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Uganda: Museveni's Image Fading Fast

The detention of the main challenger to Yoweri Museveni highlights the deteriorating international reputation of a leader once seen as a leading African reformer.
By Fawzia Sheikh
The arrest and detention of the most serious political challenger to President Yoweri Museveni is being held up by the Ugandan leader’s critics as further evidence of his authoritarian tendencies.

Once praised as one of a progressive new wave of African statesman, Museveni appears to be turning himself into a typical strongman – so much so that the opposition are now likening him to Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe.

The arrest last month of Kizza Besigye, leader of the Forum for Democratic Change, FDC, indicates that the election campaign will be a vicious one. Opposition parties complain that the government has made it difficult to operate ahead of next year's elections to parliament and the presidency, the first multi-party ballot in two decades.

Besigye, Museveni’s former doctor, returned this year to Uganda after years in self-imposed exile in South Africa, following an election in 2001 during which there was widespread violence initiated by government militias. Besigye said he fled because he feared for his life.

His detention on November 14 came only weeks after western governments hailed his safe return from self-imposed exile in South Africa as a sign the country was becoming more democratic.

The arrest sparked two days of rioting and looting in the capital Kampala. One person was killed and dozens arrested as police and security forces took to the streets armed with teargas, water cannon and live ammunition.

The Ugandan High Court charged Besigye with rape, treason, while a military court added accusations of weapons offences and terrorism, including links with rebel groups.

“In an eight-day span, the Ugandan government has seriously damaged its human rights reputation by riding roughshod over the rights of political opponents and the courts,” said Jemera Rone, Uganda researcher for the New York-based organisation Human Rights Watch. “The government has arrested the main presidential opponent, used commandos to intimidate the judiciary and banned all public protests, radio discussions and even posters on the subject.”

The case underlined Museveni’s increasingly problematic relationship with the international community, after years in which his reputation grew for fighting poverty and curbing HIV/AIDS – the latter through his “ABC” approach to prevention – “Abstain, Be faithful and use Condoms”.

When the then United States president Bill Clinton spoke of a “new generation” of African leaders in 1998, the group of reformers was generally held to include Museveni alongside Paul Kagame of Rwanda and Ethiopia's Meles Zenawi. The Ugandan leader also had the ear of Britain's Labour government thanks to his close relationship with Secretary of State for International Development Clare Short, but when she left the post in 2003 he lost a strong supporter.

These days, Museveni is increasingly being seen as just another African dictator. The irony is that he waged a five-year bush war to overthrow the tyrannical Milton Obote.

At opposition rallies, a commonly-heard slogan predicts, “This man will turn our country into another Zimbabwe.”

Mugabe, too, came to power with a commitment to break with the past - in his case white rule in Rhodesia. But his intimidation of political opposition, seizure of white farmland and intolerance of external criticism have left him alienated from the international community.

Signs that Museveni was showing a similar reluctance to leave office were confirmed this year when the Ugandan parliament lifted the ban on presidents seeking a second term in office. Museveni was criticised at home and abroad for clearing the way to another ten years in power.

Some foreign donors have threatened to reduce development assistance over the way the transition to multi-party politics has been handled. Others have made actual cuts, most recently the Netherlands government which slashed more than a quarter of its aid.

Donors fear Uganda will revert to the old pattern where one despot after another held the country down by military rule. The current regime was criticised for unleashing black-clad commandoes on the High Court in an attempt to re-arrest a group of Besigye associates who had just been granted bail.

Despite remaining behind bars, Besigye has filed papers to stand for president in next year’s elections.

Even though a multi-party system was approved by a referendum in May, the FDC and other opposition groups say Museveni’s ruling National Resistance Movement, NRM, has placed obstacles in their path in every area, from fundraising and recruiting new members to selecting presidential candidates and campaigning.

Raising funds for the election campaign is one of the biggest headaches, especially since opposition parties say they complain they have been given little time to prepare for a ballot expected in March.

"For one million [US] dollars, a political party can organise very effectively," said Edmond Nkalubo, a researcher at the Foundation for Human Rights Initiative in Kampala. But given the degree of poverty in the country, Nkalubo believes the opposition is unlikely to be able to raise more than 200,000 dollars.

Opposition parties complain there are too many constraints on election campaign financing, but NRM dismisses such assertions. "They're not telling the truth," said NRM spokesperson Ofwono Opondo.

Ugandan law dictates that all political parties may accept no more than 60,000 dollars from a single external source, but this does not prevent them from approaching 2,000 financial sources if they so choose, explained Opondo.

Opondo accuses some opposition parties of mismanaging and squandering the funding they do get

The NRM’s critics say it can tap government funds to gain an unfair advantage over its opponents.

"It's fairly easy for the NRM to make use of state resources," said the director of a democracy group in Kampala who asked to remain anonymous. "As far as I can tell, most of the people doing most of their [the NRM's] work are government-funded people. The NRM's top leaders are also very wealthy."

Opondo denied that the administration is using public money for campaigning, but he added that sitting governments around the world enjoy the power of incumbency.

Opposition parties also complained they had had too little time to boost their membership, to make up for the years when they were not allowed to campaign.

The government believes this argument holds little weight. "They're using quasi-legal restrictions as a scapegoat," said Opondo. He argued that although political parties were not legally permitted to operate in past years, in practice they enjoyed many freedoms, running newspapers, holding press conferences and advertising on private radio stations.

"Mandela was in prison for 27 years. Did that prevent the African National Congress from advancing its policies?” asked Opondo, adding that in the Ugandan case, “None of these people has been in jail."

Opondo blamed the opposition's failure to convey its message to the public on factionalism within the parties themselves.

Government harassment is another charge often levelled at the authorities. One group frequently cited as a threat to the opposition is the Kalangala Action Plan Youth Brigade, KAP, a pro-government paramilitary group.

"KAP was warning it will never allow multi-party politics in Uganda," said Nkalubo, adding that this year, about 80 members of parliament from the NRM had joined the paramilitary group, which was accused of voter intimidation and assaults during the 2001 elections.

At a local level, district commissioners are accused of using threats to pressure supporters of parties other than the NRM. "They suffocate other politicians, other parties," said Jude Mbabaali, public relations officer of the Democratic Party.

IWPR’s source from a Kampala-based democracy group noted that the arrests of two FDC members of parliament from the northern Gulu region on murder charges earlier this year are widely believed to have been politically motivated.

"The local agents of the opposition parties have been harassed, but they've kind of left the top people alone," he commented.

Besigye’s arrest clearly changes that. The question now is how much more the Museveni administration is prepared to compromise its relationship with the West to retain its grip on power.

Fawzia Sheikh is a regular IWPR contributor.

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