In this fourth part of our series “How Museveni Beats Opponents”, we examine the emergence of Kizza Besigye as Museveni’s foremost political foe.
For the last 19 years, Col (rtd) Dr Warren Kizza Besigye Kifefe has probably, more than anyone else, given President Museveni sleepless nights. His opposition to Museveni rule came to public notice during the 1994-5 constitutional making process. He was one of the delegates representing the army in the Constituent Assembly (CA).
Besigye, the late Lt Col Sserwanga Lwanga and Gen David Tinyefuza, now Sejusa, had distinguished themselves as willing to question the ‘Movement’s’ “correct line” in the CA. At some point, they were accused of plotting to overthrow Museveni! The trio opposed the perpetuation of the Movement in favour of an early return to political parties.
This jolted Museveni and the army establishment which prompted the famous Military High Command meeting that resolved that army representatives should not take positions in the CA unless they have been agreed upon by the army leadership. It was the same meeting which forced Sejusa to apologise in writing to the president and the army for his ‘anti-establishment utterances’.
However, those associated closely with Besigye trace his fallout with Museveni further back to the unilateral and decidedly undemocratic decision in 1989 to extend the tenure of the Movement for five years.
In his book, Kizza Besigye and Uganda’s Unfinished Revolution, journalist Daniel Kalinaki writes that it was at this point that Besigye, who was the Movement’s national political commissar, decided something must be done to change the course of history being written by the Movement.
“Things were being decided without any of the policy organs discussing or weighing in on those decisions. I was raising these matters both in cabinet and in the [National Resistance Council] and I could clearly see that my issues were beginning to become an irritant to the president who seemed to think that by raising them, I was challenging his authority or judgement,” Besigye is quoted in Kalinaki’s book.
Sensing that Besigye might be using his political position to undermine him and cultivate a political following, Museveni sent him back to the army. The young officer found himself back in the barracks as commanding officer of the Mechanised Brigade and chief of Logistics and Engineering. Military postings are a tactic Museveni has sometimes used to flank and contain potential opponents with a military background.
Besigye turns to pigs
Museveni knows too well that one of the most effective means to deal with your enemy is to strangle them economically. Little wonder that the likes of Sejusa and the late Eriya Kategaya, who had fallen out with Museveni, came crawling back as their personal economic affairs became desperate.
Veteran opposition member of parliament Cecilia Atim Ogwal says Museveni leaves nothing in the toolbox when fighting political foes. She says that in her 32 years of opposition, she weathered all forms of attack: verbal, military, physical and financial.
“Museveni fought me up to my pocket when he realised he couldn’t compromise me by bribing me. They killed my factory [Lira Millers] for which I struggled all my youthful years to save money and set up,” Ogwal said in an interview.
So, Besigye was acutely aware that if he were to fight Museveni, he needed financial insulation.
“We have decided to take on Museveni. We must find something that will sustain us that he cannot disrupt. You cannot take on this man if you depend in any way on his government. These pigs you see can give us an income; sustain us as we fight Museveni. I’m not going into these consultancy businesses or [bidding] on anything that relies on government. We need to find a business that doesn’t depend on him or his people,” Besigye is quoted in Kalinaki’s book as telling his wife, Winnie Byanyima.
Explosive 1999 dossier
Tired of covert operations against the Museveni regime, Besigye wrote and published a 14-page document on November 7, 1999 in which he criticised the NRM strongly: detailing how it was now corrupt, intolerant, undemocratic and had lost a sense of ideological direction after veering off the “broad base” on which it was founded.
For several days, no senior NRM cadre dared say anything. Did they agree with his assessment? Were they waiting to take their cue from Museveni? Were they stunned by what Besigye had just done?
The first reaction came a week later from a seemingly obscure assistant to Elly Rwakakooko, the commissioner general of Uganda Revenue Authority, a one Odrek Rwabwogo, who was to later marry Museveni’s daughter, Patience.
Rwabwogo laid into Besigye, attacking his character and accussing him of playing to the gallery.
