Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Give peace a chance: Make Winnie Byanyima President of Uganda

Of Winnie Byanyima, the author of nehanda dreams blog writes:

"The overawing combination of beauty, charm and simplicity belies the person that she is: a politician who has been a thorn in the side of Uganda's President Yoweri Museveni's government for the past 10 years. She grew up with the President, fought side by side with him and married his doctor-turned-enemy. Now, she wants the President's job ..."

Winnie Byanyima

Photo: Winnie Byanyima via report by Lillian Aluanga May 7, 2005. Excerpt:

Winnie Byanyima is a politician who has been a thorn in the side of Uganda's President Yoweri Museveni's government for the past 10 years.

She and Museveni go back a long way. They started out as friends growing up in their native Mbarara District, fought side by side in the National Resistance Army - which she joined in 1982 - and elected leaders under the National Resistance Movement.

Posted to London as high commissioner and to Paris as ambassador, Winnie returned to Uganda apparently cured of her fondness for Museveni, and married his doctor and comrade in arms, Colonel Kizza Besigye in 1999. Besigye fought a close race with Museveni in Uganda's 2001 presidential election and lost, though many said he had won. Winnie would have been the real President.

Besigye fled into exile, fearing for his life, but his wife stayed to rally the troops that had campaigned with them.

An aeronautical engineer with a masters degree in mechanical engineering, Winnie stepped down from her position as Member of Parliament for Mbarara Municipality in February, after 10 years.

The election, last week, of her successor seemed to close - if only temporarily - the chapter of her 10 years at the forefront of national politics - and to open another to a career at the continental level as director for Women, Gender and Development at the African Union in Addis Ababa.

But Winnie will not be gone from the Uganda political scene for long.

"I took time off national politics to work for African women, but I have been receiving a lot of requests from people back home who want me to contest for the Presidency in the next election.

She stops and pensively stares into the distance.

"I am reflecting on going for the presidency. If my husband is unable to return for the next election I may go for the seat since I feel the need to respond to the expectations of the people who supported us in the last election," she says.

Her voice mellows as she talks about her husband, who was forced into exile soon after he lost the 2001 election to Museveni, an election characterised by character jibes.

Seen by many as Museveni's first credible challenger to his then 15-year hold on power, Besigye once served as Museveni's physician during his stint in the bush during the armed struggle, and retired as a colonel. He later fell out with Museveni in the 1990s after accusing the National Resistance Movement of being undemocratic and corrupt.

Winnie admits that life has not been easy for her and her five-and-a-half-year-old son, Anselm Kizza Besigye, ever since her husband fled -- first to the United States then to South Africa -- owing to concerns over his safety.

"Sometimes I get to visit and spend time with him, but it has been difficult," she says. Is she afraid that her life too is in danger considering her political ambitions?

"God is my protector and so long as I live according to the laws of the land, then I have nothing to fear," she says.

Her delicate features belie the character hardened by the upheaval of fighting in a guerilla movement that ousted the remnants of former Ugandan president Milton Obote in 1986, making history as the first force on the continent to overthrow a government that had a conventional army.

A keen listener, Winnie remains protective of her family and politely declines to discuss details of her social life. She won't talk about her experiences in the NRM at the height of the struggle either, and seems a tad irritated by the 'intrusive question'.

"No. I'm sorry I cannot get into that. I'd much rather we talk about what I do and the issues I am addressing now," she says.

She defends her position on these issues as a deliberate move to 'demystify' women in leadership positions and break the 'mental blockage' that people have had about women holding high-level positions. "There is really nothing strange or special about us. I'd rather people, especially the media, focus on what we do and the issues we address in society," she says.

Winnie's resilience has helped her to not only make a mark on Uganda's political scene, but also propelled her into the limelight for her role in gender advocacy with non governmental organisations and forceful campaign against corruption.

Winnie has many firsts, among them being the first African woman to win Zonta International's Amelia Earhart Fellowship, which would have seen her working on a project that was a precursor of president Reagan's Star Wars programme. But she went into political activism instead.

She has trained politicians, civil society activists and government officials in more than 20 African and Asian countries and served on several expert and advisory panels of the United Nations Development Programme and the United Nations Fund for Women among others. And she has sat on numerous task forces of the Millennium Project on Gender Equality besides acting as advisor to the UN Commission on Science and Technology for Development and the Washington-based National Center on Research for Women.

Winnie has managed to emerge from her husband's shadow to wage her own political battles and is now eyeing the highest office in Uganda, come the next election.

