A cross-section of leaders and ordinary Ugandans yesterday welcomed reports of planned talks between President Museveni and ex-presidential candidate Dr Kizza Besigye, calling the development a manifestation of political maturity.
Whereas Information Minister Frank Tumwebaze said he was not aware of the dialogue initiative, which has been a highly controlled process over the months, the President of the Forum for Democratic Change (FDC) party on whose ticket Dr Besigye stood for president last year; was more measured.
“Since 2011 we (FDC), among other opposition parties and civil society organisations (CSOs), set four pre-conditions that would have to be met before we engaged in any dialogue with the government,” Maj Gen Muntu Mugisha noted, without giving specifics, adding: “The same pre-conditions have been our basis for any dialogue (post 2016 elections) in all interactions between us and all actors who have approached us on the issue of dialogue. I am not aware that those preconditions have been fulfilled. Without their fulfillment I do not see any dialogue (taking place).”.”
“As far as we (as government) are concerned, we have no comment,” minister Tumwebaze said, calling the reports a “Daily Monitor story”.
This newspaper, based on conversations with sources close to both President Museveni and Dr Besigye over the last three months, yesterday broke the story that the principals have agreed on a foreign mediator, a neutral venue and broad agenda for imminent talks.
The dialogue could start with a one-on-one meeting between the duo as early as next month, according to individuals briefed on the matter. The historic development is expected to be announced soon by the foreign mediator and the talks are expected to last six months and will involve the government on the one hand, political parties, religious leaders and civil society on the other hand.
The parties have spent the last several months behind the scenes discussing its modalities in a highly controlled process involving the Prime Minister’s office on the one side and a technical committee of FDC party on the other hand.
The legal framework to ensure implementation is still being thrashed out.
In an interview with this newspaper for yesterday’s story, Dr Besigye neither denied nor confirmed the talks, saying that the conditions he set for any such undertaking, as far as he knew, had not been met.
Those terms include a mutually-agreed foreign mediator, treatment of the parties as equals, a clear mechanism of implementation of agreed terms, and
He, however, added: “There are a myriad of people undertaking initiatives about talks and none of them has, to the best of my knowledge, [materialised] yet. At an appropriate time, if there’s anything significant, it will be communicated to you.”
A source close to the presidency, in a strikingly similar response, told this newspaper that: “The government is committed to dialogue. There are many initiatives going on, if one of them succeeds, the government will go with that.”
Individuals familiar with the ongoing preparations, technically referred to as “talk about talks”, are cautiously optimistic because the consensus by the President and Dr Besigye on a mediator and, in principle the agenda, is considered an unprecedented progress which in theory places them closer to actual dialogue.
The news about arrangement for the talks has received nationwide backing and across the political divide, except that some supporters of the initiative want the agenda to be expanded and participants to include more interest groups.
“DP has been the biggest promoter of dialogue. It is good for people to talk even when they disagree, they should talk,” the Democratic Party (DP) president-general Norbert Mao said.
Such dialogue, he said, should be on “national issues such as corruption, free and fair election, rule of law and should not be about resolving Luweero Triangle disputes”.
Uganda Peoples Congress leader Joseph Bossa said the it should not be bilateral talks only between Mr Museveni and Dr Besigye and respective parties NRM and FDC but representative of the country’s diversity.
“Uganda is bigger than the two and what we want is a structured dialogue, means of implementation, a mediator and agreed agenda,” he said, adding: “The key issue in the dialogue should be ensuring a free and fair election that will quarantee peaceful transition, which is good for Mr Museveni and the country.”
The push for clarity on Uganda’s political direction, a campaign involving political parties and civil society actors, has gained urgency due to concerns about transition from President Museveni to the next leader since the incumbent, under the current constitutional arrangement, would, on account of age, be ineligible to seek re-election when his tenure lapses in 2021.
“It’s good that Besigye and Museveni have accepted to come together and talk in front of a mediator. I welcome and endorse it because it was the move of the Inter-Religious Council of Uganda that advised the two to dialogue so that their tensions are cleared off,” said Gulu Archbishop John Baptist Odama who chairs the Uganda Episcopal Conference.
The prelate said he will pray for the success of the planned talks which, if it happens, will provide the political heavy-weights a face-to-face to tackle head-on Uganda’s intractable political problems. President Museveni and Dr Besigye have, since falling out in 1999, only publicly met twice during the Pope’s visit in November 2015 and again during a presidential debate for the February 2016 election.
If there is an opportunity to solve political standoff through dialogue to avoid bloodshed, said Advocates Coalition for Development and Environment (ACODE) Dr Arthur Bainomugisha, it is welcome “but whether it will succeed or not, time will tell”.
He said: “Uganda has many legal, political and constitutional reforms which I think is very critical that dialogue can help solve. Uganda has many precedents in resolving conflicts. We had many processes that resulted into peaceful ending of rebellions and many people [former rebels, political opponents who] are now in government.”
There are some sceptics, among them Ambassador Harold Acemah, the former deputy Head of Uganda’s Mission in Brussels, who said President Museveni cannot be trusted.
His reservations notwithstanding, Ambassador Acemah said “this should be an open dialogue where religious, political and civil society organisations should not be left out to discuss key issues of poverty, security and corruption in the country”.
The career diplomat is not alone. Mr Hebert Nakabugu, a resident of the eastern Jinja town, said he doubts that President Museveni and Dr Besigye can sit together and genuinely discuss the national development issues because “each one knows the other`s weakness; that will lead the country into big challenges”.
FDC assistant secretary-general Harold Kaija told journalists at the party headquarters in Najjanankumbi, a Kampala suburb, that there were no talks in the works.
Attempts by different actors to get President Museveni and Dr Besigye, a four-time challenger, to the negotiating table, following some false starts over the years, began soon after the February 2016 elections when several emissaries went to Dr Besigye’s home. He was also visited by a retired judge in his prison cell in Luzira with a message of dialogue.
The three-pronged efforts that have culminated into the latest development involved religious leaders and elders, Women’s Situation Room that monitored last year’s elections and some NRM leaders.
All these efforts have converged and seem close to bearing fruit. Uganda’s new Permanent Representative to the United Nations, Ambassador Adonia Ayebare, is one of those involved in the shuttle diplomacy.
“I didn’t know about the planned talks; I have only read it in papers. But this is a good idea for the future of our country,” said Mr Stanley Katembeya, the FDC party chairman in Mbarara District.
His NRM counterpart Jomo Mugabi said: “It is a very good development. Besigye and Museveni are not enemies of this country; everyone says they want to see a better Uganda.”
Reported by Paul Tajuba, Stephen Otage, Alfred Tumushabe, Julius Ocungi, Felix Warom, Clement Aluma & Denis Edema