The release of Kizza Besigye on bail yesterday (12 July) cannot mask opposition divisions.
“We shall overcome,” they had taken to singing on their regular visits to court. Yesterday it was a different tune that Kizza Besigye’s supporters sang, as a High Court judge decreed that he be released on bail: the Ugandan national anthem. “United, free, for liberty, together we’ll always stand.”
Besigye, the main opposition leader in Uganda, has been detained on charges of treason since 11 May, when he was arrested after unofficially swearing himself in as president. For most of that time he has been held in Luzira prison, and occasionally shuttled to a nearby court for routine hearings. Few expect the treason charges to stick – a similar accusation, in 2005, was eventually dropped – but they have so far done their job, keeping Besigye off the streets.
The bail verdict was not unexpected. The scales of justice are tilted in Uganda, but the courts are not completely crooked. State lawyers presented a weak case for Besigye’s pre-trial detention, including a bizarre attempt to dispute his age. The judge was dismissive of their arguments, rounding off his verdict with a peroration to uphold liberty. Even so, many at the court detected a higher hand at work. President Yoweri Museveni felt safe to release Besigye, one activist told me, now that the election period was over and ‘normal’ politics had resumed.
Normal, for Besigye, means an unending game of cat-and-mouse with the police, a ceaseless ricochet between different courts, and adulation and humiliation in equal measure. Yet for all the civil rights iconography, he seems at times to be fighting a one-man disobedience movement. He has allies: Erias Lukwago, the populist mayor of Kampala; Nandala Mafabi, a former Leader of the Opposition in parliament; Ingrid Turinawe, chief mobilizer in Besigye’s Forum for Democratic Change (her hero: Rosa Parks). But other in his party recoil from his confrontational style.
The FDC has fractured in recent months, as old tensions have bubbled back to the surface. A more moderate camp seeks direction from Mugisha Muntu, a former army commander and now party president. He won that office after defeating Mafabi in 2012, promising to build party structures from the grassroots. Muntu has been a scrupulous backer of Besigye in public – he acted as surety for the latter’s bail – but critics accuse him of not doing enough to campaign for Besigye’s release.
The most prominent spat has been over the decision to appoint a shadow cabinet in parliament. Party hardliners said there could be no official opposition, since the FDC’s position was that Besigye had won the election. More pragmatic voices prevailed. Winnie Kiiza, a former mobilize for Muntu, was appointed as the first female Leader of the Opposition, with a more radical figure, party spokesman Ibrahim Ssemuju Nganda, as chief whip.
It is not just the FDC that is divided. The small United People’s Congress, another opposition party, is split between two factions. One, led by Jimmy Akena, son of former president Milton Obote, has effectively been co-opted by the ruling regime (Akena’s wife, Betty Amongi, has been appointed to Museveni’s cabinet). The Democratic Party, stronger than the FDC in parts of the central and northern regions, is squabbling about a meeting between some of its leaders and Museveni.
That explains the appeal of Besigye: the sky-blue incorruptible, he alone will not compromise, will not be bought. And that is why there will be more arrests, more trials, more time in prison. “I am very glad to be free,” said Besigye immediately after his release. “How long I will remain free is a matter to watch.”