Ugandan Campaign: Politics as Soap Opera

By Emily Wax
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, February 23, 2006

KAMPALA, Uganda, Feb. 22 -- Ugandans joke that the campaign leading up to their first multiparty election in 25 years has had all the plot twists and heated emotions of the melodramatic Nigerian soap operas that are beloved across Africa.

Ex-lovers, former friends, wives, a dictator's widow and a goat specialist are among the colorful characters vying for power in presidential and parliamentary elections Thursday.

The top opposition candidate, Kizza Besigye, has been squeezing in campaigning between court dates. He was arrested and jailed in November on treason, terrorism, rape and weapons charges but is out on bail. He and foreign diplomats say the charges were politically motivated, instigated by President Yoweri Museveni, his former comrade in arms and now his nemesis.

Museveni, a populist leader once feted by rock stars and American presidents, has become the target of human rights groups and is accused of trying to cling to power indefinitely. "Our president is acting like a needy boyfriend who can't take a hint," said Lydia Musis, 24, a computer science student.

Another contender for the top job is Abed Bwanika, a goat doctor. As head of the Ugandan Goat Society, he insists that his countrymen can climb out of poverty by raising livestock, specifically goats. He's way behind in the polls.

Then, there's a trio of women affectionately called "the three big mamas."

One of the women is a housewife who promised her dying husband that she would keep his political party alive. With her flowing skirts and stylish Afro, Miria Obote, 70, concedes that she has little interest in politics but is running for president anyway.

Obote has spent the past few days atoning for the sins of her husband, Milton Obote, who ruled the country most recently from 1980 to 1985 and is still despised by many Ugandans for his violent repression of dissent, which left an estimated 100,000 Ugandans dead, human rights groups say.

Obote and her husband left the country when Museveni launched a guerrilla war to oust his government. This campaign season has been the longest she's been on Ugandan soil in years.

"I would like to apologize to those who were hurt in our previous governments," she said in a press statement. "I regret what happened and would like to appeal to all of you to forget the past as we start afresh."

Then there's the current first lady, Janet Museveni, a born-again Christian who has said she is running for a seat in parliament because God told her to serve.

Janet Museveni spent much of last year promoting parties for virgins in order to push abstinence over Uganda's old HIV prevention policy, which supported condoms as an option.

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