Why Uganda's Besigye failed to deliver Egypt-style protests after election defeat

Uganda's top opposition leader, Kizza Besigye, had hinted that the Ugandan people would rise up against 25-year President Yoweri Museveni after his latest disputed electoral win, but voters just shrugged.

Parisa Azadi/AP
A supporter of opposition leader Kizza Besigye displays his poster during a protest in the city of Kampala, Uganda, on Feb. 20.

He had more than 43,800 hours to prepare for the all-important post-election press conference, but in the end Uganda’s main opposition leader Kizza Besigye fluffed his lines.

On Sunday – just as Ugandans were waiting for the country’s electoral commission to announce the official results of the country’s presidential polls – Mr. Besigye faced the local and international media.

The results were already clear. With around 90 percent of the polling stations counted, veteran incumbent President Yoweri Museveni had nearly 70 percent of the votes. Now the focus was on the opposition to see how it reacted.

The elections were a “sham,” Besigye said. Bribery, vote-rigging, and intimidation were ubiquitous and he “rejected” the results. “We are not willing to put up with an illegitimate president,” he said.

So, what was he going to do about it? Call for street protests? Civil disobedience? Revolution?

Not quite. For the time being, Besigye said, he is still considering his options.

The only problem is that Besigye has had five years to consider his options. Ever since he lost to Mr. Museveni in the last disputed presidential election in 2006, he has predicted the fact that Museveni would fix last Friday’s polls.

After failing to get the results of the previous two elections overturned in court, he ruled out going the legal route this time. Uganda was ripe for an Egypt-style uprising against a decaying, autocratic leader who had been in power for 25 years, Besigye said.

So why did he let the moment slip? Even opposition activists admitted that there was only a very “finite window” of opportunity for Besigye to try and harness any public resentment Museveni’s victory might stir.

In the short-term, the failure of a much-hyped opposition plan to tally its own results had deflated Besigye. The government had disrupted the opposition's text messaging system to collect votes for a parallel count and arrested hundreds of opposition agents in the field, Besigye's supporters said. Still, it didn't seem like the opposition tried too hard to come up with a plan B.

But more profoundly, it seemed Besigye didn’t really believe his own claims that he could spark a revolution. After losing out twice to Museveni – whose personal physician and loyal ally he once was – this third attempt seems to have shattered him.

Ahead of the 2006 elections, Besigye was jailed on treason, terrorism, and rape charges. Widely seen as trumped up, they sparked riots and a surge in support for Besigye. This time around, much to the surprise of observers, rather than resort to violence, Museveni turned to money, buying off the voters while Besigye traveled freely, held rallies, and campaigned himself out. No longer a novelty or a victim, Besigye now had to deal with voter apathy.

And the government’s plan seems to have worked.

No one is saying that Uganda’s opposition isn't made up of brave, committed people, risking their safety in a David-versus-Goliath struggle against state repression. But in the end they were all too easily out-maneuvered and out-thought by those around Museveni.

In defeat, Besigye and the rest of the fractured opposition lashed out at an easy target: foreign election observers. Besigye described them as “tourists,” spending more time in fancy hotels than out in the field.

The criticism was obvious but misdirected. Had Besigye paused to read the statements of some of the observer missions, he would have seen that – although couched in the inevitably supine jargon of international diplomacy – they backed up much of what he was saying.

Museveni’s use of state resources had seriously compromised the level playing field, they said. Bribery from the ruling party had been widely observed. State media was biased. There had been massive disenfranchisement of voters. Thirty percent of voting procedures had been poor or very poor.

For Museveni, such a smooth victory must feel particularly sweet. A few months back, if you’d drawn up a list of endangered African leaders, Museveni might have figured pretty high up. Now he can sit back and watch as his old foe, Muammar Qaddafi, faces a nationwide revolt.

The morning after the results were announced, Kampala was already back to normal. After several days of tension, closed businesses and empty streets, the sidewalks were bustling, markets were open, and traffic was back. No one seemed in the mood for a riot.

Sitting in a fancy hotel, three of the fringe presidential candidates – who received just 2.5 percent between them – were telling a group of disinterested journalists to “stay tuned” and see how they would react to the “sham” elections. What was certain was that the Ugandan people had reached the point where they felt “enough was enough,” they said. Museveni had it coming.

Nearby, Rose, a cook at the hotel, was cleaning up an outside kitchen. Had she had enough? Not really, she said. And what did she think of the opposition then?

“They failed,” Rose said.

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