Dr Besigye talks sport, music, and the Uganda “we want”

Kizza Besigye

Ugandan opposition leader Kizza Besigye and his wife Winnie at the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport in Nairobi on May 11, 2011.

Photo credit: File | Nation Media Group

What you need to know:

  • Uganda’s most acclaimed Opposition voice narrates to Sunday Monitor’s Andrew Mwanguhya how his wife Winnie Byanyima made him choose Manchester United over Liverpool FC, and why he won’t feature in the 2026 presidential race

A fairly tall, dark-skinned man emerges from one of the lush greenery and floral shades at his home in Kasangati, Wakiso District; his abode, immediately hitting you with a warm, welcoming and beauteous aura of peace and calm.

He stands there, graceful and majestic, his flower-patterned shirt matching the blossom in his compound. It is buttoned Nelson Mandela-esque up to the neck.

His gaze over the spectacles that rests just above the ridges of his flesh for support and to allow his prominent eyes to take in this first-time guest is an expectant one.

Soon, the smile widens and arms open. A deep embrace—head first to left shoulder and then the right—follows. It is performed almost to natural perfection. At least that is what it feels!

Beyond what you see

This could, perhaps, be the one you have always wanted to read. This is intimate. This is beyond the man you might be accustomed to on TV, newspapers or the man the system he continues to oppose may portray before you. But who is this man beyond what you normally see?

Col (Rtd) Dr Warren Kifefe Kizza Besigye, a four-time presidential candidate, political and human rights activist, medical doctor by training, farmer and businessman—himself first grapples with the answer.

“It’s a difficult one,” he admits, adding: “Of course, I’m consciously aware that I don’t live the life I would want to live. Ordinarily, I’m a very private person. But it is not the life I live. I love to spend quality time with those close to me, supporting them and their struggles. But I live in solitude; I find myself isolated.”

With his wife Winnie Byanyima—the executive director of UNAIDS—and son Anselm, who studies in America, occasionally coming back home, Dr Besigye mainly stays with one of his sisters whenever she is not abroad. She was here on the day of this visit.

House-helps and children he pays tuition fees for often do ‘staycations’ during holidays.

“I would love to go where I want to go, walk down the streets like any other person without attracting that much attention.”

On what is synonymous with the Ugandan public, Dr Besigye says: “What you see (in media) is largely public political work. You see what is influenced by injustices inflicted by people you oppose. The regime tries its best to portray you in violence. They run images in public stopping me from exercising my rights.”

Sport, tweets, analysis

Beyond that is a man who also loves sports, and, during major international tournaments, often offers decent analysis across his social media pages.

This has both delighted his supporters and offered others ammunition to question whether he abandoned the struggle to discuss sports. All said, does he personally write the posts?

“Nobody writes any tweet for me,” he affirmed. “But on Facebook, colleagues do, although sometimes I look through and make corrections here and there before they post.”

A compliment on his sports analysis elicits laughter.

“I don’t think it is up there as you project it,” he says, describing what he authors as “an ordinary fan’s analysis of what you have seen” driven by “passion.”

He adds: “Although I’ve not personally engaged as a sports person, I’ve generally enjoyed sports from my early life. And not just common sports. I sometimes spend the whole night watching snooker (breaks out in that signature laugh again).”

Snooker? “Yes, snooker (more laughter)”.

He goes on: “Even cricket. When I lived in South Africa, my best pastime was watching cricket. I would sometimes go to a stadium or watch on TV. It was always interesting seeing young people playing and excelling.”

Dr Besigye, who had contested unsuccessfully against President Museveni in the contentious 2001 presidential election, lived in exile in South Africa for four years (August 2001 to October 2005) before returning in time for another showdown in 2006.

“Here,” Dr Besigye, who celebrated his 66th birthday on April 22, added: “It is football people mostly pay attention to. I came to Kampala in 1969, so I also got interested in school football quite early, but mostly I followed the top league football.