“Unless of course Besigye wants to think that being broad-based is when he is in an influential position he held in the late 1980s. I find this a better and renewed way of broadening political space…The elites in Africa, including Besigye, when they have made their money in urban areas either as commission agents or agents of a sitting government, naturally carry their controversies to the countryside to disturb the people’s harmony…” Rwabwogo wrote in The Monitor.
He accused Besigye of being as tainted as the system he was trying to oppose.
“When he was [National Political Commissar] we were told that he used to call Special District Administrators for meetings and spend half of the time on telephone. That he was so arrogant sending away would be supporters and informers to the extent that when he was removed from that office, the directors under him threw a party to rejoice his sacking…
Besigye was half of the time travelling the world making endless stopovers in Paris and Geneva over family issues. When he was sent to Masaka Mechanised Unit, Besigye was absent half the time and never built the army capacity there. When he was made Chief of Logistics and Engineering, junk helicopters were imported under his nose, draining our treasury,” Rwabwogo wrote.
Given Rwabwogo’s filial connections, it is tempting to imagine the real individual(s) who were actually behind his piece. Museveni’s brother, General Salim Saleh, told the New Vision that if Besigye didn’t drop his anti-establishment stance, they would “crush and isolate” him.
Crush and isolate him they did. However, Besigye received a boost from Maj (rtd) Okwiri Rabwoni who was a youth member of Parliament representing western Uganda. His support was critical because he was a younger brother of the then regime enforcer, Noble Mayombo, the Chief of Mililtary Intelligence and Museveni bag boy par excellence.
Rwabwoni said he didn’t believe in a system where army officers are not allowed to voice their views, even if those views were not palatable to the government. Other voices like the then recently sacked army commander, Maj Gen Mugisha Muntu, called for the discussion of what Besigye had said were the troubles of the Movement.
He told a parliamentary committee that they should stop being escapists and address the issues Besigye was raising.
“We are always escaping; we have escapist tendencies, for example, now a senior member of the Movement Col Kizza Besigye has put up a serious assessment of the Movement, why are we not discussing it? This matter should come up here for debate,” Muntu is quoted in the New Vision of December 3, 1999, as telling parliament.
Muntu eventually also left, joined Besigye in what later became the Forum for Democratic Change (FDC) party but has today since started putting together his own ‘New Formation’ upon realising that Besigye was exhibiting Museveni-like characteristics.
Nonetheless, the call to have Besigye’s document discussed started gaining traction, forcing the then chairperson of the Movement caucus, Prof Gilbert Bukenya, to put it on the agenda of the caucus. Even the Movement Secretariat through its deputy director of Information Magode Ikuya said the party would look into Besigye’s issues.
Museveni, however, would never let that happen. In a December 14, 1999 letter to Bukenya, Museveni said Besigye could only appear before the caucus after the completion of his trial in the court martial.
“I’m told the Movement caucus in Parliament has invited Colonel Besigye to present his views on some of the aspects he recently illegally presented to the press. I do not see the urgency of discussing Besigye’s paper compared to other demands on our time. If, however, some of you think it is urgent, then discuss them. However, do not invite somebody accused of indiscipline by one state body to come and appear before the Movement caucus. Besigye can come before the caucus after he has finished with facing the court martial,” Museveni wrote in his eight-page response.
He said when he initially heard of Besigye’s article, he advised him, through somebody, to admit that he had used the wrong forum to express his views.
“Besigye never answered my advice to him…this is the sort of indiscipline I am always obliged to quell using all appropriate means in the interest of our glorious army,” Museveni vowed.
Museveni added that using the media to air one’s [political] opinion for army officers was sacrilegious because it divides the military.
“Suppose, for instance, an army officer took a public position in the presidential elections either supporting Museveni or Ssemogerere, what happens when the other candidate is the one elected? How will the new president count on his loyalty? That’s why it is better for the army to keep out of controversial politics. The army members of parliament are not in parliament to engage in public controversies; they are there as the listening posts for the army in the world of politicians,” Museveni said.
