I will continue to fight Museveni, says Ugandan opposition leader

The Times of London
Nairobi, Kenya

Dr Kizza Besigye has a cast on his hand after a rubber bullet broke a finger, and wears dark glasses after being sprayed with a chemical during a violent arrest (Tristan McConnell for The Times)

Battered, nearly blinded, but unbowed, the Ugandan opposition leader Kizza Besigye has vowed to resist threats to his life and fight on to end the “military dictatorship” of President Museveni.

“We will continue, absolutely and without any doubt,” he told The Times in an exclusive interview at his hospital bedside in Nairobi where he sought specialist medical treatment after his violent arrest last week left him temporarily blinded.

“I have no illusions, I am sure the dictatorship will become even more ruthless in the short run but we cannot back off now,” he said.

It was his fourth arrest since April 11 when he began leading a series of twice weekly “walk-to-work” protests against the rising cost of fuel and food. During his second arrest he was shot in the right hand with a rubber bullet that broke his finger.

Each walk has been met with violence as Mr Museveni, who came to power in 1986 at the head of a rebel army of which Dr Besigye was also a member, seeks to keep a lid on threats to his regime. With an eye on the unrest in North Africa he has banned public demonstrations and promised to crush the protests. “There has been a very determined effort to stop me from the walk and to do it in such a manner that it instils fear in anyone who may engage in a campaign of defiance,” said Dr Besigye.

The brutality of his arrest on Thursday last week shocked many Ugandans and the next day there were protests across Kampala, the capital, and elsewhere. Riot police and soldiers used live bullets and teargas, killing at least two people, injuring more than 100 and arresting hundreds.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights condemned the violence and hundreds of members of the Uganda Law Society marched to the High Court with a petition condemning the actions of state security services.

“The indiscriminate beatings, the inhuman and degrading treatment of citizens, the most brutal and violent arrests, including senior and respectable opposition leaders, these atrocities indeed qualify as crimes against humanity,” said the petition handed to the Chief Justice.

In Dr Besigye’s private room in Nairobi Hospital, a handful of bouquets and “Get Well Soon” cards are lined up on shelves. Dr Besigye, sitting in a beige leather armchair and wearing striped pyjamas, slippers and a dressing gown, recalled the moment that a plain-clothes security agent smashed his car window with a pistol butt and emptied a can of pepper spray into his face.

“The pain was very sharp, strong and incapacitating,” said the gravel-voiced 55-year-old former army colonel and physician. “I couldn’t breathe, I was choking. I knew that events could take any direction,” he said. Dr Besigye alleged that after he was shoved underneath a bench in the back of a police pick-up truck, officers continued to spray him.

“As we sped up and down those streets they were still spraying some things on me. We don’t know what they were. That worries us,” he added darkly, slipping into the plural that he sometimes uses when talking about himself.

Dr Besigye said he has had death threats: “You can have a negotiated settlement but we are not there yet. Now is the time for ordinary people to assert themselves and confront the forces of the dictatorship.”

But he stopped short of demanding the revolutionary overthrow of his old comrade. “The endgame is a democratic transition from military dictatorship to a democratic dispensation where the free will of citizens rules; where the regime is accountable to them,” Dr Besigye said.

The two men opposed Idi Amin in the 1970s and fought together to oust Milton Obote in the 1980s. Dr Besigye said that in the early days he was conned. “He galvanised all of us into believing we were marching in the same direction; we believed in him. I believed in him.”

Later on Mr Museveni “sought to manipulate the Constitution to create more powers for himself, to obliterate political space for others”, Dr Besigye said.

The battle has been described as a personal feud, but Dr Besigye denied this. “The attacks on me are entirely political. There has been an attempt to portray this as a personal problem between me and Museveni … not helped by the fact that my wife was once in a relationship with Museveni, but I have no doubt that any person who does what I have done will get exactly the same treatment I have received,” he said.