About me.

Andrew M. Mwenda is the founding Managing Editor of The Independent, Uganda’s premier current affairs newsmagazine. One of Foreign Policy magazine 's top 100 Global Thinkers, TED Speaker and Foreign aid Critic

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

About our collective delusions

Besigye’s messiah complex and the triumph of power over values in The “Democratic” Alliance

For most of the last week of September, leading opposition figure, Dr. Kizza Besigye, was a subject of vitriolic attacks by many of his former admirers. All because he refused to endorse former Prime Minister, Amama Mbabazi, as joint opposition flag bearer for next year’s presidential election. Yet none of his critics cared to hear Besigye’s reasons. Instead he was accused of being selfish and power-hungry.

Besigye’s objections are legitimate. For example, the main issue of the opposition against President Yoweri Museveni’s government is corruption. Mbabazi has been named in corruption scandals like Temangalo, CHOGM and oil bribes. For the last seven years he has been a subject of opposition vilification. I argued then (and still hold) that there was no evidence against Mbabazi. The same people cuddling with him today then accused me of having been bribed by Mbabazi. The former Prime Minister must be smiling at how easily gullible they are.

If the opposition think corruption is an evil in our society and believe (even if wrongly) that Mbabazi was corrupt, that is an important ground to contest his suitability to be their flag bearer. Otherwise they are looking at the election as only a contest over power, not values or policies. Therefore Besigye has legitimate grounds when he rises these objections, his personal motivations notwithstanding. To try block any open and candid discussion of Mbabazi’s leadership of the opposition struggle is not any different from NRM selecting a sole candidate. 

In defending Besigye over his objections to Mbabazi being an opposition flag bearer, I am not endorsing him either. In fact, I am opposed to Besigye’s militant and extremist approach to politics. I am also frustrated by his lack of an alternative policy agenda for the country. He has reduced the aim of his struggle to protesting for the right to protest. He has failed to articulate a vision of the Uganda he wants beyond getting rid of Museveni. Mbabazi has not articulated an alternative vision either. But his calm demeanor, his recognition of the gains of Museveni/NRM and his argument for a peaceful transition sound more attractive to me than Besigye’s angry and belligerent yet empty rhetoric.

Besigye ignited the anti-Museveni fuse in 2000. But he has passed his sell-by date. He is therefore the wrong opposition candidate for the presidency of Uganda. Ironically, he is an asset as an opposition presidential candidate because he helps sustain the enthusiasm of his most fanatical followers who would most likely stay home if Mbabazi is the flag bearer. Tactically, therefore, the opposition actually needs him in order to increase their voter turnout. If Mbabazi can appeal to NRM moderates and attract independents to vote, there is a slight chance their combined vote can force Museveni to a second round.

When he first challenged Museveni, Besigye excited many people because he struck the right code and tone. He emerged at a time when Uganda was deep into gross corruption and buccaneering during the privatisation of public enterprises, and the liberalisation of the economy public procurement. Yet Besigye’s tone was moderate, sober and reflective. He did not promise to bring “salvation” but rather to “re-direct the revolution” back to its original values.

The NRM response to Besigye was brutal and unprecedented. Over the years as the state brutalised and humiliated him, Besigye became a very bitter and angry man, and who could blame him? But this bitterness also clouded Besigye’s judgment of Museveni and NRM. He lost sight of positive things happening in the country. He began to see Uganda through the prism of his personal predicament. To him, the NRM is a brutal and corrupt military dictatorship that has destroyed Uganda. His sacrifices led him to develop a messianic view of himself i.e. that the country needs Besigye to deliver it to salvation.

Besigye’s inability to see beyond his personal suffering has been his biggest handicap as a leader. There have been a lot of improvements in Uganda since 2000 when he first challenged Museveni. As an aspiring leader, he needed to appreciate the new developments, to know where the country is so that he can plan to take it further. Instead, he has been carried away by his personal suffering that he mistakes it to be the experience of everyone. This has disarticulated Besigye from reality and led him to to conflate Uganda’s experience with his own.

Seeing Uganda through his personal suffering has led Besigye to see himself as the only solution for our country. Anyone who disagrees with his militant approach to the political struggle does not simply hold an alternative opinion. That person is a coward. And anyone who disagrees with his extreme view that Museveni has destroyed Uganda and dares point out that the economy is growing, greater democratic space is being won and institutions are consolidating, Besigye accuses them of having been compromised by “the regime”.

It is clear, therefore, that if there is anything motivating Besigye to reject Mbabazi as the opposition flag bearer, it is not a self-interested greed for power. Rather it his self-righteousness, a messianic image of himself. It is what led him to (perhaps inadvertently) undermine his successor in FDC, Mugisha Muntu. It is the reason Besigye returned to lead the campaign against Museveni in spite of having promised not to run for the presidency again.

Besigye is similar to many in the political class in Uganda. They are not opposed to Museveni out of a principled desire to improve the nation’s governance. Instead, their main quarrel with Museveni is over power. That is why they embrace a militant, belligerent and uncompromising politician like Besigye whose militarism is not very different from that which Museveni exhibits. But Besigye is a militarist without Museveni’s finesse. In power, he has a high potential to be worse.

If it was not for his daughters conducting a Taliban-like campaign of vilification against anyone who makes the slightest criticism of their father, Mbabazi would have been an attractive candidate to people like me. His daughters’ intolerance portends worse to come in our struggle against family rule. The noblest politician in Uganda today is Muntu. Yet Ugandan voters seem disinterested in him in spite of his values. This attraction to leaders with characteristic traits similar to those of Museveni shows that they are looking for a change of government not governance. That is the tragedy of our country.


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