It will, however, not be lost on any observer that military officers have not only supported Museveni’s candidature but even actively campaigned for him in presidential elections. Army representatives. in parliament are frequently counted as de facto Movement members inspite of the law which declares soldiers as non-partisan.
Museveni added that he was convinced that in a multiparty system of government the presence of the army in parliament wouldn’t be tenable because of the partisan nature of that parliament. Uganda has since reverted to a multiparty system but the UPDF still has 10 representatives in parliament.
The army constituted a committee headed by Maj Gen Jeje Odongo, the then army commander, to investigate Besigye. But Besigye was never to be court-martialled after a delegation from his hometown Rukungiri, headed by now Maj Gen Jim Muhwezi, met with Museveni and urged clemency for their “son”.
Museveni repeated his earlier demand for Besigye to regret using a public forum to express dissent. He did and the court martial threat was lifted. He subsequently fought for discharge from the army, eventually succeeding in mid-2000, which allowed him to go full throttle in mobilising against Museveni.
Besigye urged senior comrades like Local Government minister Bidandi Ssali and Finance minister Crispus Kiyonga to challenge Museveni for the presidency in the 2001 elections. They declined, leaving him as the only NRM senior official brave enough to take on Museveni.
In October 2000, after intelligence leaked that he was about to be arrested for harbouring presidential ambitions, he declared that indeed he would challenge his former boss for the presidency.
That declaration opened a new chapter in Museveni’s politics. Betty Nambooze Bakireke, the MP for Mukono municipality, says Museveni was scared to the marrow and thus didn’t spare any weapon in his arsenal to crush Besigye. She says Besigye, on top of hailing from the same region as Museveni, was also a military man.
“Besigye worked with Museveni very closely, he was his personal doctor; you have no idea how much our doctors know about us. Frankly, the person in the mirror looked very much like Museveni so nothing was left to chance in dealing with Besigye,” Nambooze says.
She adds that the 2001 elections will go down in the history of elections in Uganda as the most violent. “Museveni’s military wreaked havoc; it beat people into submission and clearly lifted the veil on Museveni who had for a long time billed himself as a democrat.”
The infamous Kalangala Action Plan of the rather notorious Maj Kakooza Mutale is variously documented as beating up people around the country, especially those who expressed support for Besigye.
Kira Municipality MP and opposition chief whip, the FDC’s Ibrahim Ssemujju Nganda, says Museveni can allow you to compete with him provided you don’t do so within the NRM structures and in the military.
“Museveni had blackmailed the country with his Movement system in which he was the only one [entitled to lead]. But Besigye insisted that he was also a Movement candidate and that is what Museveni was never going to allow,” Ssemujju says.
Ssemujju agrees with Nambooze that the fact that Besigye was a military officer heightened Museveni’s fear hence his brutal reaction. And with it any, pretence at observing the rule of law and whatever democratic/human rights niceties or civil liberties were flushed down the drain of Uganda’s forgotten political dreams.
“To have a military man, you don’t know how many connections he has made and Museveni doesn’t want his military divided even if it’s one unit, yet Besigye wanted to capitalise on both the military and the Movement. You had a lot of military people like Okwiri Rabwoni, Spencer Turwomwe, among others, saying they were for Besigye. These people have capacity to start war which Museveni fears more than an election, because in an election he can announce himself the winner but in a war, you cannot. So, he wanted to make it extremely difficult for any other military man to say I’m opposed to you,” Ssemujju says.
By the time the final vote tally was done, Museveni had won comfortably, although the Supreme court observed that there were malpractices and two of the five judges had wanted the vote repeated.
After the 2001 election, surveillance on Besigye increased to unprecedented levels. Insiders told him he was about to be arrested. This never happened as he beat the 24-hour security ring around him to escape into exile in South Africa where he lived up to 2005.
In the final part of these series, we will look at Besigye’s subsequent treatment and the fate of other Museveni opponents like Sejusa and Amama Mbabazi.