In October 2001, Uganda was preparing for general elections which I had ignored as best as I could but we were bombarded with news, jokes and political debates by the media. One day on my way to work I listened to a defensive Winnie Byanyima on what she thought of the role of First Lady. Her husband Dr. Kizza Besigye had recently announced his intention to run for the office of the President and the announcement stirred a lot of speculation, gossip, and even some genuine interest in the possibility of a government insider breaking ranks and running against the incumbent President. Winnie Byanyima was a solid politician in her own right and in her response she played down the rather docile title of First Lady. Speculation on Winnie's role was fuelled by the well known fact that she had dated the incumbent President in the early days of his regime. The fact that she was now married to the man who intended to run for the Presidency was the stuff that Hollywood movies were made of. It threatened to turn our campaign into a riveting romantic drama and drown out the serious issues that we were raising about Ugandan democracy, nationwide peace and equitable participation in the economy and politics of the country.
I therefore approached Besigye's residence in Luzira with preconceived ideas that had been shaped by the conversations that were taking place in the public media and in bars where every patron is an expert at politics and has the rhetoric to match. The fact that I had been invited by the candidate's brother in law did not raise my expectations of a campaign based on national issues. I struggled with the possibility that I may be getting drawn into a personal rather than a national agenda. Sitting around the coffee table in the living room was the small group of people who would be at the core of drafting and implementing a strategy and recruiting support for a candidate who was to oust a well established president in a general elections to be held in about 4 months time. I knew a few of them like, Winnie's elder sister well known business woman and socialite in Kampala. Kenneth an outspoken lawyer formerly associated with the Uganda People's Congress. I also met Beti Kamya for the first time that day in early November of 2000 and I was struck by her complete confidence in the venture at hand. I knew nothing about where she worked or where she came from to be part of this small group of campaigners but she seemed to fit in easily. Her husband Spencer Turwomwe was with her. All I knew of Spencer at the time was what I heard when he participated in political debates on the radio. He was among the first people on the airwaves who openly called for change. The government had already started a smear campaign against Spencer to diminish his credibility and so I heard that he had stolen a few boxes of soap before leaving the army. When I met Spencer in person, I wondered what type of soap it was that he was alleged to have stolen. I did not know it then but before long my own character would be torn apart with our detractors taking a bit of truth, embellishing it and making it headlines in scandal after scandal until no one knew what to believe about any of anymore.
My first word to Kizza Besigye was 'Congratulations', as he extended his hand in greeting in his living room. He was on his way to a Capital FM Radio talk show to introduce his candidacy which was the hottest news during that period. He laughed his hearty response and left for the show. I was congratulating him for standing up to challenge the path on which the government had turned in the last few years. We did not want to be associated with the government's diversion from principles of good governance. We had reached the end of the road with the Movement and needed to stand aside and point at what was going wrong. Kizza Besigye opened a path for us to take that action.
I would later learn that I owed my presence in that room to an article I had written a few weeks before, warning the government that it was getting tainted by corruption and nepotism and therefore asking why as a cadre of the Movement I should vote for it’s candidate in 2001. It was an article that I had written at the spur of a moment in reaction to some new outrage by government officials which went unpunished. I felt concerned enough to pen an article that caught the attention of Kizza Besigye and his budding electoral Task Force.
So there we were gathered around a coffee table in Luzira a small group that seemed to have picked a very big mission. To challenge Yoweri Kaguta Museveni for the Presidency of the Republic of Uganda in the 2001 elections. It was a jovial group too. There were a lot of jokes and teasing going on. We did not even have a position document to go by on that day, just a strong belief that we were doing the right thing. If anyone even thought that we were positioned to win the election that day, they did not share their optimism with me. I felt that we were simply gathered there to start chipping away at this huge problem, but even then I had no clue of the Pandora's box that we had just opened or the consequences of our actions. I believe that it took a certain level of political naivete to walk into a situation like the one we walked into and stay the course. In hindsight I truly doubt that even Kizza Besigye anticipated the forces that would be unleashed to quell our small group of optimists. He obviously knew better than most of us what he was getting into but I doubt that he could have appreciated fully the sentiments that we were about to release and the long term impact of his move on Uganda’s political history.
At 50 I know that hindsight has given me 20/20 vision on the consequences of political activism in a typical opposition organization in Africa, yet even with this clear vision I am certain that if we had to do it all again, I would still find myself seated with that same small group of enthusiasts 14 years ago.