A rare glimpse into Uganda’s elections, the Mudslinging, the betrayal and the influence of AIDS

I run the media campaign with the help of volunteers in my two bedroom apartment overlooking the golf course in Kololo. Most of the time was spent in my home office which was a workstation comprising a desk and a basic computer with no internet connection tucked in the corner of my bedroom.

It was here that we drafted press releases to the media, called campaigners on the road for updates and campaign stories, took calls from the press and composed jingles for the radio. Winnie Byanyima was particularly good with composing meaningful sound bytes for jingles and Public Service Announcements. I spent a lot of time on the phone with journalists essentially begging for coverage so that our message could be heard. I never could really anticipate what the next call would be about.

Ugandan opposition leader Kizza Besigye and his wife, Winnie, greets the crowd at a rally in Kampala, Uganda on February 16, 2011, the last day of campaigning for presidential elections.
Ugandan opposition leader Kizza Besigye and his wife, Winnie, greets the crowd at a rally in Kampala, Uganda on February 16, 2011, the last day of campaigning for presidential elections.

There was clearly a hate campaign against Kizza Besigye and members of his Task Force nothing seemed out of the ordinary anymore. Everything was done to belittle, denigrate and dehumanize the candidate in particular. I took exception with candidate Yoweri Museveni when he appeared on Capital Gang for his belittling language so I called in when he was on air and asked him why he showed little respect for his opponents and why he used threatening language. I got a very condescending response from the President and he assured me and the public that he did not get where he was by being a pacifist. The clip of our exchange was played over and over again during and after the campaign on Capital Radio and it earned me a lot of unpopular remarks from supporters of the incumbent including one lady who said I ought to be roasted on a charcoal stove for ‘abusing’ the President!


The Author Former FDC Special Envoy Anne Mugisha
The Author Former FDC Special Envoy Anne Mugisha

One fine day I received a call from a journalist asking me to get a comment from Kizza Besigye about the President’s remark made to an international journalist that Besigye had HIV/AIDS and could not therefore manage to run affairs of the state. If this call had come before my days with the Task Force, my jaw would have dropped to the floor in disbelief at the sheer impudence of the remark but by now I had come to learn that in political campaigning there were no taboos and no topic was off limits especially not in this campaign which had turned into a mudslinging gala. Even as I called Kizza Besigye, I knew that the damage that had been done by the President’s remark was immense. The seed had been sown that Kizza Besigye had an illness that would probably kill him soon and who wanted to waste their vote on a dying man? He was about to address a rally in Eastern Uganda when I caught up with him on the phone and he responded matter of factly that he had previously addressed this issue so if President Museveni wanted to make AIDS a campaign issue then the Presidential Elections Act should be amended to include HIV testing as a condition for nominating a candidate. I passed on Besigye’s rejoinder to the journalist and sat there wondering how we had reached this far in the gutter.

Uganda's opposition leader Kizza Besigye speaks during a rally at Rubaga division in the capital Kampala
Uganda’s opposition leader Kizza Besigye speaks during a rally at Rubaga division in the capital Kampala

At some point in early December 2000, I had retreated with a small group of campaigners to Ranch on the Lake to draft the candidate’s manifesto. The group which was guided by the candidate included several Task Force members like Joseph Tumushabe, the elderly Arthur Bagunywa, Zedriga, and others who came offered their expert proposals in different fields and then left us to put together the complete document. It was here that I first worked closely with Daudi Mpanga on the Task Force. When we were done we presented the candidate with the manifesto entitled ‘The Next Five Years.’ This was the platform document from which all public information and advocacy messaging was to be drawn but the temptation to hit back at the mud slinging from the incumbent’s team became overwhelming and volunteers started throwing mud back at the other side against our better judgement and certainly the candidate’s wishes. Kizza Besigye asked us that no matter what personal dirt they threw at him as a candidate we were not to respond using the same tone and methods.

A newscaster on a local FM announced that Anselm, the young son of Kizza and Winnie had died and the couple were keeping him in a freezer until the campaign ended in order not to interrupt the campaign schedule. What kind of twisted mind came up with that idea? I thought the public would dismiss the rumor with the contempt it deserved and was quite shocked when we started getting calls from concerned people asking if it was true that Anselm was dead. The Task Force was forced to bring Anselm out for a photo opportunity just so that the rumor would go away. About the same time leaflets were handed out warning Ugandans that Security had uncovered a plot where Hajji Ssebagala the feisty Kampala mayor now turned Besigye campaigner; had men training in a forest and after the election they would use machetes to slay voters who did not support Besigye. Government went on to give this damaging rumor some veneer of authenticity by asking the Uganda Revenue Authority to impound all machetes that were being imported into the country at the time. We got wind that these derogatory leaflets were being printed at the New Vision Printing and Publishing Company, the press which printed the government’s daily paper. Upon hearing the rumor we immediately went to Jinja Road Police Station and requested a warrant to search the premises of the New Vision which was across the road. Police held us there long enough to call Mr. Robert Kabushenga then the company’s legal officer. Our negotiations with the police failed as Kabushenga adamantly rejected a search of the printery without a court order and we lost the opportunity to either prove or disprove the allegations.

Ugandan President Campaigning at a recent rally
Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni Campaigning at a recent rally

At some point the mud on our side was so suffocating that we decided to ignore the candidate’s advice not to get personal and do a little mud slinging of our own. We reached a breaking point one morning while the candidate and his wife were on the campaign trail and there was no ‘adult’ to tell us how to behave. One rumor that had vexed the candidate was the one which claimed that Kizza Besigye had abandoned his older son Ampa and that the child was destitute with no one caring for him. Now Ampa at the time was attending Taibah a school on Entebbe Road that was among the best in the region. Upon hearing the remarks about Ampa a lady approached our Task Force on her own volition and recounted a bad experience with the incumbent’s family. She claimed that she had a relationship with a member of that family and their union had produced a child whom the family immediately disowned. She said she was struggling to raise the child on her own and she wanted Ugandans to know that the incumbent’s family was not providing for their grandchild. We caved in recorded the lady and sent the story to a frenzied media which now concluded that we had stooped as low as the other side. Our candidate was outraged by the decision to go personal because we made it difficult for voters to distinguish our campaign style from that of the incumbent. At the time however we were just happy to turn the tables on those who had started this type of mud slinging.

At 50 I know that the pressure of a heated election campaign creates an environment that encourages expediency over good judgement and I have some regrets over some decisions that we made in haste. I often wonder if the other side had its regrets.

The Author is the Former FDC special Envoy and now works for the UN in Somalia

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