Endgame For Africa Despot?
For Besigye, he now stands as a symbol of Uganda's struggle for democracy, although I personally think that he is as militaristic as Museveni. Without realising it, Museveni is creating an icon out of Besigye. Every day, Besigye pushes Museveni deeper and deeper into the morass. He stands on Museveni's image with a moral arrogance. Museveni looks terrible everyday Besigye goes to court.
The arrest and detention of opposition presidential candidate Kizza Besigye on November 14, the subsequent military siege of the High Court on November 16, and his eventual charge in a military court martial will forever remain milestones in Uganda's history - just like Milton Obote's invasion of the Lubiri in 1966 and Idi Amin's murder of Archbishop Janan Luwum in 1977. I am among the skeptics who still believe that although President Museveni is grossly mismanaging Uganda - economically, politically and militarily - Besigye does not cut the image of a leader to reverse this national tragedy.
However, Besigye's greatest contribution to this country has been to unmask Museveni and expose his true colors as a militarist who disregards the rule of law and shuns due process. Museveni has historically constructed his claim to power on a platform of respect for human rights, the rule of law, economic progress, peace and stability. For many years, Ugandans and the international community alike bought this claim.
However, deceased former President Milton Obote, till his death, insisted that Museveni is a power hungry man - and in one BBC interview in 1994 said: "It is Museveni alone whom I know who wants to be president until he dies." Coming as it did from one who had also been discredited; this warning was dismissed with contempt. Later, Besigye broke off from the NRM and made almost similar claims. Obote did not live to witness Museveni's government send troops to lay siege on the High Court; Besigye has. Here is my point. What we are witnessing is not so much a criminal trial of Besigye; that is only the sub-plot. It is the political trial of President Yoweri Museveni before the world.
As Museveni responds to Besigye with military and coercive means, he is inadvertently exposing himself on three flanks. The first is Museveni's claim to seek power not for its own sake, but for the sake of serving a broader social objective like to promote economic progress.
The second is the human-rights-and-rule-of-law platform on which Museveni's legitimacy as a leader has historically been constructed. The third is the battle over his place in history as a great leader. As the events of last week demonstrated, Besigye has forced Museveni to disregard the rule of law, to scorn due process and - to use the words of Principle Judge James Ogoola - to defile the judiciary.
Having exposed Museveni on this, Besigye is setting in motion a perception that Museveni cannot be trusted. Investors may wonder whether their investments are safe. If a government can launch a military invasion of the High Court, what can it do to a private investment? Remember the closure of KFM radio in August and the current threats to close Daily and Sunday Monitor? This brings us to Museveni's final flank - his place in history. I have talked to many people, both near and far, who think that the President does not care about his legacy. All wrong, I tell them.
At the recent memorial lecture for Makerere Vice Chancellor Frank Kalimuzo, who was killed by Idi Amin, Museveni said that they were gathered to honor Kalimuzo rather than Amin because Kalimuzo did "good things" for the advancement of mankind, while Amin did bad things. Clearly, therefore, Museveni has a clear sense of what history should say about him.
As Museveni's government arrested Besigye and militarily invaded the High Court, a lot of commentary both in and outside of Uganda came to compare him with the worst of Africa's dictators. As Besigye stands in the dock at the military court martial, Museveni is in the dock of national and international public opinion. While Museveni's handlers may cheer themselves whenever they see a handcuffed Besigye going to Makindye, the court of public opinion in Uganda and the world is not looking at what Besigye did but what Museveni is doing. I have been besieged by questions from journalists, academics, bureaucrats, politicians, policy wonks and activities from all over the world.
They are actually not posing questions about Besigye but Museveni. People are asking, what is wrong with a man who was considered enlightened - a new breed of an African leader? Is this a new person growing in him or his true nature is coming to light? The state may have legitimate charges against Besigye, but why deploy tanks and military police? Why is Museveni turning his back on civilization?
Looking at political struggle in its full perspective, one certainly sees that this is Besigye's - and Obote's greatest moment of triumph. For Besigye, he now stands as a symbol of Uganda's struggle for democracy, although I personally think that he is as militaristic as Museveni. Without realising it, Museveni is creating an icon out of Besigye. Every day, Besigye pushes Museveni deeper and deeper into the morass.
He stands on Museveni's image with a moral arrogance. Museveni looks terrible everyday Besigye goes to court. Possibly Museveni realises that the damage is too big already and that perhaps it is better to "stay the course" than retreat. But that is Museveni's biggest problem as he faces a choice between keeping his power and protecting his legacy.
The two are not mutually exclusive. In the early days, he seemed to keep his power by doing things that tended to enhance his legacy. However, it may have increasingly become clear to Museveni that his need to stay in power is at odds with things that enhance his legacy. The president seems to have chosen power over his legacy. But this is certainly a high price to pay for power, and demonstrates a serious limitation of his judgment - and vision.
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