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Besigye, the 66-year-old protester who chose jail over soliciting money for bail

By offering his freedom as collateral as the courts decide on the right to demonstrate, Besigye shows no sign of broken spirit over two decades since he first stood up.    

In the year 2011, Time Magazine had “The Protester” as its person of the year.  The magazine, headquartered in New York City and set to mark 100 years of existence next year, has the “person of the year” as perhaps its most prominent feature. In 2011, the magazine decided that no one had impacted the world more than “The Protester”.

In making the choice, Time Magazine especially had in mind the protests that were dubbed the “Arab Spring”, which shook north Africa and led to the ouster of a number of rulers; “Occupy Wall Street”, which took place in the US; and the Russian rallies of that year.

Uganda was too far away – and too small – for them to fully appreciate that “The Protester” had been as active and impactful as he had been elsewhere. If Time or anyone else were to pick a person of the year for Uganda that year, they would certainly have picked a protester, only that in Uganda’s case there would have been a proper noun to the awardee. The name is Kizza Besigye.

Having lost his third electoral bid against President Museveni at the start of that year, Besigye seemed to be down and out as Museveni looked unassailable. Museveni’s official vote tally had climbed to 68% in 2011, compared to the 59% he had polled in 2006; while Besigye’s tally had dropped to 26%, from the 37% he had polled in 2006.

The mood during the campaigns leading to the 2011 elections had been uninspiring, and Besigye had struggled to recreate the verve that had punctuated his campaigns in 2001 and 2006. Museveni and the ruling party had poured loads of money into the country to swing the election.

But three months after Museveni had been declared winner amidst protests of vote rigging by Besigye, in April 2011, the opposition leader re-invented himself via the Walk to Work protests. The money that had been poured into the country had returned to haunt Museveni by leading to runaway inflation, and by the time Museveni was sworn in for a fourth elected term in May 2011, Kampala was a city under siege. Protests had taken over.

Besigye was steadily evolving to become a peaceful protester, a huge transformation from the forceful military man that had burst onto the scene in 2000/2001. When Besigye had just started opposing Museveni, he presented himself as the answer, the “hammer” that would knock Museveni the “cotter pin” out of Uganda’s power machine. Even when Besigye fled to exile after the 2001 elections, he kept vowing from his hideout in South Africa that he would one day return to Uganda under “my own protection”.

Museveni, perhaps further motivated by Besigye’s belligerent approach, and for as long as Besigye refused to rule out a possible resort to arms, resorted to the means he knows best – naked use of force – to keep his former physician in check. It became so predictable, and given that Museveni had the backing of the State with all the guns that go with it, he was always sure to come out of it on top.

But as Museveni was getting used to facing a militarist opponent – a problem for which he appeared to have a solution – Besigye suddenly changed approach and became a peaceful protester. Besigye was inspired by the “Arab Spring”, where the masses rose up against long-serving rulers like Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, and eventually even Muammar Gaddafi of Libya, and eventually got them out of power in varying styles.

Besigye urged Ugandans to do it against Museveni too, and he set about working on mobilising them as he led from the frontline. To back up his new approach, Besigye studied the constitution and mastered certain articles. Article 29 of the constitution, for instance, guarantees Ugandans’ freedom to assemble, demonstrate, and petition any authority so long as they are peaceful and unarmed.

Whereas the government has come up with a number of measures to keep agitators and demonstrators in check, Besigye and other protesters have still always found some accommodation within the law – especially basing on that article – to protest.

The government tried the legal route and came up with the Public Order Management Act (POMA), which was a direct response to the Besigye-instigated protests starting 2011. POMA did not take away the rights of Ugandans to demonstrate, but made it hard to carry out demonstrations since it required demonstrators to seek permission from the police chief, which permission would in most cases certainly not be granted.

Demonstrations were still arranged in spite of POMA and without obtaining the permission of the police boss, and conflict over that ensued until the courts struck out the heard of POMA, again upholding the right of Ugandans to demonstrate. But with or without a legal basis, the government and security forces have continued to disallow and break up demonstrations, citing different reasons, including “economic sabotage”.

The other method of handling demonstrations and protests, which worked for many years especially under Gen. Kale Kayihura as police boss, is containment. The authorities seemed to recognise that demonstrators, especially Besigye, broke no law by continuously pushing their regime change ideas through demonstrations.

So, whenever Besigye got out of his home to protest, he would be rounded up and kept in a police cell, especially at Naggalama Police Station in Mukono District, and then dropped off at his home in Kasangati in Wakiso District at night. In most cases, the intention was never to arrest and charge him with any offense. Sometimes the process would not go to plan, like when a policeman ran amok and almost killed Besigye as the latter locked himself up in his car to evade arrest during the Walk to Work protests.

Military solution to protests

Following years of cat-and-mouse chase between Besigye and the police, a section of the military got into the business of dealing with protesters almost fulltime, which made protests a lot more dangerous for protesters. There is no official count of the number of Ugandans who have been shot dead by the armed forces during protests over the past decade or so.

The tone had been set during the 2009 Kayunga protests anyway, when, going by official figures, 27 Ugandans were shot dead by the military as they protested against the blocking of Buganda’s Katikkiro John Baptist Walusimbi from carrying out an advance visit to prepare for Kabaka Mutebi’s visit to Kayunga District.

