Skip To Content

In Uganda, Popular President Poses Political Problem for U.S.

KAMPALA, Uganda — Yoweri Museveni, the president of this landlocked republic, is presenting the United States and the West with an agonizing dilemma. Simply put, he has proven himself to be one of Africa’s most successful rulers during his 19 years in office, and now he won’t go away.

Museveni came to office at the head of a rebel army that marched into the capital in January 1986, ending a series of brutal dictatorships under the likes of Idi Amin and Milton Obote. Since then he has fostered one of Africa’s liveliest political cultures, with an outspoken press and an earnest, vocal opposition. Economic growth has been a steady 6% a year, and literacy is on the rise. Museveni’s dedication to market reforms and international cooperation has made him a darling of the West and a regular visitor in Washington.

Most impressive, he has led the most successful anti-AIDS campaign in the developing world. The estimated rate of HIV infection in Uganda’s population dropped from 15% in 1992 to just 6% in 2002. By contrast, an estimated one-fourth of South Africans are believed to be infected with HIV.

Museveni’s record is hardly spotless. A civil war has been raging in the country’s northern provinces for nearly two decades, driven by a mystical Christian militia known for abducting and mutilating children. Nearly 80% of the northern region’s estimated 2 million people have been forced into wretched displacement camps, one of Africa’s most glaring and least-discussed humanitarian crises.

For better or worse, however, the northern conflict has scarcely affected the rest of this nation of 25 million. Nor, it seems, has it damaged Museveni’s reputation at home and abroad for good governance.

Now, it appears, Museveni is so taken with his own success that he has decided he is the only one for the job. He is currently touting an amendment to the constitution he enacted a decade ago, lifting the presidential term limit so he can run for a third time in March 2006. With strong support in the rural regions, he would likely be reelected in a free election, most observers agree. And since he is only 61, it is conceivable that even a third five-year term won’t be his last.

The challenge to the constitution — originally seen as model of African democracy — is proving intensely embarrassing to his Western allies.

If he stays on, critics warn, the heart of his democratic legacy will be jeopardized. But if he is forced to step aside, his supporters say, the country could be plunged back into the violence that preceded him.

“Because he changed his mind, the whole country will bear the consequences,” said a diplomat with long experience in the region. “The writing is on the wall.”

The dilemma of stability versus democracy has become a matter of intense urgency since the Bush administration proclaimed the spread of freedom and democracy as the axis of its second-term foreign policy earlier this year. The quandary has only deepened since one of the policy’s key advocates, former deputy defense secretary Paul Wolfowitz, was named head of the World Bank last month.

While most of the debate has centered on Muslim countries such as Egypt and Pakistan, Uganda offers an powerful example of how promoting democracy can jeopardize a successful experiment in a region where there have been few successes.

Museveni’s third-term ambitions have come under criticism in the past year from a range of predictable sources, including Human Rights Watch and the Irish rock star-hunger activist Bob Geldof. The State Department has scored the proposed constitutional amendment in its last two human rights reports. The latest report, issued last month, warned that “democratization could suffer a setback” if Museveni’s National Resistance Movement “succeeds in removing presidential term limits from the constitution.”

American officials say that if Museveni sidesteps the constitution, the “quality” of the bilateral relationship will be altered, without offering details. Western diplomats say foreign aid, which makes up half of Uganda’s budget, would likely decrease if Museveni is on the ballot next March.

But while the American and British ambassadors in Kampala have privately told Museveni he should step down — President Bush raised the issue during a visit here in July 2003 — no senior Western political figure has spoken out in public, reflecting American and European ambivalence toward one of Africa’s few success stories.

“There is a definite change in the political context,” a Western diplomat said, “but it is very difficult to handle because there is a large international commitment to make Uganda work.”

Museveni’s backers point to the vibrant debates in parliament and the media as evidence that Uganda is not an authoritarian regime. They hail the declining AIDS, economic growth and stability he brought to the country, with the exception of the war-torn north.

