In the fourth of our six-part series that look at President Museveni’s political challengers from all sides and how he has put them down over the years, we centred on the rise of Warren Kizza Besigye Kifefe as the president’s toughest political foe in his 32 years in power.
In this fifth part, we look at the regime’s firm push back against Besigye, which locked him in courts of law for long spells battling state-inspired charges and got him in constant conflict with security agencies since the 2001 elections.
Dirty tricks hit new lows
By the time Hajji Aziz Kasujja, the deceased Electoral Commission chairman, declared Yoweri Kaguta Museveni winner of the hotly contested presidential election of March 2001 with 69.3 per cent of the vote, edging out losing candidate Kizza Besigye (with 27 per cent), 17 people had been shot dead by security agencies across the country.
Many other opposition supporters were either lying in hospitals nursing serious injuries or were in police custody battling all sorts of questionable allegations. Besigye learnt the hard way what it meant opposing Museveni. On top of agonising over losing an election that even the Supreme court declared neither free nor fair, Besigye was a traumatised man.
Museveni, in the heat of the campaigns, told TIME magazine; an American Premium publication, that Besigye had AIDS. “I’m not bothered by Besigye; it’s good to have these kinds of people, they bring up issues that should be addressed. The election has been a good cleansing process. Besigye is just suffering from AIDS and Winnie is just a nasty lady,” Museveni told TIME.
In his biography, written by journalist Daniel Kalinaki, Besigye said he didn’t know or expect that Museveni, a person he knew, let alone a president holding a very important office, would stoop to that level.
“I was honestly surprised. Those kinds of personal attacks were a new thing I had to contend with,” Besigye says in Kalinaki’s book.
That was not the only surprise in store for Besigye. Less than a week after he lost the election, he was pulled off a plane enroute to South Africa at the urging of the then acting director of the Chieftaincy of Military Intelligence, CMI, Noble Mayombo (RIP).
Links to rebels
In the weeks that followed his victory, Museveni told journalists that his security organs had gathered evidence linking Besigye to bombs that were being lobbed at innocent people in Kampala, often with catastrophic consequences.
According to insiders, Besigye soon learnt from contacts in security circles that he was living on borrowed time. Security was closing in on him. It was said that before the election, Besigye had put in motion a second plan of action in case the election was stolen in favour of Museveni.
Ibrahim Ssemujju Nganda, the FDC spokesman and the parliamentary opposition chief whip, said Museveni might not fear an election because he can easily announce himself winner but in war, the winner is determined on the battlefield.
So, to get the spark out of any perceived war plans, said renegade UPDF colonel Samson Mande, Museveni put in motion a plan to counter any possible rebellion.
Mande and Lt Col Anthony Kyakabale, who has since returned to Uganda, were accused of being the military heads of a shadowy outfit that came to be known as the People’s Redemption Army.
But Mande is quoted in Kalinaki’s book flatly rejecting the accusation that PRA existed or that he or Besigye were part of it. Instead, Mande lays the claim of PRA’s existence right at the feet of Museveni and his “Mr Fix It” Mayombo.
“Museveni knew he was not going to hand over power and he saw that many people were in fighting mood... He is smart; he sent a lot of young people from ESO [External Security Organization] and ISO [Internal Security Organization] into the Elect Kizza Besigye Task Force. The PRA was an initiative by Museveni and Mayombo well before the election when they learnt that there was going to be a fight. They wanted to command it and destroy it before it could take off. So they led, disorganised and nipped it in the bud,” Mande, who is currently living in exile in Sweden, said.
An incident during the 2001 campaigns lends credence to Mande’s account, which Museveni or his people have never refuted. In the course of the campaigns, a prominent businessman reportedly paid at least Shs 4 million to a daily newspaper to print over 100,000 brochures alleging that Besigye had procured machetes and was training a militia in Bugerere to ready it for an attack if he lost the election.
Efforts to have these leaflets confiscated were futile as orders came from “above” to have them released.
Long arm of the law
Following discussions with his newly formed political party, the Forum for Democratic Change, Besigye indicated that indeed he was returning home to participate in the 2006 general election. Francis Mwijukye, who was a personal assistant to Besigye from 2006 to 2011, says the reason the government is so afraid of Besigye is because he is fearless.
“He is a person who will tell you that tomorrow I’m coming and indeed he will come, despite the dangers involved.” Mwijukye says.
Therefore, it wasn’t surprising that even after the state threatened that Besigye would be compelled to answer for his transgressions if he returned, this did not stop him. Indeed, on October 26, 2005, he returned to a hero’s welcome by enthusiastic supporters and senior opposition leaders.
He immediately embarked on a country-wide tour drumming up support for his next shot at the presidency. Nineteen days later, the party was over. Returning from a big rally in Rukungiri; his home district, Besigye was waylaid at Busega roundabout, south-west of Kampala, and arrested.
That very day, he was produced in court to face three charges. The Daily Monitor of November 15, 2005, reported: “Dr Kizza Besigye and 20 others…contrived a plot to overthrow the government by law established and expressed the plot by conducting recruitment, mobilising logistical support such as firearms, ammunitions and other military ware and intelligence information for the People’s Redemption Army, a rebel organisation fighting to overthrow the government of Uganda by force of arms.”
The paper said there was an outburst of laughter when the magistrate read out a charge of rape that Besigye had allegedly committed in November 1997 against Joanita Kyakuwa, a woman to whom he had provided shelter at his home in Luzira.
Kampala and many parts of Uganda witnessed unprecedented levels of violence for three days running, which journalist Charles Onyango-Obbo said were last seen during the struggle for independence. Kale Kayihura, who had just been made inspector general of police, told a news conference that for a long time, Besigye had been linked to Joseph Kony’s rebel Lord’s Resistance Army and the PRA.
