Last week, Oxfam Executive Director, Winnie Byanyima, accused me of losing my soul by “supporting dictatorship” and “defending gross human rights abuses”. I asked her to name a single incident where I had defended human rights abuses or dictatorial actions and she could not. I suspect that for Ms Byanyima, writing an article arguing that Uganda’s economy has sustained growth of 6.7% over the last 30 years means “supporting dictatorship” and writing another article criticising her husband, Kizza Besigye’s, campaign proposal equals “defending gross human rights abuses.”
However, the immediate spark of the Twitter spurt was her claim that police blocked her from accessing her home, an act I immediately condemned. But I had reminded her that use of police to harass opposition politicians in Uganda is not new. In fact, it was much more rampant in the early years of NRM when she was close to President Yoweri Museveni – both literally and figuratively. Her husband was the Minister of State for Internal Affairs (in charge of police and prisons) and later National Political Commissar and blued-eyed cadre of Museveni.
In response Byanyima tweeted: “My record on human rights is in the CA and the parliamentary Hansard. Get me right Mwenda, I have used every platform I have had to advance human rights.” That is of course true and nothing but the truth. But it is also true that in 1986, Byanyima lived in Museveni’s State House as a closet First Lady and also wore military fatigues as a soldier in the NRA. During this period human rights were an exotic luxury not enjoyed by many Ugandans, especially in northern Uganda. The NRA was fighting remnants of the defeated army. It sometimes conducted a scotched earth policy – burning granaries, looting cattle, and conducting mass arrests called panda gari. Suspects were tied Kandoya, summarily executed, and in some cases, like in Boro-Coro allegedly burned alive in a pit.
In 1991, NRA declared Operation North commanded by Gen. David Tinyefuza (now Sejusa and a leading anti Museveni soldier-cum politician), an operation that human rights groups condemned for its brutality. Before this, Attorney General and Minister of Justice, George Kanyeihamba (a new face of the democracy movement) went to the NRC (then-parliament) and pushed through a law that gave the state unlimited power to arrest without trial anyone suspected of collaborating with rebels. He even went to Makerere University to defend this law.
As Byanyima enjoyed the pleasures of power inside State House, the NRM government banned all activities of political parties through Legal Notice Number One of 1986. Meanwhile police under Besigye was arresting scores of opposition politicians: Yona Kanyomozi, Paulo Muwanga, Samwiri Mugwisa, Edward Rurangaranga, James Rwanyarare, Adonia Tiberondwa etc. They were all sent to jail for no other reason except that they were in UPC. Police arrested even DP politicians that were allied with NRM – Andrew Adimola, Andrew Kayiira, Zachary Olumu, Ojok Mulozi, Evarasto Nyanzi, Tibero Okeny etc. Those who were not in jail were in exile. Today, there is not a single senior politician in jail – even Besigye is either free or occasionally under house arrest in his luxurious home.
Byanyima should not narcissistically employ selective indignation, picking whatever serves to advance her personal ambition and ascribing virtue to it while tarnishing as criminal whatever doesn’t serve her. She believes that only her positions are representations of reality. Those who disagree with her are compromised. So when she was with NRA/NRM as it violently and brutally usurped and consolidated power, it was “liberation”. Now that she is not with it when it is using similar tactics – even if on a highly reduced scaled – it is a dictatorship.
Frank memo: Opposition leader Kizza Besigye’s wife, the Oxfam Executive Director, Winnie Byanyima, gets paid in kind after she accuses Andrew Mwenda of losing his soul by “supporting dictatorship” and “defending gross human rights abuses”.I am willing to sympathise with Byanyima but only if she makes admits her initial mistake and complicity in the crisis she is criticising today. But to claim that her record is clean is hypocritical. In fact, the NRM she condemns today is much more improved and democratic than when she was in State House as a closet First Lady, diplomat in Paris (a position given to her on nepotistic grounds to get her out of State House), an MP and Spokesperson for the NRM where she defended the party and government etc. In 1986 NRM had no process or pretence of electing its chairman. Museveni was president by force (worse than being president after an election with significant irregularities). Museveni was also chairman of NRC i.e. speaker of parliament, then an assembly of hand-picked individuals.
Today’s NRM at least has the pretence of an election for its chairman. There are elections for president (whatever the weaknesses) who canvases for votes across the entire country. And we have a speaker who is not also the president i.e. some semblance of separation of powers. In the days when Ms Byanyima and Besigye held sway over the politics of our country, Museveni would wear military fatigues and chair parliament and force through legislation. Today he has to invite MPs to State House, serve them food and bribe them for him to get his way. And Byanyima should know that bribery is an essential part of democratic politics. The progress on democratisation in Uganda may not meet our expectations but we are better today than when Byanyima in State House and later MP and spokesperson of NRM.
Here is my frank memo to Byanyima: Stop this self-indulgent pretence that you are an altruistic advocate of human rights. Only those who do not know you would buy your claims to fight for democracy and human rights. Those of us who know you well actually know better. Your blind and reckless pursuit of power is obvious even to the blind. In the past you participated in and defended a government that was grossly brutal and violent. It could be appropriate for you to argue that some of the human rights violations of the time were inevitable but regrettable actions to consolidate power after a civil war. But this would apply to today: some people could argue that a lot of the actions against your husband may be necessary albeit regrettable in the process of maintaining order in a fragile state. And most critically, never throw stones when you are living in a glasshouse. Unfortunately in trying to attack me, you did not examine your environment.