It could be the perfect New Year gift to Ugandans.
Two influential personalities, veteran journalist Andrew Mwenda and a former media honcho, Conrad Nkutu, have come agonizingly close to bringing together President Yoweri Museveni and arch rival Dr Kizza Besigye for peace talks. Since they parted ways in 1999 after Besigye published a dossier chronicling the weaknesses of the ruling party, the dream meeting between the FDC leader and Museveni has always shimmered like a mirage.
At first Nkutu told The Observer that he is not aware of such an effort.
“I have never been involved in anything like that. It is not correct. Who gave you the information?” he asked.
But, pressed further, he acknowledged that he was involved in “something like that”, although he declined to divulge details. Similarly, on Mwenda’s part, although he was aware of the talks, he refused to confirm or deny his involvement. But our impeccable sources maintain that efforts to bring the two political rivals on one negotiating table are in high gear.
According to a highly placed source, the efforts began in May, a period of unrest when Dr Kizza Besigye was tormented to the point of nearly losing his sight.
“There was fear that things could get out of hand and if Besigye was killed in the walk-to-work protests, it could cause anarchy and upheaval,” said the source, trying to underline why the peace negotiations are important.
On April 28, police officer Gilbert Bwana Arinaitwe, with the help of a motley gang of security operatives, intercepted Besigye’s vehicle at Mulago roundabout as he attempted to drive to town. Like a rehearsed Hollywood blockbuster scene, video footage captured a hooded man using a hammer to break the window of Besigye’s Land Cruiser vehicle.
Arinaitwe joined the fray, using the butt of his pistol to break the glass of Besigye’s vehicle before incessantly dousing the FDC leader with pepper spray. With remarkable ease, Arinaitwe later dragged Besigye out of the vehicle, before bundling him under the seats on the back of a police patrol pick-up truck. This incident projected Museveni’s leadership in bad light, both at home and abroad.
We have learnt that the peace talks were Nkutu’s idea, borne out of a belief that Uganda would be more prosperous and peaceful if the two biggest political actors buried their hatchet. Being close to Besigye, he reportedly sold him the idea. Our sources say the FDC leader was at first very apprehensive about the scheme, particularly because at one stage, it would have to involve face-to-face meetings with Museveni who he does not trust.
But after much explanation and assurances from Nkutu, Besigye finally warmed up to the idea. Aware that Mwenda could unlock doors in the marbled corridors of power, Nkutu then enlisted him to try to convince the President about the importance of the talks.
Mwenda, a journalist and proprietor of the Independent news magazine, has of late played the role of pacifist, bringing together Rwanda President Paul Kagame and Museveni in August — a meeting that strengthened the notoriously fickle ties of the two countries beyond peace overtures. In a video footage shot during Museveni’s visit, Mwenda is seen closely walking behind the two leaders who seemed to be enjoying his company at Kagame’s ranch on the shores of Lake Muhazi in Rwanda.
Mwenda is also closely linked to Kagame, who recently appointed him a presidential advisor on the media in the Great Lakes region. Nkutu, since his retirement from the prestigious position as head of broadcasting of the Nation Media Group colossus, has been engaged in private business. A former managing director of the Monitor Publications, Nkutu has been a close associate of Besigye since 2001.
The two handlers, according to a source, are attempting to broker a meeting whose agenda goes beyond the walk-to-work protests to encompass national reconciliation and healing.
“The meetings are highly secretive and nobody wants it leaked to the press,” said the source.
“Even the FDC leadership is unaware and Besigye does not want anyone to misunderstand him — that he is cutting a deal behind the back of his party,” argued the source.
So far, a number of meetings have been held, but Besigye and Museveni are yet to meet. What is happening, according to sources, is a formulation of terms and conditions in order for the meeting to take place. Information about these terms is scanty, but our sources said there are still some sticking issues on either side.
For instance, Museveni wants Besigye to stop engaging in any form of activities that breed chaos, such as the walk-to-work campaign. Museveni’s team also wants the FDC to formally recognise his government as the one legitimately elected during the 2011 February elections. In the aftermath of the elections, Besigye said the party does not recognize the results.
Both sides, according to sources, have also agreed to act with civility towards each other, so Besigye and Museveni are not expected to trade personal insults.
On his part, Besigye has made it clear that other opposition political parties must also get involved if there is going to be a meaningful discussion about the country’s political and economic future.
Besigye also wants the talks to be transparent and for the media to be allowed unfettered access. We have also been told that initially there had been a suggestion during the preparatory meetings that Museveni is granted one last seven-year term on condition that he affirms publicly that after that, he will retire from politics. However, we have learnt that it has been dropped.
So far, according to sources, both Museveni and Besigye have agreed on a number of issues although there are other sticking issues yet to be resolved, including choosing an agreeable moderator to shepherd the talks.
Sources expect that by March next year, all issues will be ironed out and the two political rivals could meet for the first time in more than 10 years, marking a new dawn in the country’s fractious political history.
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