Ugandans Put 'Big Man' Politics to Vote

Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, the favorite in Thursday's election, waves to supporters as he arrives at a campaign rally in Kampala, the capital.
Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, the favorite in Thursday's election, waves to supporters as he arrives at a campaign rally in Kampala, the capital. (By Thomas Morley -- Reuters)
By Emily Wax
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, February 22, 2006

KAMPALA, Uganda, Feb. 21 -- With his wide-brimmed safari hat, his modest ranch and his beloved cattle, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni was once hailed as part of a new generation of African leaders, a beacon of hope on a continent where rulers tended to be military tyrants and high-rolling dictators despised and feared by their own citizens.

African leaders have had such a habit of clinging to power that when the folksy-talking Museveni proclaimed himself a "man of the people," and promised Ugandans that "No African leader should stay in office more than 10 years," he was cheered. The West responded, too, pouring millions in donor aid into the East African nation. And everyone from President Bill Clinton to South Africa's former president Nelson Mandela lauded Uganda as the continent's success story. For all of Africa's woes, it was thought, Uganda was going to be different.

After 20 years in power, however, Museveni changed both his mind and the constitution. With the term limits now gone, he says he hopes to stay in power until 2013, a total of 27 years.

Explaining why he wants Ugandans to return him to power in elections to be held on Thursday, Museveni, 62, has said in campaign rallies, "You don't just tell the freedom fighter to go like you are chasing a chicken thief out of the house. A doctor does not leave when a patient is still sick."

While this is the country's first multiparty election in decades, Museveni's decision to jail Kizza Besigye, 50, his main opponent -- who just recently was released on bail to campaign -- has some Ugandans worried that their president has become just another "big man" ruler. They say Museveni's power to change Uganda's central body of laws sends a disturbing message to people in other parts of Africa struggling to dislodge leaders who don't want to leave.

Already, President Olusegun Obasanjo of Nigeria, departing chairman of the African Union, has said he won't rule out altering the constitution in his country, Africa's most populous nation, in order to run for a third term in 2007.

"If Museveni stays in power, Ugandans can call him king, not president. And what will the rest of Africa think?" said Betty Brenda Nassuha, 19, a college student who text-messaged election news to her friends. "Let's talk frankly: Why can't we try someone else? He's the only leader I've known my entire life."

Museveni is one of a string of African leaders once romanced by the West but now accused by opponents and human rights activists of increasingly despotic behavior. They include Prime Minister Meles Zenawi of Ethiopia, who arrested political opposition leaders and had police fire into crowds protesting over allegations of rigged elections, leaving 80 dead; President Isaias Afwerki of Eritrea, who jailed 17 journalists and dozens of government critics; and President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe, where opposition leaders were accused of treason as elections approached.

Museveni's defenders say he has proved himself to be a benevolent leader, pulling Uganda out of decades of ruinous dictatorships of Idi Amin and Milton Obote, improving the economy and launching one of the first and most vibrant campaigns to fight HIV/AIDS, which has been hailed as a model on the continent.

"If the man is good, we in Africa can keep him. He's solving our problems. Why trouble ourselves with uncertainty?" said Robert Kabushenga, a government spokesman, who pointed to a photo montage of Museveni surrounded by clapping supporters. "Why must we discuss longevity as an issue on its own? Maybe this is African-style democracy."

Uganda's civil society leaders disagree. They say term limits are important to the success of any nation, and argue that there has been too much emphasis by U.S. and other governments on courting African personalities in young democracies rather than building strong democratic institutions such as courts, a constitution, a free press and a thriving civil society.

The critics also said the international community should have been more focused on finding solutions to the country's brutal 20-year war in the north, where a crusade by a cult-like militia has driven more than 1.6 million people off their farms and left tens of thousands dead. The militia has become notorious for kidnapping children into slavery and mutilating civilians.

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