After he lost the election for Uganda president to Yoweri Museveni, Kizza Besigye and I sat together in his party’s offices, discussing why, if the election was illegally stolen from him by his opponent’s fraud, would not Besigye call his supporters to go into the streets and protest these violations? After all, Museveni, having begun his political career as a savior and redeemer of the “pearl of Africa,” was now nakedly and brazenly imposing his autocratic decisions on a great and dignified African nation, which is also home to one of the most dynamic economies and societies in the sub-Saharan.
I had come to Besigye’s office that day warily, concerned that I was being followed by state security agents and anxious that they might burst into our meeting room at any moment. Disciplined and dedicated, Besigye spoke passionately about the importance of elections in Uganda and the immense frustration that he and his supporters felt over once more being robbed of victory. After respectfully listening to Besigye’s complaints, I asked firmly and clearly why he did not ask his followers to take to the streets and passively resist Museveni’s reign?
“I cannot put my people at risk,” Besigye said. “I cannot have them brutalized and hurt.”
And so, in Kampala, where Besigye’s supporters are most numerous, there were no demonstrations, no passive resistance of the kind being witnessed all around the world.
My meeting with Besigye occured in 2006, more than five years ago. In February, Besigye once again lost an election to Museveni, giving him another five-year term in a presidency that has run already more than 30 years. Having been robbed again in his view, Besigye finally did take to the streets. Earlier this month, hundreds of supporters — a large political demo by the standards of repressive Uganda — took to Kampala’s streets (and the streets of other Ugandan cities), and were met with predictable force.
Besigye was shot in the hand, and hospitalized briefly. He plans more marches, though for now he must direct any civil disobedience actions from a jail cell.
The protests seem ill-timed. They should have come before the national election, not afterwards. Besigye is brave and consistent in his criticisms of Museveni’s cronyism, and excessive spending on military equipment. Yet he lacks strong tactical instincts and his failure to galvanize the diverse opponents of Museveni into a overwhelming political movement indicates that perhaps the time has come for his to step aside and allow a younger, more creative opposition leader to tackle the enormous task of forcing Museveni from power.
With civil protests throughout the Middle East, and in North Africa, the question of why no similar protests have emerged in the sub-Saharan is important. Uganda provides perhaps the most fertile ground for such protests, because of Museveni’s brazen behavior, his long tenure and the strength and diversity of Uganda’s civil society. And yet nothing out of Egypt or Yemen or Bahrain has happened in Uganda. And neither have sustained protests erupted in Cameroon or Zimbabwe, two countries whose political leaders (Biya and Mugabe) surely deserve immediate ejection from power. The simplest explanation is that ordinary people in these countries have been thoroughly demoralized about the possibilities for lawful, rational political change. Pluralistic alternatives, such as “rotating” presidents among sub-national power blocs, seemingly offer no better outcomes: witness the presidential election this month in Nigeria, where an incumbent won by a wide margin, igniting regional unrest that seems likely to persist for months, if not years.
For scholars of African politics, of which there are many excellent ones, the deeper answers are familiar and durable. Yet the great leap forward that appears to have happened in the political arenas in North Africa and the Middle East, in which the rising generation is engaged in political protest and reform mobilizations in novel ways, had no apparent precedents either. The time for African reformer is not now. But the question can no longer be denied: if not now, then when? The clock on Africa’s repressive rulers is ticking louder; with roughly 50 percent of black Africans under the age of 25, African politics is condemned to experience a revolution. If not soon, then later.