“The time has come to subject these allegations to a court process. I’m aware that investigations have been going on and the court system is there to find out who is telling the truth and who is lying,” Kayihura said.
Museveni claimed he had no powers to arrest anybody in an attempt to distance himself from accusations that he was behind Besigye’s woes. He cautioned the public against interfering with the court process.
On November 16, 2005, the High court granted bail to Besigye and 14 of his co-accused. But with mean-looking men in military camouflage pants and black T-shirts, dark sunglasses and bandanas, besieging court ready to re-arrest the group, they chose not to sign their bail papers and were hence taken back to Luzira prison. The curious armed men, it later emerged, were part of a shadowy security outfit know as “Black Mamba hit squad”.
This was an unprecedented, flagrant attack on the judiciary that should never have happened, and “will never happen”, declared Chief Justice Benjamin Odoki. It was a brutal rape on the temple of justice, the principal judge, James Ogoola, said. The state was not bothered.
The same “Black Mambas” were, two days later, seen at the General Court Martial. They were to reappear at court to rearrest the same PRA rebel suspects granted bail again by court. In the following years, it has become normal for security to rearrest people granted bail by the courts.
As the court battle raged, there was another legal battle brewing. Could Besigye be nominated to participate in the election despite his incarceration?
Adolf Mwesige, the deputy attorney general, said yes. His boss, Prof Kiddu Makubuya, disagreed; reinforcing accusations that Besigye’s arrest was meant to thwart his participation in the election.
In the end, the Electoral Commission saw no reason not to have Besigye nominated. In the third week of December 2005, campaigns kicked off with Museveni freely campaigning across the country while his main challenger remained firmly under lock and key in the Maximum Security prison at Luzira.
When he was finally granted bail by Justice John Bosco Katutsi on January 2 2006, after spending 50 days in jail, Besigye used the remaining 50 days of campaigns appearing before court to attend his rape trial that had kicked off in earnest.
Like in the 2001 election, Besigye lost the 2006 vote and loudly claimed the poll was stolen massively in favour of Museveni. Again the Supreme court unanimously agreed that the election was neither free nor fair.
But in a four to three majority ruling, judges said the impact of the rigging was not substantial enough to alter the outcome. A month after the election, on March 7, 2006, Justice Katutsi acquitted Besigye of the rape charge, noting that prosecution was too incompetent in its work to concoct a case against the man who had offered himself to stand for the office of the president of Uganda.
Besigye continued battling his treason charges both in the High court and the Court Martial. In October 2010, the Constitutional court ruled that Besigye could no longer be guaranteed a fair trial and all cases relating to treason were dismissed. But the state would bring them back at a later date.
Following the 2011 election, which followed a similar script like those held in 2001 and 2006, Besigye claimed that the election was rigged but this time he didn’t petition the Supreme court but took the campaign to the people in what came to be known as Walk-to-Work.
The campaign spearheaded by Masaka Municipality member of parliament Mathias Mpuuga involved people walking from their homes to work in protest at the high cost of living brought on by the runaway inflation of over 30 per cent; the highest in 20 years. Economists blamed the inflation on overspending during the 2011 election. Mwijukye says during that period, they were arrested more than 80 times.
“Personally I had over 63 cases in different courts. Besigye had more because at times they would arrest him without us. These arrests and cases were very straining. You would spend a full week hopping from one court to another and in the process you have to pay bail fees. In two years, I had paid cash bail of Shs 70 million which has never been given back to me despite the fact that many of these cases have collapsed for lack of interest on the government side.”
To deal a decisive blow to the walk-to-work protests that the then Attorney General Peter Nyombi had declared illegal, security officers nearly killed Besigye at the famous Mulago roundabout incident.
His car was continuously hit with a gun butt by an overenthusiastic operative, Gilbert Arinaitwe Bwana and then red pepper was sprayed into it that almost blinded Besigye. He was allowed to get specialised treatment from Kenya and United States of America.
Following the 2011 elections, Besigye has been arrested several times and his current personal assistant, Ronald Muhinda says they have lost count. “He has cases in Kabale, Rukungiri, Kasangati, Nakawa, Nabweru, Buganda Road, name it.
I think he is the most imprisoned man anywhere in Africa if not the whole world. But this treatment doesn’t bother him at all. It is meant to cause fear among people so that no one identifies with him,” Muhinda, who has been on the job since December 2016, says.
Both Tweyambe and Mwijukye agree with Muhinda.
“The moment this government realises that you are a formidable challenger, they will leave nothing to chance. We were beaten, kept in safe houses, stopped from moving. There was a time when a magistrate gave a restraining order for me never to leave western Uganda without express permission from court. Not so many people would join Besigye after seeing what has been done to us,” Mwijukye says.
“Once you allow your competitor to swim freely, then the next thing you would see the dictator exiting power. He will intimidate your supporters and those who can go for cheap groceries can get jobs and money but some of us who know what we want we refused and we paid the price,” Tweyambe adds.
After another disputed election in 2016, Besigye was first kept at his home in what came to be known as preventive arrest. He was arrested after a video emerged showing him taking the presidential oath of office.
He was later remanded to Luzira prison where he spent six months. In the end when Museveni’s epitaph is finally written, Besigye will occupy most of the pages. In the final pages, Kalinaki summarises Besigye’s contribution to the democratization of Uganda thus; “Besigye broke Museveni’s invincibility. Before he emerged on the scene, Museveni had created a myth around himself as a saviour of a nation, a liberator, a founder of new Uganda who could not be challenged…Besigye has served to show how much Museveni and NRM are part of Uganda’s political problems…”