The afternoon I was introduced to Kizza Besigye’s Task Force in November 2000, we got down to work and our first order of business was to draft a response to a missive that President Museveni had released in the media in response to Kizza Besigye’s decision to run for the presidency. We were at once surprised and disappointed that the President had responded in a very personal tirade that left him open to our stinging response. He was like a boxer who throws his best punch with the confidence that his opponent will be knocked out and does not anticipate what he would do if the opponent took the blow standing. We stood around Winnie in their little study room in Luzira and framed a response to the missive. We got into the technicalities of the ‘individual merit’ of candidates and whether there was internal democracy in the ‘all-inclusive’ monoculture of the Movement system of governance. Everyone chipped in and each response was followed with hoots of laughter. There was complete disbelief in the room that the President had made himself such an open target. We tore his missive apart while enjoying some good wine and glasses of beer. All went well for me until Beti Kamya turned to me and asked if I could participate in the Capital Gang Radio Talk show the next Saturday to represent our position.
I was a total mess. What was our position? Who were we? I stopped her right there and asked her to think of finding someone with a little more political weight that myself, an unknown activist. Who would take me seriously? Was she serious, this was me Anne, I liked to have a good time, swig some beer, have a good laugh and the reason that I had recently taken up independent consulting instead of getting a regular job was because no one could fire me even if I was asking for it! I was my own boss. Oh please! So I left Luzira feeling less than honorable. I was elated that I had participated in something meaningful and did not care that we might have only a limited impact on the political scene. It was enough that we could create the space to publicly express an alternate view to the monolithic rhetoric that was churned by what was effectively a one party state. When I got home, I called my friends and family to tell them about my encounter with Kizza Besigye and Winnie and I got mixed reactions. Some were clearly proud of my association with a budding opposition others thought I was getting involved in personal battles that were of no concern to anyone but the principal players.
About a week later I went shopping with my mother at the new Shop Rite supermarket located at the busiest intersection leading into Kampala city. In 2000, the main road into the city from Entebbe International Airport was a narrow two-way traffic corridor that was joined at Kibuye round-about by two more busy routes from the Natete and Makindye towns. On a busy morning the short distance from Kibuye to the clock tower could be a nightmare from which there was no escape since there was no detouring out of the corridor until one reached the clock tower. Congestion increased as motorists from Katwe, Nsambya, and Nakivubo joined the drive into the city center at the Tower and after a driver navigated their way to the next roundabout they approached the chaotic scenes of the main Kampala taxi park where drivers and pedestrians made their own traffic rules. Woe to the driver who was not quick to learn the rules that changed every hour. In 2000 the roads were dusty and there were potholes lying in wait to trip even the most experienced driver. It was in the midst of this chaos that a South African supermarket had opened its doors to the general public. The novelty of a modern supermarket with imported foodstuffs and a well equipped and well supplied butchery was enough to draw us out of upscale quiet suburbs to mingle with shoppers who had discovered the joy of shopping with a cart around the long straight corridors of a mega super market.
“It is just like being in South Africa,” my mother remarked, “or Tesco’s in London.” “Is this not the development that Ugandans wanted?” My mother had clearly bought into the spin of those who never paused to acknowledge that the average Ugandan would never set foot inside Shop Rite because they simply could never afford the items on sale inside the supermarket. Shop Rite was for people like me who escaped the trap of poverty because we grew up at a time when hardworking parents could rely on government to admit deserving students to its higher institutions of learning. An education system based on merit meant that a peasant’s daughter could stay in the same dormitory with a Minister’s daughter and compete for scholarships to the national University. We took it for granted that a good education would lead to a good job to pay for the finer things in life. No one ever thought that a time would come when sending your child to school was not the same thing as getting them a good education. Somewhere along the way we exchanged education quality for quantity and generations of Ugandan students whose parents could not afford private schools would never get the opportunities of my generation. It never crossed my mother’s mind that November morning that we were among a small elite minority of the Ugandan population who cared for well stocked supermarkets packed with their favorite delicacies.
