, he is not quitting politics just yet. Retired Col Dr Kizza Besigye has said no amount of blunt criticism will cow him into abandoning his nearly 20-year-old struggle to oust his political nemesis Yoweri Kaguta Museveni from power.
Besigye, the founding president of the opposition Forum for Democratic Change, FDC, has tried four times since 2001 and failed to defeat President Museveni at the poll. His long streak of defeats at the polls has triggered loud calls from opposition quarters for him to give way to fresh minds to take over.
Speaking in a recent interview with Baker Batte Lule at his office on Katonga road, Beisgye said he won’t budge in the face of mounting criticism from opposition quarters. He said giving up his struggle against Museveni would be tantamount to giving up his rights.
Below are excerpts:
People are preparing for 2021. What’s happening on your side?
We are in a struggle for liberation and that process has been going on for very many years. Not just in Uganda but the whole of Africa has gone through two liberation processes.
First, to liberate ourselves from foreign control and secondly to liberate ourselves from successors of the foreign control. Foreign control used force to subdue us, to dominate us. Their successors have used those forces to dominate us.
That’s why in Uganda, no leader has left power peacefully. It’s force that mediates power in Uganda. We want to liberate ourselves from the guns so that those with the guns are commanded by those without guns. That’s the liberation in which I’m an activist.
Some people have accused you of being an aggressive and power-hungry man who will do anything to have it…
Some people have misconceived our activism as pursuit for power. It’s a total misconception, misrepresentation and misunderstanding because there is no power to pursue yet. What we are fighting for is to liberate that power that is controlled by guns to become the power of the people.
Once that happens, then people can contest for it. If you want to contest for power, which is not there, then you are lost. Then there are people who ask, why do you go into elections if you are not contesting for office? We have used contest for elections as an avenue of struggle for liberation.
In my 2016 campaign, I pointed out very clearly that we could only win by defiance, by fighting, not because somebody has thrown a piece of paper in a ballot box. However, for that message to go to the people, you have to mobilize them so that they have a vote. If you have no power, it remains a piece of paper.
That’s the message that we carried throughout that campaign and I’m happy to say people understood it. That’s why the 2016 election was the only one in which a candidate went around the whole country being given money and food items to support the struggle. The first liberation did not take a short time.
The British took over Uganda in 1890, broke down our naturally evolving states, Buganda, Bunyoro, Ankole, and created their own state. We didn’t get rid of the British until 1962, 70 years later. So, struggles to remove entrenched military rule, are not easy struggles. We have had to use a lot of creative ways to get to the people and one of them has been through elections, which we use to awaken the people around the country.
The second step has been organization, so that people can speak with one voice. The regime will invest heavily to keep people divided and they have departments to cause divisions.
Not just political groups; even civic organizations, religious organizations, students, business community. Any group that brings people together, they must go in and fracture it and manufacture conflict so that you don’t focus on the real issues.
When you say NRM works tirelessly to cause divisions among organized groups, doesn’t it also find a fertile ground for divisions?
The fertile ground is the uninformed people. If they are aware of what those dominating them are going to do to keep dominating them, then they would be immunized against it. You might have seen during the by-election in Rukungiri, they did what they do everywhere and more.
They spent upwards of Shs 10bn, they distributed boda bodas, matatus, gave cash to whoever said they were a group but we defeated them because the people knew ahead of time that this is what they would do.
They received the money and gave me part of it. So, when we have a critical number of people like those, then the liberation is at hand. The last stage after awakening and organizing, is actually fighting off the dominator and we chose the method of non-violence.
One can also use violent means but the process is the same. We made 2019 a year of action because we thought we had got the critical mass but we got some turbulence during that year because there was a bit of disunity within our group. But I believe we are at a critical stage.
Is time a factor in these stages? Because when you walk on Kampala streets, people seem to have lost trust in the direction the liberation is taking. They say Dr Besigye has failed…
Time is indeed a factor, but not time by itself. Even those complaining that it is taking long, they are a factor of that time. This is a struggle that each and everybody must engage in.
In the earlier elections, we had not come to the conclusion that elections in and of themselves wouldn’t cause change. With hindsight that was quite naïve. We believed that if people are dissatisfied in sufficient numbers and we organize them to vote, we thought the regime wouldn’t go all the way to disempower people and disrespect their views.
We now know through the bitter experience that [President] Museveni is determined to do anything and everything including destroying the country to maintain power. That’s why by 2011, I was fully convinced that elections will not cause change. So, this struggle by defiance started in 2011 with walk- to-work campaigns.
But even some of those who fight with guns take 20 to 50 years. So, every struggle develops according to its own dynamics. What I have been inquiring from those who say you have not achieved what you set out to achieve – I ask them if you are in a bad situation, what are you doing about it? Ok I have failed, forget about me. What should I have done that I have not done to achieve success? I have got no response always.
They say you have obstructed those who would probably push the struggle to the finish line …
How have I obstructed anybody? I don’t have any guns that I’m frightening anyone. I have never moved with anything like a stone or a stick in my hand to threaten anyone.
