There were cheering crowds as Kizza Besigye, Uganda’s opposition figurehead, went to church today (28 February). His support in Kampala is a sign of the divide between the capital and the countryside.
Kizza Besigye went to church today. A normal Sunday, perhaps. Except that he was accompanied by armed police and cheering crowds, a media scrum and an adoring congregation, and was later towed away in his car by police. It is barely a week since disputed elections and for Besigye, Uganda’s main opposition leader, nothing is normal any more.
Today was the first day that Besigye has been allowed to leave his house since police arrested him on 19 February (he has been repeatedly detained while attempting to go out). His calls for ‘defiance’ spook the authorities, who also accuse him of inciting violence – allegations which Amnesty International says are baseless.
Besigye says that last week’s vote, in which he polled 36%, was rigged in favour of long-term incumbent Yoweri Museveni, officially on 61%. He and his supporters have just two days left to gather evidence to mount a legal challenge. The clock is ticking.
But some have already anointed him. ‘Do you want to see the president?’ said one father, lifting his son up onto his shoulders as Besigye left today’s service. Despite a heavy police presence, many had come out onto the streets as he drove there, waving their fingers in the victory sign of his Forum for Democratic Change (FDC). Even the choice of church was significant: All Saints’ Cathedral is next door to State House, an official residence of the president.
Besigye sat in the third row to listen to the preacher, Medard Birungi. The sermon mixed the spiritual with the temporal. Birungi condemned the Electoral Commission alongside paeans to God’s love, and warned police that ‘beating the people who riot is treating the symptom’, not the cause of disaffection.
‘It is not a hopeless end, if there is an endless hope,’ the preacher said: a message meant for Besigye, who has now lost four elections. Even Abraham Lincoln, Birungi said inaccurately, had lost six times before he became president. Jesus was killed, but still rose on the third day. And, as if that point hadn’t hit home, he recalled Liverpool’s miraculous comeback in the 2005 Champions League final. ‘Now in Uganda,’ he said, ‘it is time for the second half.’
Undeniably, Museveni has a huge first-half lead. There was no level playing field in last week’s elections, as international observers have acknowledged. Reports of malpractice are widespread. But Museveni officially won 6 million votes, 2.5 million more than Besigye. If the election was really stolen, as Besigye claims, those figures would imply ballot-stuffing on a massive scale.
The reality is that Museveni has strong support in the countryside and among older Ugandans, who remember the instability that preceded his rule. The former guerilla leader won 98 of the country’s 112 districts. Besigye won five districts in the northern region of Acholi, his home district in the west, and small pockets of the east – plus Kampala and Wakiso, the urban heart of Uganda.
Some of Museveni’s rural votes were no doubt bought, using state resources; the suppression of local media and an impressive party machine helped too. Yet whether by fair means or foul, Museveni had an unassailable advantage in the opaque politics of the election. As in football, though, the second half could be different to the first. Besigye has support in the cities, and that’s what counts for the altogether more transparent politics of protest which could still arise.
In Kampala, Museveni is loathed. He won 31% of the vote, on a 51% turnout. In other words, fewer than one in six eligible Kampalans ticked the name of the 71 year-old, now entering his thirty-first year in power. In mayoral elections, opposition candidate Erias Lukwago defeated Museveni’s man in a landslide (see ‘Local Anaesthetic’, 24 February); Museveni’s party, the National Resistance Movement, won just three seats on the 31-member council of the Kampala Capital City Authority, down from the 16 it claimed in 2011. One middle-class Kampalan told me, by no means untypically, that ‘even a coup d’etat would be better than more of that man [Museveni]’.
In a (very unlikely) Arab Spring-type scenario, Besigye would not need the support of the countryside if he could mobilize the capital. But so far his attempts to call for public protest have failed. A proposed march to the Electoral Commission on Monday was deemed illegal under Uganda’s draconian Public Order Management Act, which requires organisers to give police three days’ notice of any protest: Besigye was arrested on his driveway, and a fearful populace stayed at home.
But the unknown factor is how people would respond to the sight of Besigye himself on the streets. Kamapalans came out in huge numbers for his final rallies before the election, even after his convoy was tear-gassed and one man killed by police at Wandegeya junction (see ‘Showing Defiance’, 16 February). If only a fraction of those crowds came out again it would test the police’s control. Crowds briefly gathered when Besigye drove through town today, but dispersed when threatened (alongside police, I saw plain clothes men with guns).
That is why the regime is nervous of Besigye, despite its supposedly decisive election victory and the vast imbalance of power between the two sides. Besigye has his faults, and his promises of change seem oversold, but even his enemies admire his tenacity: he’s not going anywhere soon. Police and the military continue to patrol in a show of force, while James Ruhweza, the police commander who brutally put down 2011 protests, has been recalled to Kampala.
It is still not clear whether Besigye will challenge the election in the courts. His party’s attempts to gather evidence have been consistently undermined by police harassment; the FDC’s headquarters have been raided twice, and fifteen activists were arrested on Tuesday in Mbarara, a western town. Besigye has been allowed only intermittent access to his lawyers.
But even without Besigye, a legal battle is almost certain. Amama Mbabazi, a former prime minister who polled a disappointing 1.4% of the vote, has announced that he will petition the courts. He was stopped by police yesterday on his way to Besigye’s house, where he wanted to discuss the details of the case.
Under Ugandan law, the Supreme Court will have thirty days to reach a verdict. It has the power to annul the election and order a fresh vote. But twice before, in 2001 and 2006, it has allowed the result to stand, despite finding evidence of malpractice. The crucial clause, in Section 59 of the Presidential Elections Act (2005), hinges on whether malpractice affected the result in a ‘substantial’ manner. The meaning of ‘substantial’ is not defined.
‘I will shoot you’
Driving away from church today, Besigye tried to head into town. Police stopped him at a crossroads; there was a brief and familiar stand-off as they pointed him back to his home. At one point security men attempted to wrestle a driver out of her seat, in the car in front of Besigye. I also heard a police commander say ‘I will shoot you’ three times while pointing at Besigye’s own driver (the officer was unaware that I was behind him, and denied the remarks when questioned).
A tow-away truck was called, and Besigye was taken to a police station, before later being returned home. And so ended Besigye’s morning in church. Perhaps he recalled the prayer offered up by the faithful, as he had sat among them:
God bless Uganda
Protect her children
Transform her leaders
Heal her communities
And grant her peace.