A fatal episode in the contest for power between Dr Kizza Besigye and President Museveni has again played out in Rukungiri District.
Rukungiri is the home of Dr Besigye, the four-time challenger of President Museveni, who has been in power since 1986.
The ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM) parliamentary caucus and Mr Museveni, 73, are pushing for a constitutional amendment that seeks to, among others, lift the 75-year presidential age limit while Opposition leaders are rallying masses to reject the move.
The political contestation has, so far, claimed the life of Edison Nasasira, alias Kakuru. The 23-year-old mechanic trainee was killed on October 18 at Rukungiri Stadium as police battled Opposition supporters who were convening to listen to anti-age limit amendment campaigners.
Dr Besigye, who was to address the rally in his home town, was stopped by police who blocked the entrance to the stadium on grounds that the assembly was illegal. They hurled tear gas and fired bullets to disperse the crowd.
Five other civilians; David Junior Ayorekire, Farouk Bangirana, Julius Turyomunsi, Naris Muhumuza and Christopher Mwebaze, were injured by bullets. They are not yet out of danger, according to physicians attending to them at Nyakibale Hospital.
The Wednesday shooting incident brought back memories of gunfire that ended the life of Johnson Baronda. He was shot dead by State operatives at the Rukungiri roundabout in March 2001 after Dr Besigye had addressed a rally during the presidential election campaigns.
The crack in the relationship between Rukungiri and Mr Museveni emerged in 1999, when Dr Besigye authored a document critical of the NRM leadership and Movement system. Mr Museveni wanted him court-martialed but a delegation from Rukungiri pleaded with him against the move.
Dr Besigye would swiftly work through the system and secure a discharge from the army and declare that he would contest for president.
A young and vibrant politician in the 1970s and ‘80s, Mr Museveni inspired both the youth and elderly from the district to join and support his military and political movements such as Fronasa, UPM, NRA and NRM.
When Mr Museveni lost the 1980 election on the UPM ticket, he allied with some people from Rukungiri like Mr Mathew Rukikaire to wage a guerrilla war against the UPC government, accusing it of rigging the poll.
While on the mission to hunt for arms, the guerrillas approached Mr Rukikaire in Kampala to attack Kabamba Army Barracks in Mubende.
Mr Museveni says in his autobiography Sowing the Mustard Seed: “The day chosen for the attack which would launch our campaign was Friday 6 February, 1981. Our plan was to obtain a vehicle, drive quickly and secretly from Kampala, arrive near our target in the early hours of the morning and take the barracks by surprise shortly after dawn. The day before our planned attack, about 30 volunteers assembled in Mathew Rukikaire’s house in Makindye, a suburb of Kampala and stayed in hiding there all day. Eventually the number grew to 34 but only 27 of us were armed.”
John Nsheka, John Kyamatuuku, Salongo Nkumanya, Stephen Tukahirwa, Obadia Muheru, Stephen Banyenzaki and Charles Banya were the other early Museveni backers from Rukungiri. They mobilised fighters and logistics for the NRA liberation war. Some have since died.
Dr Besigye, Gen Aronda Nyakairima (RIP), Maj Gen Jim Muhwezi, Mr Amama Mbabazi and Lt Gen Henry Tumukunde were some of the young people from Rukungiri that followed Mr Museveni to the bush.
However, Mr Rukikaire, together with other senior NRM leaders from western region such as Richard Kaijuka, Mugisha Muntu, Amanya Mushega and John Kazoora who opposed Mr Museveni’s move to amend the Constitution to remove term limits in 2005 have since fallen out with him, following in the footsteps of Dr Besigye.
Rukikaire served as MP for Kabula County and minister of State for Privatization. Mr Mbabazi too fell out with Mr Museveni after serving in the government and NRM party for close to 30 years in high profile positions such as Prime Minister and secretary general of the NRM. He stood for president in 2016 and came in a distant third.
Gen Tumukunde once fell out with Mr Museveni and was subsequently court-martialed over his political statements of opposing the lifting of presidential term limits. He was, however, wooed back into the system and currently holds the Security minister portfolio.
Mr Muhwezi, the Rukungiri District NRM chairperson and former Cabinet minister, is no longer Mr Museveni’s ‘blue-eyed’ boy.
