On Feb.2, Kizza Besigye, the former Presidential flag bearer for the Forum for Democratic Change (FDC), called the press to announce a new pressure group he is calling the People’s Government Network.
Besigye called on supporters to be representatives of the network in their communities and help build pressure against President Yoweri Museveni’s government.
For the unveiling, Besigye chose the headquarters of Activists for Change (A4C), another pressure group he co-founded with other opposition politicians in 2011.
Like A4C, Besigye said the new group is to operate outside FDC.
That the opposition leader chose to announce his first planned course of action in 2017 at a venue different from his FDC party headquarters could indicate his determination to work more with the radical fringe of the party. This speaks volumes as FDC is slated to hold its usually acrimonious party presidential elections. The FDC party President, Mugisha Muntu did not attend.
Besigye’s latest breakaway move comes at a time when a major debate is raging about whether such actions undermine or strengthen the FDC.
Besigye was flanked by former Leader of Opposition in Parliament, Wafula Oguttu, party mobiliser Ingrid Turinawe, party chairman, Wasswa Birigwa and Allan Sewanyana. All these and others who attended are his diehard followers. Other Besigye diehards, like FDC Spokesperson, Ibrahim Semujju Nganda, and Secretary General Nandala Mafabi did not attend.
Besigye’s latest move comes when FDC, which is Uganda’s largest opposition political party, is at crossroads. It needs to rethink both its strategy and the continued role of its de facto leader, Besigye.
There are many people saying FDC needs to change from Besigye’s leadership because his strategy is wrong.
I will use the lessons of military strategy to demonstrate this. If he were a good strategist, Besigye would know that the first principle of command is “selection and maintenance of the aim”.
In this case, Besigye appears to have selected the wrong `aim’ for FDC. Today, Besigye’s aim and that of FDC appears to be to remove President Yoweri Museveni from power. But if this is the wrong aim for Besigye and his party, what should the correct aim be?
In my view, this main aim would be to build a “democratic and prosperous Uganda”. This would have three aspects. First would be political reforms to ensure free and fair elections, which Besigye has always emphasised. Second would be introduction of administrative reforms in Uganda to improve accountability and the ability of the state to serve the citizen effectively and efficiently. Third would be economic reforms that build a dynamic economy especially in agriculture and manufacturing to create jobs to increase incomes of Ugandans.
So I want to think the main aim of Besigye, FDC, and indeed the opposition generally should be “to build a democratic and prosperous Uganda”.
There are several ways to achieve this main aim fully or partially. Capturing the presidency from Museveni is just one of them, and is, in fact, an ineffective one. The other is winning many positions of district chairpersons and town mayors. This would enable the opposition to use local governments to set an example of how accountable, efficient and effective it is at governing.
The other option tied to this would be to increase opposition presence in parliament and use it promote reform.
After gaining strength in parliament and district chairpersonships, the opposition could use it to seek a coalition government so as to influence government from within. Finally the opposition can promote reforms using a combination of all the above with civil disobedience campaigns.
Let us now address Besigye’s single-minded focus on winning the presidency from the perspective of military strategy. It is the principle of warfare that when you confront an enemy stronger than you are, it is suicidal to attempt a frontal attack; most especially at a point where the enemy has concentrated most of his forces.
Museveni and NRM are very strong relative to the FDC and the combined opposition. They have also concentrated most of their resources at ensuring that they do not lose the presidency. Therefore, launching a frontal assault on capturing the presidency as Besigye has done consistently for the last 16 years has led the opposition to focus its resources where they have the least chance of success. It has also diverted their meagre resources from other theatres of war like district, mayoral and parliamentary battles where they have better chances of making gains – gains which over time would become vital in winning the presidency.
Instead, Besigye has focused his entire energy on only one of the options – capturing the presidency – to the almost complete exclusion of all other options. In fact this single-minded obsession with winning the presidency has been achieved at the price of weakening the second, third and fourth options. Yet the strategy of capturing the presidency is suicidal and explains the crisis in the opposition today.