Leaving KCCA for Onduparaka

“I supported Kampala City Council (KCC) [now Kampala Capital City Authority – KCCA] growing up. But I have since changed (another big laugh). I’m now Onduparaka. It is the KCC under Mzee Bidandi Ssali that I was mostly in love with.

“The latter KCCA went into serious decay, with a lot of political interference and I couldn’t keep up. Then burst onto the scene this remote team in Onduparaka when it got promoted in 2016 and captured my imagination.”Dr Besigye tweeted images of himself in an Onduparaka jersey later that December before watching his first match for his new catch in a friendly against Gor Mahia of Kenya at Namboole two months later. He also gave Onduparaka a Shs2m contribution at the time.“With meagre support to sports generally, most teams are grossly underfunded. It’s good for people to rally around teams and West Nile people have done that well.”

“But my friends at KCCA have been doing well recently. And the Lord Mayor (Erias Lukwago) has been pushing me to come back (more laughter).”

Dr Besigye did not play football. “But I was an athlete in my early days. I did long distance. I think I can still run. I also played tennis, squash and swimming.”

Dr Besigye has a small gym at home with some basic equipment and works out at least three times a week.

“Lately, I do a lot of agricultural work at home. So that also helps me keep fit.”

A Besigye government and sports

On top of a significant number of public sports facilities being sold off for malls and other developments across the country, the sports sub-sector is one of the least funded in Uganda.

It received Uganda Shs18b before the Covid-19 pandemic slashed it to Shs10b in the 2021/2022 Financial Year.

The Cabinet approved UShs25b for the upcoming Financial Year 2022/2023.

But just what would a Dr Besigye-led government do differently to improve sports in the country?

“The real starting point is the education system where youngsters are,” Dr Besigye explains.

“A lot of resources must be invested in facilities and technical people in schools. Right now, the largest number of schools are without a playground, which incidentally is one of the requirements to be licensed as a school.”

Besides “proper time for sports need[ing] to be set aside”, Besigye believes having “a sports teacher to guide and identify young talent” and improving “funding” can be decisive.

He adds: “Countries like ours where we don’t have a sound private economy yet, it is still important the public sector still supports sports adequately. It is from here that better national team players will be developed.”

That he supports everything Ugandan in sports goes without saying, but he is not ashamed to say he is “a fan of Cameroon[’s]” national football and has “also increasingly grown a liking for Senegal and, generally, West African teams.”

He adds: “I always support African teams at the World Cup, although only a few have reached the quarterfinals. Otherwise, I’m Brazilian.”

Winnie, oh Winnie!

And then there is Manchester, the city Dr Besigye’s wife studied from and graduated with a BSc Degree in Aeronautical Engineering at the University of Manchester.

It all started there. Ms Byanyima fell in love with Manchester United at the time the Red Devils were beginning Premier League dominance under Sir Alex Ferguson. This meant she now loved Man United as deeply as she does Dr Besigye. But there was a small problem. Dr Besigye was in love with Liverpool. Now, how does that even work?

Anyway, Byanyima, who has publicly declared she loves her black coffee and her men black, did her magic, whatever that wand was, and Besigye’s defensive and defiant armour was broken, and out with it went Liverpool.

“By the way, I was never a Manchester United fan,” admits Besigye, adding: “I was a Liverpool supporter. It is Winnie who changed me. She lived in Manchester in the early 1990s and when we started living together, that was it. They even gave her an honorary doctorate at the University of Manchester (2016).”

He adds: “Of course, the fortunes have since changed today. At the time, Liverpool were in the doldrums. So she attracted me to Manchester. Now it’s Man United in the doldrums. But I’m not going anywhere (laughs again).”

“However, contrary to some supporters, I’m not that much of a fanatic. I appreciate quality from any team or athlete.”

Does he regret leaving Liverpool?

“No. It’s like Uganda Cranes. Even when we know we are not going to the World Cup, we wear our jersey and sing ‘we go, we go’ (laughs).”

The 99 on KB jersey

‘KB 99’ left quite a number of Ugandans on social media wondering why that strange number after pictures of the writer’s visit to Besigye’s home circulated.

