Review of Kizza Besigye and Uganda’s Unfinished Revolution by Daniel Kalinaki (Dominant Seven, 2014).
A pacey biography of Kizza Besigye, by a top Ugandan journalist, is also a lament for the country’s ‘unfinished revolution’.
In 1982, a young doctor called Kizza Besigye went to the bush to join a group of rebels. He forgot to take his toothbrush. But he did carry with him, through those years of danger and exhaustion, a copy of George Orwell’s Animal Farm. At one point Besigye quoted it to one of the commanders, a man known to guzzle more than his fair share of the milk ration. ‘He started saying I wanted to start a mutiny,’ Besigye later recalled. ‘It nearly got me court-martialled.’
The rebel group in question, of course, was the National Resistance Army (NRA). In a sense, its struggle was successful: in 1986 its leader, Yoweri Museveni, became president of Uganda, and has remained so ever since. But in another sense, argues journalist Daniel Kalinaki, that struggle has ended in failure, in a regime guilty of the same sins it once fought against. If there is a leitmotif to this book, it is of revolution gone wrong: Animal Farm on the Equator, with Museveni as the chief pig.
This is very much the Besigye’s side of the story, and not everyone in this fractured country will agree with it. Kalinaki admits as much in his preface, noting that he held several interviews with Besigye, but none with Museveni. When the book was published in 2014, critics were quick to point to its apparent bias. Some of this criticism was fair, while some was not. In an intervention that was telling, if hardly subtle, Museveni’s press secretary asked: ‘Can you rely on the testimony of Satan against God?’
Kizza Besigye and Uganda’s Unfinished Revolution is ostensibly a biography, but it is much more than that. It is a pacey, insightful, passionately-argued account of Uganda’s troubled politics from Idi Amin to the present. Kalinaki is a former editor at the Daily Monitor, Uganda’s leading independent newspaper; he draws on his extensive contacts, and his first-hand experience of reporting some of the more recent events.
Who is the Besigye that emerges from these pages? He is a Sisyphean figure, fruitlessly rolling his boulder against the mountains of dictatorship. He does not so much seek politics as have politics thrust upon him. He only joins Museveni’s rebels, casting aside his business ambitions, after a roughing-up by government thugs. Many years later, he traipses round the houses of prominent friends, trying to persuade them to stand against Museveni in the 2001 presidential election. After they all disappoint him, cowed by self-interest and fear, he reluctantly accepts that he must run himself.
In Kalinaki’s account, the animosity between Besigye and Museveni begins long before the famous document, circulated to MPs in 1999, in which Besigye accused his former patient of ‘dishonest, opportunistic and undemocratic leadership’. Nor is it the product, as armchair psychoanalysts would have it, of the two men’s rivalry for Winnie Byanyima, Museveni’s former lover and Besigye’s current wife (as well as the head of Oxfam International). Instead, Kalinaki traces the emerging tensions back to those days in the bush, with Besigye worrying about the privileges of the commanders, through later debates about the restoration of democracy, and controversy over a junk helicopter scandal.
These early chapters are interesting, but it is the second half of the book that is most arresting – in both senses of the word. Followers of Ugandan politics will be familiar with the procedural debris that has been thrown in Besigye’s path during four elections as Museveni’s main challenger: repeated arrest, restrictions on movement, charges of rape and treason, and at times raw violence. Yet these episodes take on a new life here, told in Kalinaki’s vivid prose. Besigye’s escape into exile after the 2001 election, complete with wire-cutters, decoy vehicles and befuddled security forces, is exhilaratingly rendered.
In the face of substantial persecution, Besigye comes across as courageously determined and touchingly legalistic, prepared to fall out even with party colleagues over his insistence on sticking to the rules. He was always a private and very serious man – he had little time for youthful frivolity, raising his siblings after the early death of his parents – and these qualities have been intensified by his later experiences. Fearful of poisoning, Besigye rarely goes out. In interviews, he sometimes comes across as a caricature of himself, seemingly obsessed with Museveni’s ‘dictatorship’ to the extent that he can talk of nothing else.
Does Kalinaki give us the ‘real’ Besigye? There are reasons to be sceptical. Kalinaki’s novelistic style permits a healthy dose of poetic licence, including with events he has only heard about second-hand. Direct quotes add spice to the narrative, but Kalinaki warns the ‘some parts of this book, especially the dialogue, have been dramatised to make them more readable’.
The analysis is thought-provoking, but sometimes gets overtaken by the narrative. Kalinaki rightly gives short-shrift to Western diplomats, nervous about Besigye’s rabble-rousing: elections in hybrid regimes, like Uganda, are less about developing a programmatic alternative and more about the hard calculus of power. But it would be interesting to hear more on Besigye as a strategist. Besigye is tenacious, of that there is no doubt; but tenacity alone is rarely enough.
Besigye is a product of his own experiences. He has suffered long at the hands of the state, and seldom acknowledges what binds others to the regime: not just cold self-interest, though that undoubtedly plays a part, but also the economic success of Museveni’s government, and a fear of any instability that could jeopardize it. When Besigye compares Museveni to Idi Amin or Saddam Hussein, many Ugandans balk at the hyperbole.
But, to others, Besigye is already ‘the people’s president’. It would be remarkable if he were as selfless and principled as he is depicted in this book. And if he ever did gain power – a distant prospect, it seems – there is no guarantee that he would not become another Museveni, a further chapter in the story of Animal Farm (he dominates his own party, the Forum for Democratic Change, even after handing over the formal leadership). Yet crowds flood the streets wherever he goes, braving tear gas and the government’s hired goons. Despite turning 60 this week, there is no sign that Besigye is giving up soon. In Kalinaki’s words, he ‘has found himself hostage to the cause’, having ‘started a war from which there is neither retreat or surrender’.