The degeneration was quick and frightening. Under Museveni, shooting dead protesting citizens was not as commonplace in the earlier years. In the scattered incidents it happened during Museveni’s early days, like during the Makerere University students’ protests in 1990, it attracted widespread condemnation. In 2005, a trainee journalist – Jimmy Ojotre Higenyi – was shot dead during a demonstration at Uganda House in Kampala, and Gen. Katumba Wamala, who was in charge of the police at the time, had to do a lot of explaining and said he had ordered the arrest of a DPC and other policemen linked to the shooting that led to the death.

But such days are now far behind us, and the state has not issued even an apology over the killing of protesters in a long time. In November 2020, for instance, when at least 54 Ugandans were killed on Kampala streets as people protested against the arrest of presidential candidate Robert Kyagulanyi on the campaign trail, Museveni made an effort to differentiate between those who he said were killed while protesting and those who were just caught up in the melee and got shot dead.

The idea that emerges from this is that if one participates in a protest against the government, they can be shot dead, and also be blamed for causing their death. This point was underscored more pointedly by two former ministers – Gen. Elly Tumwine when he was Minister of Security, and the late Ali Kirunda Kivejinja, when he was Minister of Internal Affairs.

It has been very bad for protesters for many years now. On May 11, 2016, the eve of Museveni’s swearing-in for a fifth elected term, Besigye escaped from his besieged Kasangati home and showed up downtown Kampala. He had run in the election and ended up again dissatisfied, arguing that the election had once again been rigged in Museveni’s favour.

Besigye had run his campaign as a protest candidate, telling voters that he was aware Museveni would use the Electoral Commission and the security forces as instruments to rig the election, but that Ugandans had it within their power to stop it. Only days to the nominations for that particular election, Besigye was viewed as a spent force, an outsider who would have no say in the election since Amama Mbabazi had come out of Museveni’s shadow to challenge his long-time leader.

But everything changed on the day Besigye was nominated to challenge for the presidency, and he went on to pull huge crowds and receive monetary and non-monetary contributions from voters across the country. In the end, according to the official results, Besigye polled 35.4% of the votes, with Museveni garnering 60.8%.

But even before the results were declared, Besigye was already complaining about rigging, and he stormed a security installation in Naguru, Kampala, where he said the vote tallies were being fixed before they were fed into the Electoral Commission servers. He was dragged away by the police and locked up in his home for about three months, until he showed up in the middle of Kampala City calling on Ugandans to stop Museveni’s swearing-in.

The day Besigye showed up downtown – May 11, 2016 – military men were hurriedly ferried to the scene and, armed with guns and batons, unleashed such terror on the citizens as no one can imagine. It was not containment anymore. It was all-out war.

Besigye virtually left alone

 This idea – that participating in a protest against the government can lead to one being summarily shot dead – is not lost on many Ugandans, who have largely responded by staying away from protests.

So, when Besigye announced his Red Card Movement, it was easy to predict that his crusade would not draw many Ugandans on to the streets. In fact, most activists who are opposed to Museveni now see the idea of protests as a dead end and wouldn’t try it out at the moment. It is only Besigye – with a select few people from within the opposition circles – who has continued to push the idea of protests.

And perhaps Besigye has no option but to carry on with the idea of protests. As already pointed out, he started his anti-Museveni campaign saying a military option was on the table if Museveni did not relent. Along the way, he changed and started arguing that war is very destructive and disempowering for the citizens, and resorting to military means to change a government would only replace a military government with another, leaving the citizenry even weaker.

After writing off the idea of using war to cause change, Besigye also ruled out elections as a possible cause of change against Museveni. He says Museveni uses elections only as an instrument, and even when Besigye has participated in elections against Museveni, especially since 2011, he has always made it clear that he only does so to mobilise Ugandans so they may rise up and force Museveni out of power. He routinely declares that no opponent can ever be declared winner of an election under Museveni regardless of how Ugandans actually vote.

Besigye also doesn’t believe in talks with Museveni. He says Museveni can only use talks to weaken and subjugate his opponents, not to come up with solutions. The only way Museveni can come to the negotiating table, Besigye argues, is if Ugandans protest and put him under so much pressure as to make him want to negotiate his way out of the situation. That takes him back to protests.

That is why Besigye is where he is – in prison – fighting for his ideas. At 66 years of age, it looks awkward even for the state to have him remanded to prison for participating in a protest and allegedly inciting people to violence while at it.

But Besigye is Besigye, and he often comes up with a surprise. When the Buganda Road Court magistrate slapped on Besigye a bail figure of Shs30 million (about $8,000) for the charge of inciting violence, it is likely the idea was that he would pay up and avoid getting locked up. But If Besigye had paid the relatively astronomical sum for his temporary freedom, he would have to think twice before taking part in another protest lest he would have to pay the same or higher sum for another bail. It would even be more limiting for less resourced Ugandans who would have loved to protest but don’t have as much money and can’s pay for their freedom.

That is why Besigye’s instant reaction to the magistrate’s decision to require him to pay Shs30 million was to laugh it off, and declare that he would endure remand as his lawyers appeal the decision to the High Court. He must look at the setting of astronomical bail fees for charges related to protest as an attempt at curtailing the freedom, and has offered himself as collateral as the courts decide on the matter.

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