The year 1999 was both interesting and complicated for Dr Besigye. It is the year Man United won the English Premier League, FA Cup and Uefa Champions League treble.

It is also the year Besigye—still a serving army officer then—wrote a dossier critical of the ruling NRM government titled “An Insider’s View of How the NRM Lost the Broad Base.”

He accused the NRM of becoming a sectarian kleptocracy and a one-man dictatorship. Besigye was later court-martialled “for airing his views in the wrong forum.”

So as a tribute, this writer gifted Besigye a Manchester United jersey with KB and 99 emblazoned at the back.

“I think it is the most amazing gift I’ve received,” Besigye appreciates. “I’m glad you chose it.”

“That’s the year things had started souring, politically. Of course, I followed Man United’s exploits that season. Fortunately, that time I was not very busy. So, I watched most of it.”

The man behind that United machine, the legendary Ferguson, intrigued Besigye like any other Red Devil.

“Anybody who followed Man United was captivated by his control, his drive and passion, focus, relationship with his players and of course, his chewing gum. He was in every sense a man with an aura.”

Transitions at Man Utd, Uganda

“But looking at Man United today, it’s sad,” intimates Besigye. “Again, from my non-fanatical side of things, after a long reign of a powerful leader, it takes a while to stabilise once that leader is gone.”

He adds: “Twenty-seven years of intimate and deep relationship in all aspects of the club; to maintain that momentum is difficult and there will always be transition challenges.”

Ferguson managed Man United from November 1986 to May 2013, winning 38 trophies, including 13 Premier League titles, five FA Cup and two Uefa Champions League titles.

Asked if transition from President Museveni, in power since January 1986, would be akin to that of United, Besigye is steadfast.

“Without a doubt,” he said, adding: “Unfortunately for us, it’s not a transition from success. With United and Ferguson, it’s nostalgia. The comparison between the two situations stops at the length of stay in power.

“Here, it will be from domination for decades. We must brace ourselves on how to transition. That’s why we have been rallying Ugandans to plan transition, a non-partisan transition, including NRM (supporters).”

“A revolutionary transition from gun rule to democratic governance. We have endured gun rule from the 1890s. This transition will not happen on its own. We want to make it as painless as possible.”

Cultural tastes

It is heating up now and we need a water break before returning to the struggle. He may not be so keen on music in the last two or so decades, but “the music that blew my mind was in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s.”

He adds: “We had really great musicians. The Peterson Tusubira Mutebis, Elly Wamala, then Congolese music we called ‘Zairwa’ with the Francos (Luambo), Tabu Ley (the man who gave us ‘Muzina’).”

About books, Besigye reads all kinds of literature. He says: “I read autobiographies, fiction, places. Lately, I’m also keen on reading about the environment. All of us should focus on the environment. And of course, I go back to my profession by reading medical journals and findings.”

Asked if and when he would write his own book, he responds: “Books. Three books, not one. One will be on my own life; who am I? The second one will be my own version of the Bush [War] struggle. I don’t think the Bush [War] story has been given the kind of attention it deserves.

“My other colleagues have written and given their own opinions. I think I also have an experience of what I can contribute. The third book will be about the last 30 years of NRM regime.”

When do we expect these books? “I hope I’m alive to write them.”

Is it about the presidency?

Some have accused Dr Besigye of not leaving the stage, claiming he is no different from his arch-enemy, President Museveni. He detests such narratives with every sinew in his body.

“Like I said, I have never in my life, growing up, sought for an office, never occupied one. Most of the people in the politics now were in the politics as students. They were prefects, class monitors, headed associations of various types,” he notes. “None of that you will find in my entire life growing up. Until I went to the bush, I had never sought for any position, I had never been in politics.”

“But because of the terrible times we went through under [Idi] Amin, we became conscious that it was important to decide how our country should be governed, but not as in one seeking leadership. And at the time, I was a young professional, I was not looking at a political career.”