Besigye’s strategy can be compared to that of the late rebel leader Andrew Kayiira, who after the 1980 elections sought to remove then-president Milton Obote’s government. Kayiira and his Uganda Freedom Movement (UFM) sought a quick win by frontal assaults against the security forces of the Obote government which was backed by powerful Tanzanian troops. Kayiira’s fighters launched daring attacks on Lubiri Barracks in Kampala. Unfortunately, instead of hurting Obote’s forces, Kayiira’s UFM suffered heavy casualties and it was unable to grow in spite of Kayiira fighting from his home/ethnic base of Buganda.
On the other hand, then-rebel leader Museveni, when still small and weak, preferred to hide in the bush, attack small and isolated army units and police stations to get guns and ammunition and also to build his political and military capacity overtime. As he gained strength he increased the size of targets he could attack until he was strong enough to launch a frontal assault on the government.
Thus, Museveni is the one who succeeded. His strategy of “wearing down the enemy” worked; precipitating internal rapture in the political and military coalition Obote had built until it led to a military coup. But even as he was battling Obote’s security forces in the bushes of Luweero, Museveni also kept other options open. For example he was open to negotiations and later went to Nairobi and negotiated a peace settlement. The Nairobi peace negotiations actually gave him time to strengthen his NRA and gain international support. So when he finally launched the frontal attack on UNLA, he was in a position to prevail.
Instead of copying the Museveni model of success, the FDC under Besigye has been making the Kayiira error consistently for 16 years and expecting different results each time. But the results have also consistently proven the foolhardiness of this strategy.
While these suicidal frontal attacks seeking to capture the presidency have built Besigye’s personal brand and brought him fanatical support from the radical elements of the opposition, they have significantly stunted the institutional growth of FDC. This is largely because Besigye has subordinated the strategic objective of political, administrative and economic reform to his tactical desire to capture the presidency.
We can draw a parallel from military history with Adolf Hitler’s campaign against the Soviet Union in 1942.
During that war, Hitler wanted to capture Stalingrad because it bore the name of soviet leader, Josef Stalin. He convinced himself that if he captured this holy city of communism, it would deliver a psychological below to the enemy. He thus subordinated the main aim of defeating the soviet army to the symbolic importance of capturing Stalingrad. All advice by his commanders to order a tactical withdraw from the city fell on deaf ears. He thus led Germany to its worst military disaster in history.
Hitler at Stalingrad, like Besigye on the presidency, failed to appreciate the fact that as a commander you must select and maintain theatres of war and military objectives where you can reap the best results. In Uganda’s case it does not make sense to concentrate all opposition energy at the presidency because it is the most fortified position and the opposition is weak relative to the NRM.
Instead, the opposition stands to win more if it attacks the flanks of NRM where its defenses are relatively weak. The district and local councils and parliament are the NRM’s flanks. Over time the opposition can leverage gains made in the flanks to launch a frontal attack on the presidency.
Instead, the opposite appears to be happening. While Besigye has expended all the resources of the opposition on these continuous yet fruitless frontal assaults on the presidency, he has left the flanks of his party (presence in local governments and parliament) dangerously exposed. Museveni has thereby been busy attacking FDC’s flanks, consistently reducing the party’s size in parliament and local councils.
This means that even if Besigye had won the presidency in 2016, the NRM using its 82% control of parliament and 88% control of districts could easily have made it impossible for him to govern. They could even have impeached him on the flimsiest excuse. In such a case, Besigye could easily have found himself in a position where he has to act dictatorially i.e. use the military to stop parliament from impeaching him.
