Thus like many millenarian cults, many people supporting Besigye believed in their own self-righteousness and assumed everyone shared their outrage.
Last week, opposition leader Kizza Besigye, claimed to have won the February presidential election. He claimed that by the time his own party’s tally centre was ‘sabotaged’, he was leading with 47 percent against President Yoweri Museveni’s 43 percent, from results of about 30% of all polling stations. He says that because this tally excluded the votes from his strongholds of the north, it means he won the election. I find his position absurd.
I hold Besigye in high esteem because of his demonstrated courage, firmness and commitment to the public good in Uganda. He has sustained his struggle against Museveni even in the face of one million and one violent attacks on him and his family members by the president and his apparatchik.
Yet the traits that make Besigye a strong personality in resisting Museveni’s dictatorial tendencies are the same traits that make him look like a carbon copy of the president – the tendency to dig into a position and refuse to listen to alternative view points. Indeed, one of the reasons Besigye’s support declined in the last election is his tendency to listen too much to himself rather than to the people of Uganda.
For example, I followed both Museveni and Besigye on the campaign trail and immediately noticed how Museveni was getting an upper hand. Besigye would go to the rallies with a script. From a purely moral and national perspective, it was a great script written in statesmanlike fashion – a powerful statement of the ills that have bedeviled our nation. He was consistent on his message. But it was an ineffective message in many areas of rural Uganda because Besigye was speaking to the voters, not for them.
Museveni had a message but he was not consistent with it. He was always able to adapt his message to the mood of his audience. Everywhere he went, he was accosted by local complaints most of which revolved around the issue of service delivery. Realising that his government had failed the people, Museveni adopted an opposition posture; his adversaries were the local government officials. He riled them for corruption, incompetence and theft and even threatened or ordered the arrest of some of them. He was thus able to speak for the people, not to speak to them.
As the campaign progressed, it was clear that the Besigye camp had placed itself on a very high moral pedestal, a factor that gave them extraordinary hubris. Thus like many millenarian cults, many people supporting Besigye got consumed by a sense of their own self-righteousness and assumed that everyone shared their outrage at Museveni’s failures. Worse they even thought that most voters viewed them as they viewed of themselves i.e. as messiahs to save our nation from a despot.
Nothing could have been more damaging to Besigye and his most passionate supporters than this hubris. Rather than try to convince people that the country needed change, the Besigye campaign simply assumed that people were ready for change. Hence it promised them that “change is coming”. Thus, the strategy was not to mobilise for change but rather to “protect the vote” – a vote they took for granted to be there waiting for them.
Although there was a nation-wide constituency convinced about change, it was wrong to assume that it constituted an electoral majority. Indeed, among the many Ugandans convinced about the need for change was a large section which was afraid of the consequences of change. Such people voted Museveni.
But moral hubris also led the Besigye camp into assumptions that undermined their capacity to respond to Museveni’s initiatives. It seems Besigye believed his own hype and that of the circle around him that there were masses of people across the country who felt like him, who shared his view of Museveni as a corrupt despot. It was a fatal era because Besigye ended up preaching to the converted and in some cases talking to himself and listening to his own echoes instead of listening to the people.
This tendency of Besigye to think that his disagreements with Museveni are similar to the disagreement most people have with the president is not new. In 2001, his campaign posters said “vote for a president who will listen.” Why? In his battles with the president, Besigye had noticed, and correctly so, that Museveni was not listening to him and other senior leaders of the Movement. But was this really the view of ordinary voters about Museveni – i.e. did ordinary people believe that the president does not listen?
I have attended a number of meetings at State House between Museveni and ordinary people from districts involving women’s and youth groups, local councilors etc. I was struck by how patient and attentive he would be when in meetings with them. Sometimes Museveni would be speaking, and a peasant would stand up, rudely interrupt him and just begin to give his own speech. Museveni would stop and begin taking notes. I would spend minutes almost collapsing with impatience as the president listened attentively as this ordinary person made his case, often a list of small local problems that a president should not deal with.
After this ordinary person had stopped, the president would answer each of the issues that person had raised, yielding to many of their parochial demands upon the state such as to appoint someone from their village a minister, an ambassador or RDC or to build a clinic or school in their sub-county, restock their cows or give them a district.
It was clear to me that while Museveni was not listening to his colleagues in cabinet, he was doing the exact opposite with local people. In structuring his 2001 campaign message as “vote for a president who will listen” Besigye was addressing himself and his colleagues in the high echelons of power, not to the ordinary voter. This approach has not changed.
I hold very strong anti-Museveni views politically although I support the broad thrust of his liberal economic policies. But I am always conscious of the fact that I should not assume that everyone else in Uganda shares my point of view. During the campaign, I met many young, well educated, modernist and ambitious Ugandans in their mid to late 20s or early 30s on Museveni’s campaign team, passionately campaigning for the president – a demographic one would expect to be hostile to the president.
I was always struck by this and would ask why they supported a president who has presided over gross corruption, nepotism and incompetence; and the utter collapse of the public spirit in our public service, leave alone having stayed in power for decades. I would ask them whether they did not know what is happening to our healthcare and education system and our roads. Many actually agreed with these but argued that there were other attributes of Museveni like freedom, stability and sustained economic growth which I was ignoring.