“We were only interested in whatever way we could have governance that would be good for our country, and we needed a new platform (in 1980) that would not divide an already divided country… not UPC [Uganda Peoples Congress], DP [Democratic Party].”

“And that’s why we started calling ourselves the third force. The UPM [Uganda People’s Movement] adopted believers of that third force. I was a supporter of that force. The UPM was only formed before the elections. We knew we would not win, we were a new force, but we had to start.”

“Regrettably, after those elections, I was arrested and tortured and that’s what led me to flee the country in 1981. Then in 1982, I joined the war.

“So, you know, I find it very insulting for anyone to say that I left my well-paying job in Nairobi [Kenya] to go to the bush in order to become a leader. I wasn’t even sure I would come out of those bushes alive.”

“And if indeed I wanted power, I had it within the Movement. It was easier to grow there and not to start from a point of a minority movement.

“And even then (late 1990s), few knew what we knew. What we knew is that the Movement direction had changed to serve only a few. And most people were even sceptical about what we were saying… The corruption, the injustices.”

“I can say without the slightest fear of contradiction that I do not have ambitions of being a leader.”

“I only undertake leadership simply to try and have a country where everyone and myself can enjoy our full rights. Once this is achieved, you will never see me in these headaches.”

The small matter of 2026

Uganda will go to the polls in 2026, with Mr Museveni widely expected to be on the ballot. After opting out of the 2021 presidential race, will Besigye have a fifth bite at the cherry?

“I have again been fairly clear on this. My mind is completely clear that elections under the NRM military junta, whose leader has no interest in a democratic process, will not remove Mr Museveni. His view is preserving personal power and rule.

“First, it is the fight and struggle by the people of Uganda that will end it. We are all captives and can’t have power by simply lamenting.”

“Secondly, to seek and reclaim our power, we need organisation, organisation that rallies all political entities for our liberation, and thirdly, we need to take active actions against the regime.

“These actions, we maintain, must be non-violent. But of course, we shall be met with the regime’s violence.”

“This kind of liberation has been done elsewhere in the world time and again by now democratic societies and that is what we need to do.”

“And, when the so-called elections happen, they can be used to advance that struggle. To think you will use the election to win, be sworn in and Museveni hands over power is an illusion. I think the best time to change the system is not during the election, although change can happen during the election.”

His idols

Dr Besigye grew up wanting to do business like his father. “The kind of role models in my life have unfortunately not lasted,” Besigye narrates, adding: “My dad, of course, is that role model. Because of him, I wanted to be a businessperson. That’s why emotionally, I still sell petrol. My dad was the sole seller of petrol in the whole of now Rukungiri.’’

“My mum, of course, was the other role model. She took care of us after my dad died. My dad died when I was 12 years old, and four years later, my mother followed.”

Besigye’s normal day is quite uneven. It depends on what is planned for that day. “I normally wake up early. Sometimes, I’m up as early as 4am. I take hot water with lemon and fruits for breakfast. I then engage in what has been planned for the day—private and public. In the evening I do my shopping and return home.”

Only that on this Easter Eve Saturday, the whole afternoon into the evening was blocked out for what you have just enjoyed.

Tit bits

On sports

“A lot of resources must be invested in facilities and technical people in schools. Right now, the largest number of schools are without a playground, which incidentally is one of the requirements to be licensed as a school.”

On writing books

“Books. Three books, not one. One will be on my own life; who am I? The second one will be my own version of the Bush [War] struggle. I don’t think the Bush [War] story has been given the kind of attention it deserves.

The third book will be about the last 30 years of NRM regime.”

On standing for leadership

“I can say without the slightest fear of contradiction that I do not have ambitions of being a leader. I only undertake leadership simply to try and have a country where everyone and myself can enjoy our full rights. Once this is achieved, you will never see me in these headaches.”

On polls in Uganda

“To think you will use the election to win, be sworn in and Museveni hands over power is an illusion. I think the best time to change the system is not during the election, although change can happen during the election.”

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