The tragedy of FDC – and the wider opposition in Uganda – is that while they have not captured the coveted presidency, they have also made no gains in parliament and districts. This is especially true for FDC. Its numbers have either been stagnant or declining (see Tables 1 and 2). Yet in every election, over 60% of incumbent MPs and district chairpersons are not reelected. This means that every election opens more opportunities for FDC and the wider opposition to make gains in parliament and districts. They have not gained in large part because they have not taken winning parliament as seriously as they take winning the presidency.
Secondly, Besigye’s personal courage combined with his militant and belligerent approach to politics has made him a hero of folklore among the most radical opponents of Museveni. These are the men and women willing to stake everything to defend their position in the face of a police force always used to buttress Museveni’s position. As the radicals have gained their strength in the FDC, many moderate leaders and even voters have been distancing themselves from the party, thus solidifying its base without growing its appeal.
Thirdly, the dominance of radicals in the FDC and the marginalisation of moderate voices have weakened the voice of the opposition in parliament. In the 1990s and early 2000s, the opposition had few MPs but a big voice in parliament because it boasted politicians of excellent calibre like Ben Wacha, Okullo Epak etc. Today the opposition may have more MPs yet less voice because those who win are radicals of poor intellectual calibre.
To win in opposition strongholds today requires one to take such an extremist stance that most reasonable potential opposition candidates keep away. It also means that FDC increasingly has radical MPs; the few reasonable ones prefer silence. To speak their mind is to attract hostile and savage accusations that they are either weak or compromised.
The fourth result is that the radicalisation of FDC has also undermined any possible compromise with Museveni. Besigye himself may not be hostile to negotiations and some meaningful compromise. Rather because he has built his brand around foolhardy militancy and belligerence and is now afraid that any attempt at compromise will be seen as capitulation by his radical base. Besigye’s great friend, the embattled Lord Mayor Erias Lukwago finds himself in exactly this position. Therefore, these leaders reluctance to compromise is not based on conviction but convenience. In short Besigye is hostage to his radical base.
Besigye the politician is not without merit. He has an eye for tactical opportunities and is quick to seize a chance when it presents itself (like he did with Walk to Work in 2011).
But he lacks the good soldier’s ability to assess the prerequisites and practicability of what in command is called “a plan of operations.” For example, he does not understand that the objectives and ultimate scope of any civil or military campaign must be in proportion to the time and resources needed to sustain it. Without organisation, it is difficult to continually mobilise people onto the streets and sustain an effective defiance campaign. Instead Besigye believes that all that is needed to sustain his defiance campaign is the power of his will.
Of course a strong will on the part of a leader is one of the main prerequisites for victory. Many battles have been lost and many victories thrown away because a leader’s will failed at a critical moment. But this “will” for victory in a commander is different from the will Besigye exhibits. His belief in his own mission to save Uganda from Museveni has made him block out all contrary reason. It has led him to the belief that his will can operate even beyond the limits of hard reality.
More tragically, this belief in his will has led Besigye to reject any arguments, however factual, that show that Museveni has a lot of achievements. In reality, Museveni’s political and economic credits give him considerable support. When these are backed by financial and organisational resources, he can easily overwhelm any threat to his hold on the presidency even in a free and fair election.
Faced with this reality, Besigye has lost the essential elements of what in military science is called “appreciation of the situation” on which every commander’s decision must be based. Besigye’s continuous claims that he has won the last four elections only goes to demonstrate that he has lost touch with political reality.
The lesson to derive from this is that Besigye actually learnt little from Museveni during the bush. To defeat Museveni one would need to avoid the temptation of thinking the president is weak, as Besigye and many in the opposition do. The worst mistake is to underestimate your enemy, something that Museveni has consistently avoided. Therefore, as a soldier, Besigye is a poor politician and as a politician, an equally poor soldier.
The time has come, and indeed is long overdue, for the FDC and the wider opposition to question Besigye’s obsession with capturing the presidency as the best means to promote the cause of reform in Uganda. In addressing this issue, the opposition might find it important to also question the suitability of Besigye as the leader of any reform movement.