Is the heavily bearded man appearing with Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army rebels in the bush in a recent photo captured and released by the UPDF James Opoka or not? Do not even argue about it. It is Opoka, former personal assistant to exiled presidential candidate and Movement National Political Commissar Col. Dr. Kizza Besigye.
President Yoweri Museveni fired the first shots some months ago when he alleged that Besigye seemed to have links to Kony rebels because his aide Opoka was with them in the bush. Later the accusations became more rampant, with the post-election organisation Reform Agenda of which Besigye is chairman, being linked to Kony. President Museveni, in all fairness, however acknowledged that most supporters and members of the Reform Agenda were not in favour of armed rebellion and wouldn’t know if their leaders had links to Kony rebels.
If there is anyone who should know this, it is Museveni. Given Ugandan politics over the last 36 years, and MuseveniÕs own history, that is a necessary condition for success. When Museveni himself took to the bush in February 1981 after the UPC stole the December 1980 elections, even his political comrades in the Uganda Patriotic Movement (UPM) didn’t know about it.
However, the big argument about whether the man in the photograph is Opoka or not is a petty issue and misses the big, and tragic, picture. To appreciate the problem let us look at two scenarios. Rebels of the Allied Democratic Front (ADF) in the west sowed Kony-type terror until they were contained at the end of 2000. However, when one of its top military leaders, Commander Benz, gave himself up and then “defected” to the UPDF side, he was warmly welcomed.
The UPDF milked Benz to score political points. If Opoka tomorrow denounced Besigye, and defected, would he appear in court and be sent to Luzira, or be taken to Nile Hotel and given a Benz?
It is in that question that we must begin tracing the road that leads people like Opoka to Kony.
Assume Opoka had chosen to be in a group photo with pacifist Democratic Party leader Dr. Paul Ssemogerere and other party members, would the government Ð or any editor for that matter Ð have been interested enough in the photo to publish it? No. Certainly no. This is because Ssemogerere is not a military leader. For that reason, Opoka would not go to him. Nor would government have been interested in that link.
The gun culture, or what the more intellectually inclined call “militarism”, is so entrenched in Uganda today, you are only taken seriously if you are a potential rebel, a rebel, an ex-rebel, government soldier, or UPDF general. After the 1996 presidential elections in which Ssemogerere was the main challenger to Museveni, the president heaped so much insult on the DP leader and said he had been a “traitor” because he resigned as deputy premier and minister without informing him in advance, and that he would “never have anything to do with him”. Museveni has expressed stronger feelings against Kony for sure, but while, albeit reluctantly, he has set up a government delegation to talk to Kony, he is less likely to send someone even as lowly as the State House messenger to talk to Ssemogerere about working together.
Besigye, on the other hand, is a colonel. And he is alleged to have links with dissident UPDF officers, lieutenant colonels Samson Mande and Anthony Kyakabale, who are believed to have raised a force waiting in exile.
One can expect that since free political party activity has been ruled out by the Constitution and the Political Organisations Act (POA), and the Police continue to crack down hard on even opposition seminars, the civil option will remain discredited in Ugandan politics. Meanwhile the logic of militarism requires that anyone who is armed be talked to, and therefore people will call on Kony. If by some miracle the LRA survives, and the allegations that there is another rebellion being planned turn out to be true and serious, then Kony’s negotiating position could improve and the Kampala government might actually make him some offers he can’t refuse.
In all this, the politics of the Ssemogereres is being marginalised.
For parties like DP and UPC to be relevant today, they canÕt talk about their agenda Ð like multipartyism or election reform. They are relevant only if they talk about the issues of the militarists or brought up by them: ending the war in the north; appealing for the displaced people to be helped, for the government and the LRA to end the war by talking, and their leaders have to look around for peace prayers to attend.
Right now there is a big Movement programme underway for its leaders that will include military training for government ministers and LC-V chairpersons in Kyankwanzi, and eventually all LC officials.
If they were being taken to the UMI to do courses in IT and micro-finance management, then perhaps the Opokas would be going to the Kennedy School of Government in order to have more competitive ideas.
But in a country where the leadership improvement course is learning to disassemble, assemble, and shoot a gun, itÕs not surprising that a desperate opposition will go to KonyÕs camps for tutorship.
That is the sad reality of the Opoka-LRA photo: Democratic politics in Uganda is all but dead. The rebels and soldiers have won.