Liam Taylor

Uganda-based journalism

The turn of the screw

Kizza Besigye, the main opposition leader in Uganda, was last night (13 May) charged with treason.


Kizza Besigye gestures from his car last month

The screws have been tightened yet again. Kizza Besigye, the main opposition leader in Uganda, was last night charged with treason. The charges were issued at a court in Karamoja, a remote north-eastern region where British colonialists used to banish dissidents. The court sat after normal hours, and Besigye had no legal representation. The treason charge is serious: on paper, at least, it is a capital offence.

On Thursday, Yoweri Museveni had been sworn-in as Ugandan president, with all the pomp of a grand state occasion: fighter jets, marching bands, and a coterie of Africa’s great and not-so-good. Besigye, who disputes the results of February’s elections, had staged his own unofficial ‘swearing-in’ the day before, with less pomp and much less power. Shaky footage of Besigye reciting the oath, released online by his supporters, is more amateur dramatics than revolution.

But Museveni is taking no chances. After a week in which opposition protests were banned, media coverage suppressed and social media blocked, the charge against Besigye is a further show of force.

Déjà vu

For Besigye, this is déjà vu. He has been charged with treason once before, shortly before the 2006 elections. Then, the accusation was that Besigye had links to a rebel group plotting to violently overthrow the government. The evidence was always weak, and the case was eventually dropped in 2010 when the Constitutional Court said it could not guarantee a fair trial.

This time could be different. The case for the prosecution could run something like this: Besigye lost the election, as confirmed by both the Electoral Commission and the Supreme Court. He nonetheless claimed to have won, and began organizing a campaign of ‘defiance’ against the elected government. His actions and rhetoric, not least the mock swearing-in, clearly aimed at the overthrow of the state.

In strictly formal, legalistic terms, all of these things are true. The reality, of course, is much more complex. In Uganda, there is no level playing field and there are no neutral arbiters. But the courts have proved adept at overlooking such messy problems, keeping a myopic focus on the logic of legal procedure.

So the charges could stick. Whether the regime really wants them to is another matter (the government is yet to confirm the details of the charges). The accusation may be a tactic, to justify the prolonged detention of Besigye while the case works its way through the courts. The regime will want to keep Besigye away from the public eye, but will be careful not to make him a martyr.

In the meantime, the opposition is leaderless. Mugisha Muntu, the president of Besigye’s Forum for Democratic Change, this morning said that treason charge was ‘a sign of panic’ from the regime. But with its other leaders under house arrest, and many of its activists in cells, the opposition has no obvious next steps.

‘Force will not work, manipulation will not work,’ said Muntu, condemning the government’s actions. ‘The use of money, the use of spread of fear [sic] will not work.’ In the long-run, he might be right. So far, though, they seem to be working well enough.


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This entry was posted on May 14, 2016 by in African Politics and tagged , , , .
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