“We Shall Use Force”: Besigye is Both Wrong and Right

It seems Kizza Besigye, prominent opposition figure in Uganda, has just suggested the possibility of using violent means to free Ugandans from a dictator holding the country at ransom.

One must be understanding of the emotions driving such a suggestion.  In a day’s time, Gen. Museveni will have been a military dictator for 28 consecutive years.  He has one of the worst human rights records of all the world’s heads-of-state and seems to be determined to continue.  People have waged war (both violent and nonviolent) for much, much less.

“I cannot see how influential bodies like religious organisations keep silent when all this is happening. This conspiracy of silence on the part of important institutions of our country must be criticised,” Besigye said.  This is extremely important.  The Anglicans, Catholics, Pentecostals, and Muslims who have spoken out against the regime are few and far between.  Some have taken powerful action, but they are always rare, isolated cases.  Gen. Museveni’s bribery has been effective within religious institutions, which has helped to guarantee his rule over the country.  That is a fundamental problem which Besigye has appropriately brought into the open.

The whole situation of suggesting violent force as a means to achieving justice reminds me of Gandhi’s suggestion that violence is better than doing nothing (in other words, complacency can be more violent than violence).  I, too, would rather see the people of Uganda use violent means to achieve the change they want than remain idle at their homes doing nothing.  But Gandhi (and history itself) goes on to say that nonviolence is even more powerful than violence, especially when it aims to achieve systemic reforms.  Violent means, in our context, may succeed in ousting a political leader – but to what end?  Replacing him with another person who holds the same powers?  That has been the pattern of Uganda since independence.  Nonviolence has the power to address the country power structures systemically, which is far more important.

Here is the problem: Besigye and his collaborators cannot assume that the best nonviolent means have been used.  Ugandans, apart from some isolated cases, have not practiced strategic nonviolence.  The Black Monday campaign has probably been the most thorough effort in recent years, but at the end of the day there is only so much that wearing a black T-shirt one day a week can do.  There have been strikes and one-off protests, but a strategically planned, sustained movement has yet to fully develop, so why are those who have advocated for peaceful means begun to assume that those means should be retired?  There is need for many more long-term marches, boycotts, strikes, human barricades, public statements, international divestment, redirection of funds for ombudspersons, and the like.

I suspect this is a normal phase.  Often nonviolent movements are, at the beginning, discouraged about their lack of immediate success.  This (combined with understandable anger) sometimes results in resorting to violent tactics, which quickly prove themselves counterproductive.  Perhaps some individuals will explore violence, but I predict they will soon realize its ineffectivity.

Typically I have refrained from commenting on Ugandan politics because I thought it was not really my place.  But the country is quickly becoming my home, and out of self-interest for my own family, if nothing else, I hope to live in a nation characterized by strategic nonviolent action, peace, and justice – not violent power struggles.

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