Uganda: The Great Liberator of Yester Years, the Worst Oppressor of Our Time

Ugandan journalist and the Independent Magazine chief Andrew Mwenda wrote last week criticising Winnie Byanyima, wife of incarcerated opposition leader Dr Kizza Besigye, for supporting President Yoweri Museveni's government in its early days when, according to him, it was committing "worse" human rights violations and crying foul when the same tactics are used against her.

Mwenda then asked: "Why did Byanyima think that NRA [read Museveni] would somehow employ violent means to acquire power but would somehow hesitate to use similar methods to retain it?"

He concludes: "If Uganda has a 'criminal regime' as Ms Byanyima and her husband claim, then they were instrumental in constructing and consolidating the culture of criminality as an instrument of politics."

The article was prompted by Byanyima's observation that Mwenda has "sold" his soul by "supporting dictatorship" and "defending gross human rights violations" under President Museveni.

This exchange arose after the former tweeted that the police had blocked her from accessing her home and the latter interjecting to say that the "use of police to harass opposition politicians" wasn't new in Uganda.

Of interest to me here is to inquire whether there is such a thing as a "liberator" deserving support and whether, in liberation, the use of violence is just and how to know when a former liberator transforms into a dictator, who must be resisted.

To begin with, yes, there is such a thing as a liberator deserving support. This is someone who helps end oppression and denial of freedoms - such as the right to life; belong; speak; citizenship etc. A person who fights for the restoration of these is also a liberator.

This also means that there are higher societal and human ideals worth fighting for and even dying for.

This also means that tactics used in fighting for such ideals, in some cases, especially where the deployment of peaceful means isn't feasible (for instance, due to the violent nature of the oppressor) or where peaceful means can't cause change, violent means are justifiable.

In that sense, a liberator and an oppressor can both use similar means; with the difference located in goals and ends: While the former aims to replace an oppressive system with a liberating one, the latter is interested in preserving his/her power within the status quo.

And of course, history shows there are liberators who used peaceful means -- such as Mahatma Gandhi in India and those that opted for violent means -- such as Nelson Mandela in South Africa or Museveni in Uganda.

Regardless of means, however, true liberators are defined not merely by the cause they fight for or the system they overthrow, but more by the system they help put in place.

For as history teaches, it's possible to fight one form of oppression only to install another in its place. This also means that it's possible to be a liberator today and transform into an oppressor or dictator the following day.

This also means that it's possible for one to support someone fighting oppression today but oppose him or her tomorrow if the cause is betrayed. For instance, individuals like Nelson Mandela qualify as true liberators especially because they didn't fight one form of oppression to replace it with another.

Yet, while individuals like President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe fought for a just cause and were therefore regarded as liberators, today, they are oppressors because they replaced one form of oppression with another.

In Uganda's case, while I believe Museveni and his NRA/M fought for a just cause --to remove the repressive regime of Milton Obote and his military; today, the system in place has dictatorial tendencies that, unless checked, might take the country in a darker place. Instructively, even the spark of Museveni's liberation war -- which was vote rigging -- is today believed to be worse than it has ever been.

Thus, while it might be true that one's liberator might be another's oppressor; the difference lies not with whom one associates, but the cause fought for and eventual system installed.

I, therefore, guess, the challenge for former supporters of liberators-turned-dictators isn't in justifying original support or tactics used in liberation but living with the knowledge that they unwittingly helped install a dictatorship.

Christopher Kayumba, PhD. Senior Lecturer, School of Journalism and Communication, UR; Lead consultant, MGC Consult International Ltd.

Source: The East African