These interactions humbled me. I was able to see that there are many and diverse perspectives among people. It was clear that if I want others to see my point of view, I should try to win them over through persuasion. But Besigye and some elements around him thought everyone agreed with his view of Museveni and shared his vision of change; hence, he needed no persuasion but motivation. So he went around trying to motivate people to turn out and vote for change, instead of trying to convince them about the need for change.
Besigye is not alone. Across almost the entire spectrum of the anti-Museveni intellectual and political elite in Uganda, there is a consensus that based purely on Museveni’s failures in service delivery there is widespread opposition to the president. Worse still, they believe that the discontented are yarning for change. There is no doubt that across our nation many people are disenchanted with the government.
The fatal era is the hubris to believe that all of them are therefore ready for change.
There is significant fear among many Ugandans in regard to change. In a country that has never seen peaceful change of government the fear of the unknown is strong. People need reassurance that change will not bring instability. He who ignores this does so at a big risk.
A section of people who give Besigye’s opposition intellectual justification are both naive and intolerant. They reject every realistic caution against their obsessive over-optimism and dismiss it as pro-Museveni. They have thus alienated many centrists who would prefer a more pragmatic and realistic campaign; a campaign that will despise Museveni strategically but take him seriously tactically.
This intolerance by the groups around Besigye is a reflection of their major intellectual weakness. It was also one of the critical factors behind the failed efforts towards opposition unity before the election, a failure that gave Museveni a strategic advantage in the election. In fact every democratic minded Ugandan would be more scared by Besigye’s apparatchik than by Museveni. The Besigye crowd dismissed anyone who tried to point out Museveni’s strengths as having been bought. They denied and rejected the legitimacy of any view seen as favourable to Museveni – including views that while disagreeing with the president tended to recognise his core strengths.
The tendency to dismiss all contrary opinion as being treacherous, of having been bought by Museveni has taken air out of the bubble of Besigye’s claims to be a champion of democracy. He and his cohorts came across as intolerant and suspicious of alternative view points. For example, I was told by those close to him that he said he cannot read The Independent because we had sold out to Museveni.
Now, anyone reading The Independent would have considered it a very balanced newspaper in its coverage of the election but leaning in favour of the opposition. Although we did not do a thorough job covering the election, most of our articles and opinions were largely critical of Museveni. Where Besigye was covered, it was largely in positive terms – even though I admit that we did not give him enough coverage. One reason was market dynamics – the truth is that he was not selling newspapers.
That Besigye could not see how favourably disposed to him we were in our limited coverage of his campaign tells a lot about the man. It shows that you either agree with him entirely i.e. on every coma and full-stop or you are labelled a Museveni supporter. Thus Norbert Mao, whom I proudly voted for in full view of everyone at my polling station, was labelled a Museveni 5th column because he did not share Besigye’s view.
At some point even Olara Otunnu was suspected of working with and for Museveni. Bidandi Ssali suffered a similar fate. No one escaped their cobra bite.
The Besigye group seeks to win over people in similar fashion as the Museveni group - via blackmail and scare mongering. The Museveni group was scaring people that if they voted the opposition, the country would fall into chaos. The Besigye group was saying if anyone does not support them, then he had been bought by Museveni. For a person passionately committed to independence of opinion, this “either or” attitude on both sides convinced me that Museveni and Besigye are the same and should be rejected.
By accusing anyone who disagrees with them as having been bought by Museveni, the Besigye group was actually hoping to force those who don’t agree with them to support them in order to be seen as not having been bought by Museveni. It is called blackmail. Many people kept away from the polls because while they were disenchanted with Museveni, they could not put up with this intolerance in FDC.
As the tide of history turned against them, the Besigye group even began to reject science in favour of their own assumptions. They rejected all opinion polls saying Museveni had bought them. Even when their own opinion poll showed they were trailing far behind Museveni, they were too consumed by their own sense of destiny to listen to the feelings of Ugandans. They could not believe that the people of Uganda could not share their messianic view of themselves or even their message for change.
Besigye thought that every anti-Museveni opinion was a pro-Besigye opinion; and that every opinion that was not pro him was a pro Museveni opinion. In his view, one was either with him or with Museveni. There was no independent position. Ultimately, Besigye lost this election because he took the people of this country too much for granted and sought to force all of us to think like him or to agree with him. Up to now he is unable to accept this reality hence his recent claim that he won the election.
There are many good people among Besigye supporters: honourable men like Augustine Ruzindana and Mugisha Muntu; tolerant ones like Wafula Oguttu and Morris Latigo; thoughtful ones like Conrad Nkutu and David Mpanga. But they do not form the mainstream of Besigye’s intellectual base. FDC needs to liberate itself from extremist control, move to the centre, listen keenly to Ugandans even those who don’t agree with its message and construct a vision that is democratic. Short of this, Museveni’s base will grow or a new and more enlightened force will emerge and take FDC’s place.