How the opposition leader has blundered on the chance to promote his political project – if he has any
Media reports have recently indicated there are attempts to organise talks between the government and the opposition. For such talks to be meaningful, they have to involve President Yoweri Museveni and his main rival, Dr. Kizza Besigye. Even before anything tangible could materialise, however, Besigye was already bragging that “the dictatorship” is weak and has, therefore, approached him and his people “begging” for talks. The government, meanwhile, was denying involvement in any talks.It is possible Besigye could have been approached because there are many people who would like talks and would suggest them to Museveni. Knowing him, Museveni would most likely agree – if only to explore possibilities as he plots how to use them to his advantage. If this is true, then Besigye is acting irresponsibly by bragging. It could explain why the government denied approaching him.
I personally suspect the government approached Besigye for talks. But contrary to Besigye’s view, Museveni would be open to talks because he is in a strong position. He is president. He has 82% of parliament to pass any legislation he wants. The army and police are loyal. Diplomats of all nations are paying homage to him. The economy could be faltering and the people angry, but there is no serious risk to Museveni’s power. Besigye and his supporters pay taxes to the same government, which Museveni uses to train and equip the police to keep them in check.
Museveni prefers to negotiate from such a position of strength. Throughout his political career, he has fought many enemies. However, it is only after defeating them on the battlefield does he use such victory to enter “peace talks”. The defeated enemy is often either given political leadership, including positions in Museveni’s cabinet, integrated into the army, or paid money to retire.
Besigye himself is not opposed to talks per se and would prefer dialogue on political reform. But I think he appreciates he is in a very weak negotiating position. Possibly he recognises that, at best, talks can get him and some of his people cabinet posts and nothing more. Yet this could allow Museveni to swallow up FDC as he has been swallowing up DP and UPC recently. Such an outcome is, however, not a foregone conclusion. The actual result would be determined by how each side plays its cards.
The fear that Museveni can swallow FDC is real. But so is the possibility of Besigye causing rapture in NRM. NRM is a deeply divided and unruly party. We can never know what talks can produce unless someone with a plan engages in them. Those afraid of taking risk never get anything done. Besigye must thus be willing to take a risk, albeit a calculated one. The real risk, therefore, is that if Besigye got into talks with Museveni, he could be accused by many of his radical extremist supporters of selling-out. This is the real reason for Besigye’s reluctance for dialogue.
Besigye, for all his bravado in engaging the police in street fights, actually lacks political courage to take this major risk associated with such talks. He, therefore, avoids talks because he is terrified of his radical base that supplies the emotional fuel for his politics. Put simply, he is a hostage to his radical base.
Many politicians in Besigye’s shoes would be careful not to alienate their base. Yet some take the risk. Kenyan opposition leader Raila Odinga, after spending seven years in President Daniel arap Moi’s jail, shocked everyone when he led his party to join KANU. He became its secretary general and sat in Moi’s cabinet. Eventually Raila used his position in KANU and cabinet to organise a rebellion from within that led to a major rapture inside the ruling party and mass defection of its powerful politicians. This led to opposition victory in the 2002 presidential elections.
To be fair to Besigye, his coalition lacks a rock-solid base that is either ethnic or religious like Raila does. So how can he go about the talks? To avoid being “misunderstood” by his radical base, Besigye needs to rally powerful social institutions of Uganda as the promoters of these talks. Two such institutions come to mind; religious bodies and Mengo. He can also add a respected foreign government (the Swedes are a good bet) and an international body (like the Carter Center in Atlanta, Georgia) to guarantee them. With such institutions in the lead, the risk of being seen as a sell-out is reduced.
This would also signal that Besigye is able to rally such powerful social institutions to the opposition cause. Failure of Museveni’s opponents to do this has in the past greatly undermined their impact. It has shown Museveni’s political brinkmanship and his opponent’s lack of sound strategy.
Museveni used the same strategy when fighting against Milton Obote. Museveni knew UPC was rooted in the protestant church, labour unions, and cooperatives. So he allied himself with the Catholic Church and traditional monarchies; especially in Buganda and Toro. This allowed him to counterbalance Obote politically, thereby making his military campaign effective.
For any struggle against Museveni to have impact, it has to rally such powerful social institutions. If they cannot be converted into open opposition to him, they must be mediators. Regardless of his military airs, Museveni fears religious institutions. He knows they have powerful spiritual and moral appeal backed by a wide network of priests from the village to the capital. He can fight anyone but he can never open a war on religious bodies. Yet Besigye has been distant from efforts of the church leaders.
Museveni, on the other hand, has consolidated his power by rallying these powerful institutions. He has kept traditional authorities and religious leaders on his side by giving them respect and patronage. He has ensured the continued acquiescence of the big foreign powers to his rule. He has the army and police directly under his thumb. And he has ensured that a large section of elites with skills and profile to offer leadership and organisation in their communities are either incorporated into his vast patronage network or are sufficiently intimidated from joining opposition to him.
Therefore, whoever seeks regime change must understand this matrix of Museveni’s power. If he has any understanding of it, Besigye has been unable to design a strategy to match it. Now, however, Besigye must seize the chance for talks because they offer the only opportunity for something new where all others –armed rebellion, electoral contest, and popular insurrection (defiance) – have failed.