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Analysts Skeptical About Ugandan President Museveni's Political Intentions

Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni intends to run in the country's elections next year, after having ruled Uganda through a "no-party" political system for almost two decades. Analysts are skeptical that Mr. Museveni and his government have genuinely embraced multi-party politics, as Ugandans had agreed in a referendum in August of this year.

Ugandans are still reeling from last week's dramatic capture and detention of Kizza Besigye, the presidential hopeful for the political party Forum for Democratic Change.

Dr. Besigye, who had just returned to Uganda from a four-year exile, is being charged with rape and treason, for his alleged support of the People's Redemption Army rebel group, and is being held in a maximum security prison.

According to Ugandan political analyst Fredrick Ssempebwa, Dr. Besigye's arrest and detention is one sign that next March's elections will likely not be free and fair.

"If it wasn't trumped-up charges, I think the persons who have been charged together with Besigye would have been tried a long time back. So, no one really believes that these treason charges, or the charge of rape, are genuine. I think the intention is clear: to keep Besigye in detention until the election is over, so that the opposition candidacy is weakened," said Mr. Ssempebwa.

The United States has also expressed deep concern about Dr. Besigye's arrest and detention, urging authorities to bring him to a fair trial, well before the elections.

When Yoweri Kaguta Museveni took power in 1986, he instituted what he called a no-party political system, ostensibly to avoid deepening the ethnic and religious divisions within his country.

His National Resistance Movement initially provided stability and growth to most of the country, which had been traumatized by the likes of Idi Amin and Milton Obote.

But by the mid-1990s, many Ugandans began calling for a democratic system.

The 1995 constitution allowed for the presence of political parties, but prohibited them from conducting any activities.

The 2002 Political Parties and Organizations Act required all existing parties to re-register themselves or be deemed illegal, prohibited parties from opening offices below the national level, confined party activities to their respective headquarters, and other restrictions.

One year later, the Constitutional Court ruled that the legislation was illegal. The government responded by declaring all political parties to be illegal because they failed to re-register.

International donors and others increasingly pressured Mr. Museveni to open up his country to multi-party politics. In late July of this year, more than 90 percent of Ugandans voting in a referendum said "yes" to the return of multi-partyism, which Mr. Museveni had campaigned for.

Yet, earlier this year, parliament abolished the two-term presidential limit set out in the country's 1995 constitution, enabling Mr. Museveni to run again, despite his earlier promise not to contend. The move was met with widespread condemnation, nationally and internationally.

Ofwono Opondo, the director of information for the National Resistance Movement, says the removal of the two-term presidential limit and Mr. Museveni's decision to run again were legal and reflect the will and support of members of parliament, NRM delegates and the people of Uganda.

Mr. Opondo denies that Dr. Besigye is a threat to the NRM and says his arrest and detention were justified, lawful and followed the proper procedures. He says Mr. Museveni is a strong presidential candidate.

"Museveni is offering consolidation of the achievements over the past 20 years," he said. "This is the first time we are having one government running for 20 years without being broken down. This is the first time we are having a disciplined armed forces. This is the first time we are having open court system that is transparent and delivering justice. This is the first time we are having social transformation through education, primary health care and so on."

But others have a different view of Mr. Museveni and his National Resistance Movement government.

Within the past few years, national and international human rights groups and others have accused authorities of torturing government opponents - a charge the government denies.

But analysts say one of the biggest blights against Mr. Museveni's rule is his failure to put an end to a brutal civil war in the north that began shortly after he took power in 1986.

The Lord's Resistance Army rebel group has been killing, maiming, kidnapping and raping northerners for almost two decades - displacing some two million people and kidnapping an estimated 20,000 children.

Margaret Ateng, a member of parliament from the northern district, Lira, was one of 34 MPs who boycotted the legislature in 2003 over what they said was government indifference to the violence in the north.

"When we met the president of Uganda, in his opinion, he said the problem of the LRA would be sorted," she said. "It looked like government did not want to get embarrassed that it could not contain such a small problem, because they called that LRA issue a 'small problem'."

The government maintains that it is doing all it can to stop the rebels, and that northerners would be much worse off without the heavy army presence.

Observers say a major factor in the outcome of next year's elections is the strength of the opposition.

Political analyst Mr. Ssempebwa says that Mr. Museveni has little support except in central Uganda and in some rural areas in the west.

"But, with a weak opposition, there are a number of people who might feel that either it is not worth voting or we don't have a real alternative, we might as well vote for Museveni. So, it all depends with the opposition coming up with a worthwhile candidate," he said.

Six political parties formed a coalition last year to, among other things, potentially field a single candidate, much like what was done in neighboring Kenya during the 2002 elections.

An official with Dr. Besigye's party Forum for Democratic Change, Kasiano Wadri, tells VOA the coalition's main purpose is to bring reform to Uganda.

"We cannot primarily take removal of Museveni as the primary cause of our existence as political bodies," he said. "For us, we are looking at the total liberation of Uganda politically, economically, and socially as our primary goal."

Mr. Wadri says he is confident that, with all the international pressure being put on the government, Dr. Besigye will be released soon and that he would be the most likely common opposition presidential candidate.