Under fire, Museveni marks 20 years in power

Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni marks two decades in power this weekend, less than a month before elections seen as a key test of his once-sterling but now tarnished democratic credentials.

Amid concern about the criminal prosecution of his main rival in the February 23 polls and alleged ambitions to stay in office for life, Museveni enters his 20th year at Uganda’s helm facing growing questions about his leadership.

Sworn in as Uganda’s president on January 29, 1986, three days after his rag-tag rebel army ousted the previous government, and then winning election twice, the ex-guerrilla leader has demonstrated an ability to adapt deeply held policies and

convictions to prevailing moods.

Since winning the respect and admiration of the West with enlightened economic and social policies, notably on HIV/Aids in the 1990s, he has run afoul of democracy advocates with increasing intolerance of dissent.

But on seizing power after years of misrule by Ugandan despots, Museveni became a regional kingpin and his “no-party” state was regarded kindly by foreign donors, even if its successes were modest.

Under him, many saw the Central African nation of 26-million as an enclave of stability and consistent, if modest, economic progress in a region beset by instability, despite the ongoing brutal rebellion in northern Uganda by the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA).

And for a better part of his tenure, Museveni has loomed large, sometimes ruthlessly, over political foes through a crafty transformation from scruffy Marxist guerrilla chief into devout free-marketeer and darling of the West.

Yet all this happened after he banned political pluralism, often a litmus test for western approval, arguing it was divisive.

Museveni relented only last year when he backed a referendum to repeal it that was approved by a wide majority of the small number of voters who cast ballots.

The opposition boycotted the vote, alleging it was camouflage for nefarious ambitions, and claimed vindication when Museveni then approved the scrapping of presidential term limits that would have barred him from seeking a new mandate this year.

Some analysts believe he has succumbed to the “African Big Man” style of leadership that has plagued many nations on the continent and the treason, terrorism, weapons and rape charges lodged against opposition leader, Kizza Besigye, a former ally, are seen by many as proof of that.

“When he became uncompromising to criticism and dissent, he lost his claim to the level of a Nelson Mandela or a Julius Nyerere,” said Kampala lawyer James Muganwa.

As a young ruler in 1986, Museveni drew fire for trying to emulate pan-African champions like Nyerere since his criticism of authoritarian practices in the wake of Uganda’s disastrous experiences under Idi Amin and Milton Obote rang hollow with fellow leaders who saw him as a threat.

He quickly dropped that tack, as well as socialist policies that encouraged barter trade among developing countries, abandoning them to acknowledge the dominance of market economies and the need for growth.

He pleased lenders and donors by slashing inflation from 300% in 1986 to about five percent now while Uganda’s foreign reserves have ballooned and the economy has grown an average of six percent a year for more than a decade.

But day-to-day survival is a struggle for the majority of Ugandans, many of whom live on less than a dollar a day and the government still depends heavily on foreign aid to meet its budget.

“Statistically, the picture of Uganda is rosy, but poverty is biting hard and some people cannot afford two meals a day,” said economist Mukasa Mulwanyi, noting that many still complain of rampant government graft.

Earlier regional fears of his interventionist tendencies may have been borne out by his decision in 1998 to send troops to the neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo and keep them there for five years, which the world court ruled last month was a violation of DRC sovereignty.

On Thursday, he renewed an already rebuffed offer to send troops back to deal with LRA rebels there who this week killed eight UN peacekeepers in an ambush.

But despite these complaints, it was not until Besigye was arrested in November that donors really took notice, with several slashing millions of dollars in direct aid to Museveni’s government.
- Sapa-AFP

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