IRIN Interview with opposition politician Kizza Besigye

Kizza Besigye, who ran as a presidential candidate against President Yoweri Museveni in March and launched a democratic Reform Charter for Uganda in July, alleging that it had effectively become a dictatorship, reportedly went missing from his residence in the Ugandan capital, Kampala, on Friday 17 August. Since then, his whereabouts have remained unknown, although there is speculation that he may have fled the country.

Security agencies have impounded a vehicle suspected to have been used by him to leave the country in Kapchorwa, eastern Uganda, leading to speculation that Besigye could have crossed to Kenya through Suam border post, the Ugandan government-owned ‘New Vision’ reported on 24 August. “We do not know where he is, and how he left the country,” it quoted Ugandan army spokesman Lt-Col Phineas Katirima as saying.

Security sources cited by the ‘New Vision’ said they were also studying information that Besigye could be hiding in a relative’s house in Rukungiri, southwestern Uganda. “If that turns out to be the case, then he either intends to come out and claim that he had been kidnapped by us, or he is waiting for the dust to settle and then he sneaks out of the country,” they added.

Family sources said he had received information that he was to be arrested and charged with being a threat to national security. Besigye’s wife, Mbarara MP Winnie Byanyima, has petitioned the Ugandan government to produce her husband. Byanyima told Kenya Television Network (KTN), in an interview at their Luzira home, that state security agents had been trailing him since he contested the presidency in March, and that the Ugandan government was responsible for his mysterious disappearance.

Since he lost in his bid for the presidency, Besigye has been subject to a travel ban by the Chieftaincy of Military Intelligence (CMI), the most feared security agency in Uganda, run by Museveni’s trusted cadres, according to sources in Kampala.

During the parliamentary elections in June, he was prevented from visiting Mbarara, southwestern Uganda, where Byanyima was elected MP and later survived a court case contesting her election.

“There was a heavy military intelligence deployment around us, our movements are monitored, the visitors to this house are monitored, and then his own movements were restricted very seriously,” Byanyima told KTN. “It’s a worrying situation and I’m angry at those people who have ... the government, for having made him run away from his family, and who have made him so insecure since the presidential elections,” she added.

Besigye is a “historical member” of the ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM) government, having been one of the original members of Museveni’s guerilla army - the National Resistance Army (NRA) - which brought the latter to power in 1986. During the guerilla war, Besigye was Museveni’s personal physician, and subsequently held a number of senior positions in the government. On 3 July, IRIN interviewed Besigye on a range of national and regional issues, the relevance of which is brought into sharp relief by his apparent disappearance.

QUESTION: Why do the authorities think you should not leave the country?

ANSWER: No one has told me directly why I’m being stopped. I get the information in the press after being stopped. It is the CMI director, Lt-Col Noble Mayombo, doing this. They allege that there is a fear that if I go out of the country, I will engage in what endangers the country’s security. Nobody has informed me directly about all these issues.

I was only shown a copy of a letter written to me by the ADF [Allied Democratic Forces, a rebel group operating in western Uganda]. It was a ridiculous letter, thanking me for 200 guns I gave them, and the good relationship with Sudan. I suspect that if there are any reasons at all for stopping me from moving, they are related to that letter. It was written by one Kabanda, a commander of the ADF. I had never seen such a letter, and I don’t know anything to do with the ADF.

However, the law in Uganda provides for procedures to deal with this, yet the authorities have ignored that law. The method they are using is political persecution. I think it is an extension of the political persecution that started during the [presidential election] campaign. It is to intimidate me and my supporters from expressing our political views. It is aimed at showing that our mission is a futile one, and to cause despondency in people who do not share [the government’s] views.

Q: Is the government scared of your political influence?

A: Justifiably so. I only made [public] my intention to challenge Museveni in November 2000. By the time the elections were held, it was a difficult time for him. I had generated tremendous support. I went to court after the elections were rigged. All five judges in the Supreme Court held that the elections were not held according to the law. They agreed that there was cheating, but were divided on whether or not the results should be nullified. It was a two to three ruling, and that is how I lost.

What is unusual is that the full judgement was not given. We knew there were coercive activities [on the part] of the executive going on. I think President [Yoweri] Museveni feels uncomfortable with my political challenges.

Q: As a former NRA fighter and physician to Museveni, were you friends with him? What caused the fallout?

A: I would not characterise it as friendship, but we worked together. I was his personal physician. I worked with him as Minister of State for Internal Affairs, minister in the president’s office, as National Political Commissar; then I returned to the army. It is because of this close association that I realised there were weaknesses, which I pointed out. This is the basis of our disagreement.

Q: You hold the view that Uganda is drifting into dictatorship because of many arrests and discontent. Why are these things taking place?

A: There is absolutely no doubt that the Museveni government is now a dictatorship. The NRM in 1986 started off well by introducing a democratic exercise in the country by conducting elections, involving people in a constitutional process, liberalising of the economy and so forth. All these were progress [achievements] by the NRM government.

However, from about the early 1990s, there was a complete slowdown in the process... The broad base, including all political organisations, started to shift away. Any form of organised opposition is no longer tolerated. This intolerance was ultimately entrenched in the constitution in 1995. What followed is monolithic leadership plus acquisition and retention of power through undemocratic means.

Increasingly, the army is getting involved in corruption, [getting involved] in elections to intimidate voters, the dispensation of favours through jobs, and so forth. I think, as a result, the power base of Museveni government has become illegitimate. As a result of this, he is using very oppressive measures to curtail any form of criticism, whether that criticism is constructive or not.

Q: What went wrong?

