The script was clear. It would be another “heroic” return of what many have come to call the King of Anarchy. A flurry of activity by his acolytes in the week leading to his expected release from prison on bail was testament to this.
On the eve of Justice Masalu Musene’s ruling on whether Dr Kiiza Besigye deserved bail following his rather foolish and treasonous stunt of swearing himself in as president, the opposition politician’s minions were all-over social media trying to whip up sentiment and mobilise “masses” to grace what was expected to be a major political episode.
In downtown Kampala, the usual covert mobilisation among the boda bodas and other informal sector players was happening—asking them to accompany Besigye to wherever he would be going after court had set him free plus the attendant mayhem we have come to associate these forays with. And it was not a script that had just began a few days to the anticipated ruling.
Cognisant that he had lost a fourth election in February, despite loud rhetoric and inflated sense of support in a few urban areas and on social media, Besigye and his handlers needed a smokescreen. The idea was quickly cobbled. Provoke the authorities, get arrested, use the time in detention to try and rebrand yourself before you make a heroic exit out of prison.
The prison rebranding included making outlandish claims of Besigye’s life being under threat before turning to writing letters that tried to blackmail the Chief Justice while ridiculing his deputy. The letter-writing technique apparently was meant to ape Nelson Mandela and his Robben Island missives. Of course for Besigye, the writing elicited humour rather than deep reflection from those he addressed.
But all this was meant to build momentum to the D-day. The day when Besigye would be given bail and leave court like a hero. The opposition script is known. Their networks begin setting the talking points in the morning on social media. They post on Facebook and Tweet so much that they look like they are trending. Of course they are aided by some gullible and co-opted media, which begins to relay events on radio and TV. The ultimate goal is to have this conversation mobilise people—especially the informal groups downtown—who tune into radios and watch TV during the mid-mornings, to take to the streets and join Besigye’s processions.
And the script was going according to plan on Tuesday July 12th until about mid-morning when President Museveni’s press unit put out pictures of the head of state making a phone call in a village called Kyeirumba in Isingiro District. The pictures showed the President, who was returning from officiating at the World Population Day celebrations in the same district, seated on a folding chair by the roadside making what was an obviously important call.
The pictures went viral in a matter of minutes. The uniqueness of their composition, the simplicity of the head of state, the show of a man at peace with himself and nature, the connection with the passersby who kept flashing the thumbs-up sign equally reciprocated by the head of state, was something out of the ordinary. It is no surprise that it birthed the “Museveni Challenge” with millions from China to the US, from Kenya to Nigeria trying to recreate the scene.
There was one major loser though: Besigye. The Museveni pictures had rained on his parade. Try as his minions may, no one was paying attention to their master’s release on bail. What should have been Besigye’s moment of glory, knowing his penchant for attention and drama, had turned into agony as he looked on helplessly. Weeks of planning had gone to waste. An attempt to hold a press conference the following day in order to salvage some pride still got overshadowed by the Museveni pictures.
It is therefore not surprising that days later, speaking in Bushenyi, Besigye finally let out his frustration. He told journalists that the picture showed the President as “insecure and besieged”. “How could he run from his car and sit on the roadside to make a call?” Besigye told the journalists.
A President who keeps his bodyguards at bay, lets traffic flow freely as he makes a phone call by the roadside, then moves to meet residents gathered a few metres away for a conversation is far from being “insecure and besieged”. Besigye is hurting for other reasons. The roadside phone call pictures ruined what was his party day.
The writer is the President’s Senior Press Secretary