He lost his Rujumbura MP seat to Forum for Democratic Change (FDC) candidate Fred Turyamuhweza in last year’s election.
After NRA captured power in 1986, President Museveni went to Rukungiri to thank the residents for their enormous contribution towards the liberation struggle. He said at a rally in Rukungiri Stadium that the problem with African leaders was overstaying in power.
In the next general election in 1996, they gave Mr Museveni 96 per cent of the vote in which he competed against DP’s Paul Kawanga Ssemogerere.
His support in the area has, however, been going down since Dr Besigye came on the Opposition stage.
Dr Besigye, who once served as a doctor for the NRA rebels, minister of State for Internal Affairs, minister in the President’s Office, national political commissar, commanding officer of mechanized regiment in Masaka and chief of logistics and engineering, asserts that the Wednesday shooting of people will not break the resolve to liberate the country.
“This impunity will not stop our resolve to fight for democracy. We regret that one of our supporters has been killed and several others injured. I appeal to our supporters to keep calm, but they should remain strong for this cause to get the country liberated,” he told journalists moments after the incident.
But police denies shooting into the crowds, saying the one who died and those nursing injuries in hospital were hit by stones.
Maj Gen Muhwezi says people of Rukungiri have a tradition of being politically active and opposing bad politics.
“Rukungiri people are very political, that’s why it was a strong support base for UPM. It opposed divisive politics right from 1980s when UPM group came and said we are tired of DP and UPC which was dividing people. Even in the liberation struggle, we were very many,” says Gen Muhwezi.
He, however, adds that Rukungiri cannot be the strongest Opposition base in the region when compared with Kasese.
“When Besigye dissented, some people went with him, like (Athanasius) Rutaro who was LC5 chairman and Winnie Babihuga (who was Woman MP) and others, but many of us remained. Majority of us are in NRM.”
He attributes his election loss to what he termed as “disorientation in the NRM”.
“My loss was because NRM people conspired with some people in the Opposition claiming to be NRM, when they were not. The vote was divided when he [Muhurizi] stood as an independent and that’s how we were defeated by FDC. When you get his vote and add it to mine we get the majority,” Muhwezi says. Julius Muhurizi was defeated by Muhwezi in the NRM primaries but he contested as independent. Gen Muhwezi adds that it was unfortunate that a life was lost in a political issue which to him should be resolved by Parliament.
“Losing life is very unfortunate. Our heart goes to the bereaved family. It was so bad to lose a life because of a political issue. It should be discussed and debated in Parliament in a civilised way, you don’t have to fight; I abhor the whole thing,” he says.
State minister for Planning and Ndorwa West MP David Bahati says violence has no place in a democratic process.
“There has been an attempt by people who don’t support amendments to create a situation that they can stop it; that is unsustainable. We need to make people calm, explain the content and political implications. Rukungiri is not known for violence. People have always had peaceful engagement,” says Mr Bahati.
“We are appealing for calm as we go through this constitutional amendment process in terms of sensitising people before the second reading in Parliament. We should do it in a peaceful manner. We appeal for calm and maturity in this process. If anybody is inciting violence and creating false expectations in the process, he is not doing the right thing.”
Rukungiri has two FDC MPs, Fred Turyamuhweza and Roland Kaginda, and two NRM MPs, Paula Turyahikayo and Winne Masiko. The mayor, Charles Makuru, and all municipal councils are FDC members. The LC5 chairman and majority of district councillors are NRM.
Mr Paddy Vincent, a lawyer and opinion leader in Mbarara, says people in Ankole sub-region are not vocal because that’s their nature, but that it should not be taken that they are all pro-age limit amendment.
“The nature of Banyankole is different from that of Bakiga. They will not tell you their position openly like Bakiga, but that doesn’t mean they agree with what you have told them,” he says.
“If the age limit amendment is good, why haven’t the leaders, MPs and local councillors in Ankole come out to defend it, where are they? We don’t see them mobilising.”
He adds that people supported Mr Museveni in the liberation war even when they knew that Milton Obote and other leaders of the time had superior guns, and that what has happened in Rukungiri shows that people are desperate.
“If you see people fighting with police who have guns like it happened in Rukungiri, you know they are tired. If the amendment is pushed through it will create problems to the regime. MPs will bring themselves down politically and socially, people will shun and isolate them,” he says.