A: I cannot put my finger on anything that caused the change of mind. But I think that Museveni started taking on a direction that quite a number of his colleagues, including myself and others, did not like. And he would not listen to anyone.

There are about 90 percent of people in government who do not agree with him. He is defecting [from the consensus] and wants to impose his own views on the majority of the people working with him. One of the things I have never understood is his response to corruption as a major source of disagreement. He is protecting some corrupt people, yet we thought his integrity was unquestionable.

Q: What do you think will happen?

A: I do not see any change in him. As time goes on, political opposition will become much more [extensive]. He will respond with repression, and this will lead to conflict - what kind of conflict, I cannot predict. But it may lead to division: open divisions in almost all government institutions. Some people working with him do not agree with him, and this will become more open. I came out and many more are to come out [in opposition]. The divisions may degenerate into civil strife. I don’t know which direction it will take at this stage.

Q: You have been linked to some terrorist groups and Ugandan dissidents who fled to Rwanda recently.

A: I wonder where all these allegations come from. It is all manufactured to try and cause panic among my supporters. The [election] campaigns were really hot, and they must find a scapegoat to punish me.
The so-called terrorists were throwing bombs in Kampala even before I openly declared my opposition to Museveni. I cannot claim to be a democrat, seeking the mandate of the people, then go around bombing, maiming and killing the very people [I seek to represent]. It is ridiculous.

I have no links with the UPDF [Uganda People’s Defence Forces, the Ugandan army] officers who went to Rwanda [Colonels Samson Mande and Anthony Kyakabale]. They can speak for themselves. My political programme is different. I chose to contest [for the presidency in] an open election, and I had support. I would not want to resort to other means. Of course, the situation here is not good. There is dictatorship. I’m not free to move, but I would not take up arms. It won’t be the solution.

Q: There were allegations that Rwanda funded your presidential campaign.

A: Nobody has made that allegation to me. I just read it in the newspapers and other media. But Uganda decided to declare Rwanda a hostile nation because of that allegation. This tends to lend support to the idea that the government of Uganda believes that opponents of Museveni, or myself, could have got support from Rwanda.

As a matter of fact, I think the Rwandan government acted in a very compliant way to Museveni’s wishes because, prior to the elections, he appealed to Rwanda not to support any presidential candidate in Uganda. I know for sure they did not support anybody. I used very minimal resources during my campaigns.

Q: What is causing this suspicion that Rwanda may be aiding Ugandan rebels? What is causing this mistrust between Uganda and Rwanda today?

A: It is a difficult affair. I don’t know for sure, but it may be related to the struggle for influence in the DRC [Democratic Republic of Congo] right from the time of anti-Mobutu war. I think some rivalry seems to have developed as a result of the attempt to have more influence in the DRC and in the region. Nothing is really identifiable as the source of this contradiction.

Q: What is likely to happen between the two former allies?

A: I don’t foresee any kind of agreement that will yield concrete results, not in the near future, and the problem lies with the leaders. I do not want to speak on behalf of the Rwandese, but in Uganda there is a problem of lack of democratic principles. The problem is Museveni and, as long as he is still in power, Uganda cannot mend fences with Rwanda. One cannot even rule out a full-scale war between the two, as it happened in the case of Ethiopia and Eritrea. Of course, at the moment, the tension is based on fear and no real evidence of any attempt by either country to undermine the other.

Q: The UPDF is constantly accused of corruption, not only at home but also even in the DRC. What do you think of this?

A: Well, I think the Uganda government’s involvement in Congo and its army is an extension of undemocratic governance. This was an adventure taken without consultation in government, not even the army. So you cannot expect any accountability. The top leadership may have to answer for all their sins one day; only time will tell.

What cannot be denied is that they are involved in exploiting Congo resources. The leaders in the army are involved in mining and trading activities in the DRC. So, whatever the reasons for their initial invasion may have been, personal benefits of the decision-makers in going to the DRC are at the centre today. And this can be traced as the reason for the clashes between the UPDF and RPA [Rwandan Patriotic Army, the Rwandan national army] in Kisangani [northeastern DRC]. I hope it won’t lead to an all-out confrontation between the two countries at one stage.

I think the Congo adventure was one result of undemocratic governance of this country. It has led to siphoning of resources and has undermined investor confidence. It has also worsened regional relations on the continent.

Q: Western donors see Uganda as a success story because of its economic reforms, and even democratic transformation. What do you think about the role of the donor community in Uganda?

A: They have applauded the NRM [National Resistance Movement, the ‘no-party’ political system of President Museveni] government for undertaking what they call prudent economic reforms but they have not appreciated that if this is not done in consideration of good governance, then there will be chaos. If there is lack of good governance, then there is a risk of political instability. Whatever has been achieved economically needs to be protected through good governance.

Q: Besides your last bid for power, what other means have you used to try and bring good governance to Uganda?

A: I have appealed to the donor community to emphasise democratic governance in Uganda. I have given them some benchmarks. If the government does not respond to us, we have asked the donors to delay or reduce support to Uganda. And they have responded in a respectful manner to our calls. I made the same suggestion to [US Secretary of State] General [Colin] Powell during his visit here in June.

Q: How credible is the current UPDF withdrawal from the DRC?

A: There is no credibility, because it is not out of their own evolution. It is a result of pressure both internal and external. There is a lot of [internal] dissatisfaction with Uganda’s presence in the DRC. The Congolese are tired of the UPDF presence in their country. These issues were raised across the country during the presidential campaigns, so Museveni is just responding to pressure. There is also pressure on the economy and from donors.