Recalling the last election as 'tough', Winnie says she largely relied on educating and sensitising the public on their rights, factors that helped her win the election in Mbarara, Museveni's home turf, despite facing stiff opposition from a candidate who was largely favoured by the government.

Financial constraints

While admitting that many women political aspirants face financial constraints, she opines that governments should address the issue of political financing by enacting laws against bribery of voters.

"Women in Africa are yet to play their rightful role in politics because they remain excluded even though they have an important role to play in political decision making," she says.

"It's important to recognise that many African women come into politics without sufficient apprenticeship."

Women, she adds, face various obstacles in the political arena, depending on their starting levels.

"They (women) should be eager to learn and acquire skills for the job instead of simply imitating the way men have constructed and handled politics over the years."

Women, she says, should critically look at the process of political decision-making and challenge those processes that are unresponsive, exclude the poor and vulnerable, lack transparency, and favour the elite.

Kenyan women

Her face lights up as she fondly speaks of her Kenyan counterparts, whom she says defied all odds to make it in politics - despite having an unfavourable political climate compared to Uganda and Tanzania.

"I have great admiration for Kenyan women in politics and it makes me proud to see some of them who are now important players in their political parties. For many years, I worked together with my sisters in Kenya and have a lot of respect for the struggles they have waged especially in the constitution making process, gender equality legislation and advancing of African women's issues on international agenda," she says.

Those that immediately come to mind include Cabinet ministers Charity Ngilu, Martha Karua and assistant minister Beth Mugo, as well as Ms Phoebe Asiyo and former Kibwezi MP Agnes Ndetei. The list, she hastens to add, is not conclusive.

"Women plough the fields and feed their families and as such have an intimate knowledge of the production processes and challenges involved," she says.

"African nations continue to lag behind since women who would otherwise be out in the fields producing cash crops, crucial for economic growth, are doing work that remains unrecognised by the national budgets and at the same time denying them the right to work and earn a living," she says.

"Women are now able to persuade their governments to make important commitments to them on protocols concerning women's rights," she says, adding that she is happy to be working at the African Union at a time when African women have raised momentum towards gender equality.

Her work continues to give her a platform, which allows her to meet women from all over the world, whom she says face almost similar challenges in their struggle for equality.



Anonymous said...

Thank you for this enlightening story. A restaurant owner in Austin, Texas heard of Winnie. She wanted to plant a Pride of Barbados tree in her honor. I am the gardener and have done so with a dedication tag. I am inspired by Winnie's strength. however, as an American, continually dismayed at the way contries are 'run' in Africa. Would like to see the continent some day, but afraid of the chaos and small mindedness. I wish Uganda and all the others continued 'progress' toward all human rights and responsibilities.

Anonymous said...

I have never been proud of any of my votes than the vote I cast for Winnie as my Member of Parliament. She is smart, she cares about people, and is not corrupt like most of the Ugandan politicians. She is a lady of integrity. I love her a lot, and her voting record shows that she has the leadership qualities we are missing in Uganda today.

Just wanted to share this with you. Winnie cares about people.

Mbararan buddy in IL.

Anonymous said...

I think the perceptions of 'chaos and small-mindedness' say less about Africa or Uganda than they say about the affects of colonisation and imperialism. At this moment our Western governments, particularly America, are directly involved in the violence and corruption in Africa that so dismays us. We have a duty and a responsibilty to engage in nation building not out of charity, but out of guilt. Having lived in both America and Northern Uganda, I think that these ideas around 'progress towards full human rights' are complex and must surely involve the United States withdrawing it's support of human rights violations carried out by the Ugandan government against civilians in Northern Uganda.

Anonymous said...

What an inspiration this woman is to ALL African women. As a Somali woman striving for peace and stability in her war-torn country, Winnie has made me see that yes it is very challenging to work alongside patriarchal structures but its not impossible. Its my dream that Winnie comes to Somalia and preaches to the women there some of her wisdom, they surely need it and will learn much from it. Thank you for showing us some light in the long-dark men-led tunnel.

Sahro, Somalia

Anonymous said...

Women like Winnie will always succeed. Coming from a privileged background, she can hardly identify with the starving millions although she can offer advice on how to uplift them. The rural masses who have no electricity or running water, let alone good sanitation are not comparable to Winnie. The praise should go to the rural women on how they empower themselves, without Western education, shoes, televisions, internet... and yet they manage to organize themselves and look after their families and also live long by avoiding certain diseases associated with urban living. Bravo to Ugandan rural women, the producers of the food consumed in the urban areas and exported by middlemen!