An African political lesson from Uganda: Don’t insist an election was rigged, or hold your own swearing in

Museveni and Besigye are caught in a death dance that can go badly for Uganda, and illustrates the end game for Africa's revolutionary parties

AUTHORITIES have confirmed that Ugandan opposition leader Kizza Besigye was charged with treason.

The charge is very serious, and you can get hanged for it if found guilty. However, in Besigye’s case, they are for actions that would be not attract much attention in a democracy, and that could easily be dismissed as comic relief elsewhere - challenging the result of controversial February elections and holding his own swearing-in ceremony.

Besigye has disputed President Yoweri Museveni’s victory in February’s election and has been under house arrest for much of the time since. Partly because of that, and given that his lawyers weren’t allowed to see him, he could not challenge the election outcome in court.

Judicial spokesman Solomon Muyita said the charges against Besigye stemmed from, “His persistent declaration that he won the elections, his call for an independent audit of election results and his purported swearing in as president.”

“He made declarations at different places and times within the country,” Muyita added.

On Wednesday Besigye was arrested in the capital Kampala after staging his own swearing-in ceremony and whisked to Moroto, a town in the remote Karamoja region of the country, and subsequently charged. Ironically, the during the height of Uganda’s agitation against colonial rule, the British detained pro-independence activists in the same Karamoja region. 

Colonial echoes

The British chose Karamoja because they thought it was so remote, the independence activists would be cut off from mainstream nationalist politics in the rest of the country. It would seem the same calculation are in play today, as detention in the area would presumably isolate Besigye from his radical and sometimes rowdy support base in and around Kampala.

He has been remanded in custody until his next court appearance due on May 25.

Treason is a capital offence in Uganda, but the death penalty has not been carried out for years. Besigye was charged with treason in 2005 though the case against him was eventually dropped.

A long-standing opponent of Museveni, Besigye has been frequently jailed, placed under house arrest, accused of both treason and rape, tear-gassed, beaten and hospitalised over the years.

Museveni, 71, who has been in power for three decades, was declared winner of the February poll with 61% of the vote.

He has rejected claims his victory was won through cheating and fraud.

It’s a death dance

Museveni and Besigye are caught in what increasingly looks like a death dance that can go badly for Uganda, and illustrates the end game for Africa’s liberation and revolutionary movements is likely to be.

Besigye was a comrade and personal physician of Museveni in the bush war that brought the latter to power in 1986.  Like with other revolutionary movements in Africa - consider South Africa’s African National Congress -  the most serious challenges Museveni’s ruling National Resistance Movement has faced have been from party splits, not a political insurgence from other political parties. 

Besigye’s has been the most enduring. But because of this splinter factor, the contest has all the hallmarks of a bitter family feud. Museveni and his inner circle overreact more to Besigye than any other political forces, and in turn Besigye has used that to goad them into ever more into absurd and extreme responses, as a way to delegitimise the regime. Thus Besigye’s own family have to be searched when they are going into their own home - probably a first in the world.

In the meantime, Besigye’s home has become a shrine to a section of the country’s long-suffering opposition supporters. They now call it “State House”. In the ugliness of Ugandan politics, it would not be a surprise if the government resorted, again, to extreme ways to remove this symbol.

After Besigye’s swearing in, on social media references to him as the “real President” and jokes about “Opposition leader” Museveni arresting the “president Besigye” recently went viral in Uganda. To control the narrative, ahead of  Museveni’s official swearing in ceremony last Thursday, the Uganda government again blocked access to social media. This must alarm investors in this sector. Google recently laid 800 kilometres of fibre optic in and around Kampala.

In February as Ugandans voted and chaos erupted at some polling stations, the government against blocked access to social media. It led to easily the highest one-day download of VPN apps seen anywhere as Ugandans sought to circumvent the restriction.

Right now the path for a climbdown by either Museveni or Besigye is not clear, nor how the country can demilitarise its politics, and remove the thousands of police and soldiers who have been brought on to the streets in recent months, to enable the country move on with a normal life.

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