How then have I obstructed anybody? I don’t occupy any office even in the party. The last time I contested as an FDC presidential flag bearer, I actually contested against the party leader. Did I obstruct the party leader from contesting in the primaries?
They say Dr Besigye should excuse himself and step aside as the leader of the struggle…
Step aside from what? How have I stopped anybody from leading the struggle? Is this an organization that has a constitution that has appointed me?
How did I even come to lead the struggle? Whom did I ask that I want to be a leader? You struggle by folding your sleeves and going into the field. That’s what I did when I was dissatisfied with Mr Museveni.
Do you believe that for the last 20 years you have been the undisputed leader of the opposition against President Museveni’s government?
I contest the whole characterization of the opposition and the government. These are wordings that confuse the people to think there is really a government side and an opposing side. Those sides are not there. There is a captor and captives.
Those who are captives, who have no power, must struggle to break out of captivity. In that struggle everyone is welcome. That’s what I have been telling people that what they are asking me to do is to give up the struggle of my own freedom also. I have no freedom to talk, to move, to organize.
I live under repressive laws, which keep us clamped down. I’m exploited as a worker. My money is taken in taxes that are used to beat me up. And you say, you, you have fought enough, keep in your house and keep quiet. Don’t talk about what is offending you. That’s ridiculous, that’s nonsense.
When you said at Namboole during FDC’s 15th birthday celebrations that you are not fighting for anybody but yourself, it caused quite a stir, people drew parallels with Museveni who said he was working for himself and his family…
Museveni said he’s doing whatever he’s doing for his family but for me, I said, apart from fighting for my freedom I was fighting for the freedom of all.
So, you cannot tell a citizen who’s terrorized that give up and let others struggle for you. I’m saying no because this is every citizen’s duty. When the rule of law has been trampled upon, it’s no longer just a wish for you but a duty to fight for the reinstatement of constitutional rule.
Sometimes I wonder especially whether the elites don’t feel ashamed comparing Museveni and me. Museveni spends officially our money about Shs 700 million daily. What does Besigye spend of yours – you who is saying we are the same? Can you imagine that level of nonsense that even elites entertain?
The only thing I have noted and doesn’t surprised me, is that some of those who say Besigye and Museveni are the same, simply mean one thing; they all come from that [some] area [western Uganda].
In other words, it’s just a tribal sentiment, which is very primitive. They should go to Kiruhura where Museveni comes from and see the tears of people who are forced to sell their milk for nothing yet they have to buy very expensive medicines for the animals.
They are as bitter as those in Karamoja. The other year we collected food to save people in Isingiro which is in the heart of Ankole. In fact Museveni’s brother, Gen Salim Saleh’s home is in Isingiro.
But these sentiments are recent. These very people who propagate them used to praise you. Don’t you think the political dynamics have changed and people genuinely believe Besigye has done his part and should exit?
I have no problem with anybody who believes so; do your part, who has stopped you? Question is, how is Besigye stopping anybody from doing his part?
They expect that if a new leader emerges, you should come out publicly and say, I’m behind this person.
I’m behind everybody who’s doing something. Who have I said I’m not going to support if they are fighting? I’m not fighting for leadership, I’m fighting for liberation. But you know there are people who want change but don’t want to fight.
Those I can’t be behind because my ideology is that change will come through fighting. There are people who are organizing dialogue, very busy. That we should persuade Museveni to realize 35 years is too much, that he should allow power to go back to the people. I have nothing against them but I will not be behind them.
To take you back a little, you said you are convinced you can’t change government though polls but in 2016 you said you had won and actually declared yourself winner. If you go into elections well knowing you will not win; why do you mind about the outcome to the extent of declaring yourself the winner?
I told you that by 2016 the only way we would win was by defiance. I even told the Electoral Commission who were registering that ‘I don’t believe in you.’
The people’s government is about that defiance. But because of some internal weaknesses on our side, we were not able to push through to power. That defiance didn’t do the last bit it needed to do.
We have moved into the election year, is Dr Besigye going to be a candidate?
As a person I have never set out to pursue an office; never in my life. Whether as a student, I have never occupied any office. I didn’t go to the bush to seek an office. I didn’t oppose the NRM to occupy an office. Actually I fought to vacate offices so that I can be free to struggle. I don’t envision a struggle for an office as part of my pursuit.
I struggle so that we subordinate the guns. If we are going to struggle through an election, I don’t have to be the candidate, but that doesn’t mean I won’t be there struggling. Whatever helps the struggle to move forward, I will support it. We don’t just need change from Museveni, we want total subordination of the guns and at that stage when the transition has been made, I shall never seek an office.
Bobi Wine has declared he is running for president; does Dr Besigye envisage a day when he will be up on the podium telling people to vote for him?
I wouldn’t want to speculate on what happens in the future regarding this struggle or after this struggle because it will end and we shall have a transition and there will be contestation for office.
In fact, that’s when contestation should begin. I don’t envision my role beyond the transition if our freedom has been achieved. For me, my work will have been done and I will hang my boots and retire. But I can’t start speculating who the candidate will be and who I shall support. I will always be guided by the best interest of our country.