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West Loses Patience With Uganda

President Yoweri Museveni’s democracy project is in trouble as western governments begin withdrawing aid.
By Fawzia Sheikh

Uganda, once the darling of international aid donors, is facing a major crisis ahead of multi-party elections next year as it faces increasing criticism for President Yoweri Museveni’s slow pace of political reform, growing debt, corruption, human rights violations and voter intimidation.


Museveni, previously one of the most welcome African visitors to western capitals, is now in defensive mode, holding emergency meetings with his ministers to discuss the mounting crisis in donor confidence and warning foreign diplomats against speaking openly to the media about the country’s political problems.


Donors who descended in droves because of Museveni’s openness in fighting HIV/AIDS that saw Uganda’s infection rate plunge to six per cent of the adult population – a huge achievement in Africa, where infection rates in some countries are near 40 per cent. Uganda is now so heavily dependent on overseas aid that half its budget is received from western donors.


The political crisis was precipitated a few weeks ago when Britain withheld around nine million US dollars of this year’s promised 73 million dollars in foreign aid, saying not enough has been done to establish fair multi-party politics after 19 years of rule by Museveni in a “no party” system. Ireland is also considering cutting assistance by 2.5 million dollars.


The British government, which last December promised the Ugandan government a grant of up to 266 million dollars over three years in budget support for Uganda’s Poverty Eradication Action Plan, had linked its aid arrangement to the African country’s ability to meet performance criteria related to macroeconomic management and governance issues, said Lynda St Cooke, press attaché at the British High Commission in Kampala.


But St Cooke said Uganda is not living up to its pledges, which is why Britain may refuse to release its next scheduled allocation of budget support in September.


Although the Forum for Democratic Change, FDC, Uganda’s main opposition movement, has urged international donors to halt aid in protest against the decision to charge two of its parliamentary supporters for murder, St Cooke stressed that Britain’s decision predated the FDC request.


The moves by Britain and Ireland reflect a wider concern about events in Uganda.


The Donor Democracy and Governance Group, a consortium of 15 high commissioners and ambassadors from Uganda’s 14 largest donor nations plus the United Nations Development Programme, UNDP, have requested meetings with the government to discuss concerns ranging from corruption to the absence of a level political playing field. “The decision made by Uganda on these and other governance issues might influence our development partnership,” the group cautioned in a letter.


In May, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development also released a report warning that the high levels of foreign aid to Uganda may be cut depending on the leadership’s handling of political issues this year.


Yet it is Britain’s decision that is pivotal, because it has resulted in an actual cut in aid. It came as Uganda has to address two controversial issues ahead of next year’s presidential election.


The first is the planned adoption of a multiparty system of government – a system that Museveni eliminated 19 years ago at the end of a five-year civil war, arguing that such politics aggravated Uganda’s immense and bitter tribal differences.


The second is the proposed lifting of the current two-term presidential limit, which was designed to prevent the country from reverting to the kind of dictatorship that has dominated Uganda’s 40 years of independence from British colonial rule.


St Cooke told IWPR that the British government’s greatest concern is the “insufficient progress made for establishing a multiparty system” in advance of the 2006 elections. A decision to hold a referendum on a transition to multiparty politics was made several months ago. But the actual date has been brought forward dramatically to the end of July, limiting the lobbying time available to the president’s opponents.


“We wouldn’t expect people to start campaigning on political party platforms because as of now, what we have is the National Resistance Movement political system [outlawing political parties],” said Adolph Mwesige, minister of state for justice and constitutional affairs. But he added that prospective parties can now begin registering themselves and their members, and hold meetings if the police believe such get-togethers will not result in violence.


Not everyone in Uganda is looking forward to the reform. A paramilitary group known as the Kalangala Action Plan, which is led by presidential adviser Major Roland Kakooza Mutale and is alleged to have assaulted Ugandans opposing Museveni in the last elections, is said to be again mobilising its forces against the possibility of a return to multiparty politics.


Increased donor pressure, meanwhile, has angered the government. In a speech Museveni gave on International Labour Day, he said if tax evasion could be stopped, it would increase the country's gross domestic product and thereby reduce the need for the “ignominious practice of dealing with the so-called donors" whose "meddling”, he claimed, was partially responsible for the perpetuation of civil war in northern Uganda, electricity shortages and the removal of tax holidays for investors.


According to finance ministry official Lawrence Kiza, Uganda has foreign reserves of only one billion dollars, a sum which would last the country about six and a half months if there was any major shortfall in donor aid. He stressed that foreign aid would not stop altogether, despite recent moves by donors to curtail payments.


The government has since begun a damage control campaign to limit the impact of Museveni’s outburst rejecting the need for donor aid.


“The president is not saying we don’t need the support,” said Information Minister James Nsaba Buturo. He said the government appreciated that donors need to know how their money is being spent, but Ugandans had an “inalienable right” to make final decisions.


“It’s a very sad commentary on the state of our political development that some of our people today continue to say that somebody in a foreign capital must continue to be your master,” the minister added.


FDC opposition leader Kizza Besigye, a retired army colonel and doctor who was formerly a close presidential aide but fled into exile in 2001 after describing the “no-party system” as corrupt and dictatorial, said at a conference in Amsterdam, “Museveni is pushing people to be desperate, as they see no hope for peaceful change. I am sure it is going to encourage a resurgence of violence and conflict.


“All our past leaders have been removed from office by force. So, we have a history of the use of force and none [of change] by the use of democratic means.”


Fawzia Sheikh is a Canadian journalist based in Kampala.


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