I ran into an activist as I roamed the wide shopping rows at Shop Rite. We had last met at Besigye’s home and she seemed happy to see me. When she told me the campaign was looking for someone to join the host of the Capital Gang show to speak on behalf of the campaign for the presidency, I decided to take the plunge. If this team thought I was a good enough spokesperson for the candidate then I could use the position to get a few things off my chest. The show was hosted by upwardly mobile journalist Robert Kabushenga who still claimed a neutral role in the upcoming campaign. This would not be the first time that I was interacting with the media, after all I had been a government spokesperson for a controversial policy of privatization through which government had disposed of national enterprises to the private sector. The difference between advocating an unpopular government policy and supporting an opposition candidate for a presidential election was not apparent to me as I climbed the narrow stairs that led to the studio of Capital FM in Kamwokya on a mild and sunny Saturday afternoon in November 2000. I would answer the questions put to me as honestly as I could and then rush over to my friends flat in Wandegeya for a postmortem of my performance and a cold beer. The level of my ignorance about what I was about to do and the consequences that would follow bordered on extremely naive.
I knew Robert Kabushenga as an upwardly mobile professional in my age bracket that lived in Kampala. Kampala was a small town and the people you had not met in person you still knew by reputation. The studio was a deceptively small private space where I felt safe sharing my thoughts with a familiar face. It was easy to forget that there were thousands of people out there listening to every word that I said so I opened up to Robert Kabushenga and answered his questions as though we were speaking alone. I was his only guest that day and we touched on issues related to corruption, political intolerance and nepotism.
I left the studio feeling a whole lot lighter after I had laid out my issues as I saw them at the time. Looking back they seem to have been very narrow issues that led me to the opposition. One would have liked to think that I had greater concerns but that really was the gist of my concern. The increasing disparities between the highest and lowest incomes of Ugandans, the emergence of a group of government officials who dipped their sticky hands into public coffers without fear of prosecution. The untempered greed of those who openly amassed wealth using their government connections. I had worked on government’s privatisation program and it struck me as grossly unfair that only a limited number of people seemed to have benefited from the sale of national assets. And because I had been a spokesperson for the privatisation unit of the Ministry of Finance I spent the next few years trying to explain that this position did not make me complicit in any shady deals that were struck between politicians and privatization officials. The underhanded deals that may have taken place were well above my pay grade and I only had the thankless task of defending them after they leaked to the public.
When I left Capital FM, I headed directly to Enid and Jimmy’s apartment over in Makerere looking forward to the usual laughter and merriment of a night out with my girlfriends. Instead I found my small circle of friends in a rather pensive mood. ‘Do you know what you are getting yourself into?’ During the interview with Robert Kabushenga he had pointedly asked me which candidate I would be voting for and I had evaded the question by stating that I would vote for the best candidate, but my accompanying remarks had been interpreted to mean that I was not going to support the incumbent. It was my friends’ feedback and the reaction of people after the Capital Gang show that sealed my decision: I now knew that I had a responsibility to support Kizza Besigye’s Task Force.
Up to that point I had been flirting with the Task Force. I knew many people that were quietly grumbling about corruption, injustice and inequity but there also seemed to be an unspoken agreement, a conspiracy of silence against publicly opposing the status quo. It seemed pretty obvious to me then that if we did not take these private conversations into the public sphere to debate them exhaustively and rally support against abuse of power, then nothing would change. The status quo would remain intact to the detriment of the people whose voices were not being heard.
I did not seek to become the conscience of the middle class and I never sought justification for our collective negligence. There were no grand visions and agendas when I took the plunge into opposing the government. I was pushed by the willful blindness of the elite and a strong belief that there ought to be alternative views to those with power. I was pulled by the availability of a platform however temporary to express myself. The campaign had now become a struggle for my right to associate, to be heard, to make a difference in people’s lives. What had started as an opportunity to shed light on issues that had been nagging at the back of my mind became a mission.
This realization did not happen in a dramatic ‘Saul to Paul’ moment. In fact, I did not for a moment think that the mission I had embraced required me to leave my comfort zone. All that was required, I thought, was an extension of myself beyond the consulting work that I was doing; to put some arguments on paper and share them with the public through the Elect Kizza Besigye Task Force. I did not think this extra assignment would interfere with my daily socializing rituals, instead I saw an opportunity to get serious with the people I socialized with. Many of them shared my disgust at the increasing corruption and abuse of public office. We all knew that the government was sworn into office following the sacrifice of many young crusaders of democracy and good governance, and surely we had a responsibility to check the emerging trends of bad governance. It all seemed so obvious, but how wrong I was, how naive indeed. I completely underestimated the impact of 15 years in power and I overestimated our ability to make a difference in a few months.
At 50 I know that joining the Elect Kizza Besigye Task Force was a major turning point in my life and today am grateful for that platform which gave me an opportunity to meaningfully participate in Ugandan public life.”—ANNE MUGISHA