Dear Ugandan leaders: Please talk

Early in the new year, The Observer, a Ugandan bi-weekly paper, broke the news that middlemen have been conducting secret talks to bring Uganda’s feuding strongmen, President Yoweri Museveni and Dr Kiiza Besigye, to the negotiating table. According to the article, the talks started in May 2011, at the peak of the "walk to work" ...

TONY KARUMBA/AFP/Getty Images
TONY KARUMBA/AFP/Getty Images
TONY KARUMBA/AFP/Getty Images

Early in the new year, The Observer, a Ugandan bi-weekly paper, broke the news that middlemen have been conducting secret talks to bring Uganda's feuding strongmen, President Yoweri Museveni and Dr Kiiza Besigye, to the negotiating table. According to the article, the talks started in May 2011, at the peak of the "walk to work" protests led by the opposition group Activists for Change (A4C), which called on ordinary Ugandans to walk to work as a protest against rising food and fuel prices. The demonstrations started after the presidential election in February, which Museveni won with 68 percent. Besigye then participated in the protests and was arrested several times as a result. The demonstrations gave new life to Besigye, whose political star had been fading. His brutal treatment at the hands of the government endeared him to the people once again and further tarnished Museveni's diminishing image within the local and international community.

President Museveni has been in power since he led a coup in 1986. At the time, he wanted to right the wrongs done by the previous regimes. Besigye fought alongside him, serving as Museveni's personal doctor during the rebellion days. But Besigye really came to prominence in 1999, when he fell out with the ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM), citing inconsistencies in the party leadership. He then formed his own political party, Reform Agenda, and ran for the presidency in 2001. He then ran again in 2006 and 2011 under a new party, Forum for Democratic Change (FDC). Besigye has been tortured and arrested on numerous occasions by the security services, and his relations with Museveni over the past few years have been sour. Over the past decade he has been the only Ugandan politician to offer a serious challenge to Museveni's government. At the end of 2011 he announced that he would step down from the presidency of the FDC, a move many observers welcomed as a sign of his commitment to democracy within the party.

The day after the Observer article appeared, Besigye disputed the story in an interview with a rival paper. Government officials expressed ignorance of any preparations for talks. The effort to bring the two men together has been brokered by media executive Conrad Nkutu and journalist Andrew Mwenda. That the two men succeeded in keeping these proposed "reconciliation talks" a secret for so long says a lot about what is at stake. For Besigye and Museveni, men who seem to only bring out the worst in each other, putting their differences aside would go a long way to offering the stability Uganda so badly needs.

Early in the new year, The Observer, a Ugandan bi-weekly paper, broke the news that middlemen have been conducting secret talks to bring Uganda’s feuding strongmen, President Yoweri Museveni and Dr Kiiza Besigye, to the negotiating table. According to the article, the talks started in May 2011, at the peak of the "walk to work" protests led by the opposition group Activists for Change (A4C), which called on ordinary Ugandans to walk to work as a protest against rising food and fuel prices. The demonstrations started after the presidential election in February, which Museveni won with 68 percent. Besigye then participated in the protests and was arrested several times as a result. The demonstrations gave new life to Besigye, whose political star had been fading. His brutal treatment at the hands of the government endeared him to the people once again and further tarnished Museveni’s diminishing image within the local and international community.

President Museveni has been in power since he led a coup in 1986. At the time, he wanted to right the wrongs done by the previous regimes. Besigye fought alongside him, serving as Museveni’s personal doctor during the rebellion days. But Besigye really came to prominence in 1999, when he fell out with the ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM), citing inconsistencies in the party leadership. He then formed his own political party, Reform Agenda, and ran for the presidency in 2001. He then ran again in 2006 and 2011 under a new party, Forum for Democratic Change (FDC). Besigye has been tortured and arrested on numerous occasions by the security services, and his relations with Museveni over the past few years have been sour. Over the past decade he has been the only Ugandan politician to offer a serious challenge to Museveni’s government. At the end of 2011 he announced that he would step down from the presidency of the FDC, a move many observers welcomed as a sign of his commitment to democracy within the party.

The day after the Observer article appeared, Besigye disputed the story in an interview with a rival paper. Government officials expressed ignorance of any preparations for talks. The effort to bring the two men together has been brokered by media executive Conrad Nkutu and journalist Andrew Mwenda. That the two men succeeded in keeping these proposed "reconciliation talks" a secret for so long says a lot about what is at stake. For Besigye and Museveni, men who seem to only bring out the worst in each other, putting their differences aside would go a long way to offering the stability Uganda so badly needs.

However, what the initiators of the peace talks ignore is the critical mass, the people who have listened to Besigye’s campaign and joined him several times in the demonstrations that formed the political landscape of Uganda in 2011. Reconciliation or no reconciliation, the issues that brought these young men and women out to the streets are still the same. The economy is struggling. Uganda’s inflation hit a record high in 2011. Infrastructure is collapsing. Many young people are unemployed, and corruption is widespread. The situation is aggravated by the incessant power outages that affect businesses. So unless there is a focused effort to address these issues, the protests will keep going.

Young people have already planned demonstrations over the lack of cash for youth development activities. Teachers and the business community are organizing strikes over poor pay and high interest rates. Be prepared to see many more examples of non-violent and collective protest in 2012.

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