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Uganda At Risk


Uganda's success, including steady economic growth and a 20% decline in poverty rates since 1992, has made President Museveni a darling of the West. Now, however, some analysts say the country's success is threatened by several factors.

Howard Wolpe, Director of the Africa Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and a former U.S. congressman, lists them: "The continuing war in northern Uganda, accusations of high-level corruption, uncertainty about Uganda's willingness to institutionalize multi-party electoral democracy, the prospect of constitutional revision to allow President Museveni to seek a third term, all of these issues have generated concern both among Ugandans and Uganda's strongest supporters within the international community about the country's long-term political and economic prospects."

What is most troubling to many long-time Africa watchers is that President Museveni initially did so many things right.

According to Johnnie Carson, a former U.S. Ambassador to Uganda and Zimbabwe during the Clinton administration, some of Mr. Museveni's initial achievements include the only successful de-mobilization of armed forces in Africa. Mr. Carson says the president also worked hard to improve Uganda's dismal human rights record and he embraced a series of economic and political reforms.

Ambassador Carson says, "There is no doubt that Museveni's initial reforms, many of which I witnessed on the ground, set the stage for Uganda's economic revitalization, its renewed political stability and its early efforts to re-establish strong democratic institutions." But today, he says, much of what President Museveni has accomplished is in serious risk of stalling and faltering.

Ambassador Carson says one reason he is worried about Uganda's future is that President Museveni, one of a generation of leaders to emerge from Africa's independence struggles, appears to be headed down the path chosen by Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe and Kenya's Daniel Arap Moi, instead of the path taken by South Africa's Nelson Mandela.

According to Ambassador Carson, "Many observers see President Museveni's efforts to amend the constitution as a re-run of a common problem that frequently afflicts many African leaders, an unwillingness to follow constitutional norms and to give up political power."

After Mr. Museveni's rebel forces overthrew the Obote regime, he formed the National Resistance Movement, which he described as an alternate form of democracy that would avoid political parties, which so often in Africa split countries along ethnic, tribal and religious lines.

Although many observers say that it appears he is reluctantly moving toward multi-party democracy, President Museveni has said he wants to amend the constitution to allow him to stay in office past 2006 when his second term expires.

Joel Barkan, who researches politics and development policy in sub-Saharan Africa at the University of Iowa, says this has been highly controversial. Some 60% of Ugandans surveyed in a recent poll oppose attempts to alter the constitution. Professor Barkan says the Museveni government has defended its actions on the grounds that Uganda is a sovereign state that will set its own laws.

"Part of the point is valid, but it is not the donors and people of the north who are simply calling for an adherence to the two term limit," says Professor Barkan. "A number of other African countries have amended their constitutions to insert a two-term limit, South Africa, for one, Tanzania, Kenya, Namibia, Zambia. This is by no means a foreign phenomenon."

The Museveni government defends its attempts to eliminate term limits. Uganda's Minister of Internal Affairs, Ruhakana Ruganda says that any constitutional amendments will be put to a vote and the people of Uganda will have the final say.

Mr. Ruganda says, "This debate is continuing. And for us in the government, we have discussed it and, in principle, we have said if people would like anybody to stand [for office] more than once or twice, let them do so. So long as the institutions are in place and the elections will be free and fair, we trust that the judgment of the people will work."

But many observers question whether the balloting would be free and fair. According to the University of Iowa's Joel Barkan, the Museveni government recently has taken steps to limit dissent inside Uganda, including paying money to keep elected officials loyal to the Movement and using police and soldiers to crack down on protestors.

Professsor Barkan says most worrisome is that President Museveni has expanded the presidential protection unit into the presidential guard brigade. He says, "An armed force of now 10-thousand individuals equipped with battle cars, possibly tanks, in short a Praetorian Guard [i.e., the bodyguards of a military commander] whose purpose is not to defend Uganda's borders, but to do what Praetorian Guards normally do, protect the incumbent."

The United States government has repeatedly praised President Museveni's economic reforms and his ambitious anti-AIDS initiatives. However, unlike the British government, which announced in April that it would cancel some 10-million dollars in aid, citing concern about Uganda's slow pace of political reforms, U.S. officials publicly have remained quiet and aid continues to flow.

Most analysts say that as the Bush administration makes the case for expanding democracy and freedom around the world, it should keep a close watch on what's happening in Uganda, even though President Museveni is an ally.

This report was originally broadcast on VOA News Now's Focus program. For other Focus reports, click here

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