But critics say the situation is more complex and is worsening.

“On the surface, you have the appearance of democratic life,” said legal scholar Joe Oloka-Onyanyo, director of the Human Rights Center at Makerere University in Kampala. “But it is just a glass ceiling, hiding systemic human-rights violations.”

When Museveni took power in early 1986, he abolished political parties, seen as fostering ethnic and religious strife. He created what came to be known as the Movement, an alternate system of representation in which individuals compete for office on merit. Every Ugandan became by law a member.

The move was hugely popular at first, allowing a genuine diversity of voices. But observers say it has gradually turned into an instrument of repression. Nowadays, they say, the Movement is a ruling party clinging to power by any means.

While Museveni has not expressly said he will seek another term, there is little doubt he will.

Lifting term limits is part of a package of reforms that also includes legalized political parties. The government and its allies have brought fierce pressure on lawmakers, offering them money and intimidating holdouts. Diplomats and opposition officials point to the growing visibility of pro-government “enforcers,” particularly a pro-Museveni youth militia known as the Kalangala Action Plan, which intimated opposition members during the last elections in 2001 and recently has stepped up its activity.

Observers also cite the steady growth of the so-called presidential protection unit, a paramilitary group controlled by the president’s son and composed mostly of his ethnic kinsmen.

“The president wants to cling to power by all means, by bribing people and arming people,” said Ronald Reagan Okumu, an opposition legislator who said he was recently beaten up by government thugs. “So there is a great potential for violence.”

Okumu boasts that he and his allies are “ready to take him on, with whatever means” — including violence if the government employs it first. Other opposition leaders call Okumu a “hothead,” but admit the situation is combustible.

“There is a real danger of electoral violence, so we need to have a clear definition of the role of armed forces,” the Western diplomat said.

The tensions have already affected the once-idyllic relations between Washington and Kampala. The United States is Uganda’s largest source of foreign aid, and Museveni has been a frequent White House guest. Kampala was a key stop during presidential tours by both George W. Bush and Bill Clinton. Last year Kampala agreed to sign a so-called exemption agreement with Washington, stating that it would oppose prosecution of Americans by the newly formed International Criminal Court, a key American foreign policy goal. The exemption is telling because Uganda was the first nation to make a referral to the court, asking for indictments of rebels from its northern civil war. Uganda also receives military training from Israel.

In recent months, however, Museveni has taken a series of steps seemingly designed to distance himself from Washington. He publicly criticized his nation’s reliance on foreign aid and denounced foreign nations’ “meddling.” He also attacked the war in Iraq, an embarrassment since Uganda was one of just four African countries to support the war. He has met with leaders from Iran, North Korea, China and the Arab world.

At the same time, Museveni’s standing in Washington has been eroded by a flurry of corruption scandals involving senior military and government officials, beginning with Salim Saleh, the president’s half-brother.

“The leadership hasn’t learned from history,” said lawmaker Martin Wendera of the Forum for Democratic Change, a new grouping of former Museveni allies expected to challenge him next year. “We have had political instability because of a lack of respect for the constitution, because we treated it like love letters, with emotion, by presidents turning the country into a personal estate.”


Republish This Story

Please read before republishing

We’re happy to make this story available to republish for free, unless it originated with JTA, Haaretz or another publication (as indicated on the article) and as long as you follow our guidelines. You must credit the Forward, retain our pixel and preserve our canonical link in Google search.  See our full guidelines for more information, and this guide for detail about canonical URLs.

To republish, copy the HTML by clicking on the yellow button to the right; it includes our tracking pixel, all paragraph styles and hyperlinks, the author byline and credit to the Forward. It does not include images; to avoid copyright violations, you must add them manually, following our guidelines. Please email us at [email protected], subject line “republish,” with any questions or to let us know what stories you’re picking up.

We don't support Internet Explorer

Please use Chrome, Safari, Firefox, or Edge to view this site.