By Jonathan Jones
FRONTLINE/World reporter Jonathan Jones (left).
September 7, 2004
As I traveled by bus from Kenya to Uganda last summer, the
road became smoother as soon as I crossed the border -- a sign
of Uganda's economic and political comeback.
Uganda is still one of the poorest countries in the world, but it is also one of the greenest and most fertile. I could see why Winston Churchill once described Uganda as the "pearl of Africa."
On my way to Kampala, the capital, barefoot merchants emerged from dusty mud huts and the lush countryside to hawk bananas, mangos, peanuts, pineapples, and barbecued "goat on a stick" to passengers on the bus.
I arrived in Kampala in the early evening. Built among seven
gentle hills near Lake Victoria, the capital is graced with
palm trees and enlivened by a bustling city center of new skyscrapers,
thriving shops and outdoor cafes. During the nightmare 1970s
when dictator Idi Amin terrorized Uganda, shops in Kampala locked
their doors by early afternoon, gunshots could be heard every
night, and dead bodies lay on the golf courses. But today, Kampala
is one of the safest capitals in Africa. Coming from Nairobi
(now nicknamed "Nai-robbery"), I immediately noticed the absence
of beggars and street hustlers. I felt safer and more comfortable
However, there is a political crisis stirring in Uganda which threatens the country's relative peace and stability, and ironically the man at the center of the storm is a longtime U.S. ally and distinguished statesman, President Yoweri Museveni.
Museveni's cabinet is now seeking to amend the constitution
to give the 60-year-old president the opportunity to run for
a third five-year term in 2006. A recent poll suggests that
the majority of Ugandans do not want Museveni to overstay his
welcome. The poll, conducted by the country's independent newspaper
The Monitor, found that 69 percent of Ugandans wanted the country's
current limit of two five-year terms for president to remain,
while 31 percent backed efforts by Museveni supporters to extend
The debate in Uganda over a third term for Museveni has repercussions
in other African countries, which have been making progress
toward democracy. As human rights groups have noted, a number
of charismatic new leaders in Ethiopia, Eritrea and Rwanda now
contend that their countries are not ready for multi-party politics
and that strong leadership (i.e., one-man, one-party rule) is
required to achieve peace and prosperity -- an argument first
advocated by Museveni.
Delegates from the Reform Agenda, a coalition of opposition leaders, vote on a party platform.
As George W. Bush and John Kerry jockeyed for position in a tight race back home, I came to Uganda to examine the future of multi-party democracy and to see if voters here might be willing to let their president stay in power past his expiration date.
The "No-Party" System
For most of the twentieth century, Uganda was one of the most
prosperous countries in all of Africa. But independence from
the British in the early 1960s did not go smoothly and in the
1970s the country came undone.
In 1971, army general Idi Amin ousted President Milton Obote,
plunging Uganda into nearly a decade of chaos and madness. As
the economy collapsed, Amin turned on the Indian middle class,
fanning ethnic violence, and expelling all "Asians" from the
country, some 35,000 people. Amin tortured and killed his opponents,
bragged about it, and became an enormous embarrassment to Africa
-- a caricature of despotism. Neighboring Tanzania finally invaded
Uganda in 1978 and drove Amin into exile, first in Libya, then
in Saudi Arabia, where he died in 2003.
Women in northern Uganda wear dried banana leaves, demonstrating support for a third term for President Museveni.
The chaos of the Amin era continued until 1986, when a group known as "the National Resistance Movement" led by guerilla leader Yoweri Museveni gained control of the country.
Over the next decade, Uganda began the long and difficult process of restoring the rule of law, nurturing democracy, and fixing a shattered economy. Museveni quickly established himself as an ally of the United States and a respected statesman in East Africa. He earned special praise for dealing frankly and humanely with Uganda's AIDS epidemic.
However, today, after arbitrary arrests, beatings, and harassment of the political opposition in the last presidential election in 2001, a new view is emerging of Museveni as a leader on the verge of becoming yet another African dictator or, as they say here, another "president for life."
After arriving on a Sunday evening at the newly-renovated Makerere University Guest House, I turned on the television and saw Museveni addressing the nation.
Two days before, the Constitutional Court, the Ugandan equivalent of the U.S. Supreme Court, had paved the way for multi-party politics in Uganda. The court nullified a referendum from 2000 which had affirmed Museveni's "no-party" system.
The president was furious.
In a lengthy speech delivered without notes, Museveni lashed out at the ruling. He claimed the court did not speak for the people and that the judges should concern themselves more with cases of people "stealing chickens," than interpreting the constitution. The government, Museveni vowed, would appeal the court's ruling.
This was not the Museveni strongly praised by western leaders.
President Museveni, who has essentially held a monopoly on power since 1986, can point with pride to significant accomplishments. Despite an ugly war in the north with the bizarre Lord's Resistance Army -- noted for conscripting child soldiers -- Museveni's government has restored relative peace, security and respect for human rights. Much of the country's infrastructure has been repaired.
Museveni's "Movement" government has also greatly improved education, instituted free primary schools, and turned one of the poorest countries in Africa into the fastest growing economy on the continent. Moreover, he has successfully decreased the rate of HIV/AIDS infection, through an aggressive public awareness campaign promoting abstinence and contraception.
"Museveni was a godsend for Uganda," said Narendra A. Thakkar, a Ugandan-Asian accountant who lived in exile during Amin's reign. "He is very pragmatic and very sensible. He has had the foresight to improve this country and he gained the world's respect."
But on this night, as I watched him on TV, my impression of Museveni was that of a president in trouble, someone who declared support for democracy, but angrily condemned anyone who threatened his power.
There had been earlier indications that he was moving toward authoritarian rule. The 2001 presidential election, in which Museveni squared off against five challengers, was marred by accusations of unlawful arrests and beatings of the political opposition. According to Human Rights Watch, the head of the youth campaign for Museveni's chief rival, retired Col. Kizza Besigye, was violently detained without charges and others in the opposition were beaten with sticks and guns.
Many Ugandans would like to see Museveni continue as president, but worry that constitutional changes will open the door to dictatorship. They see Museveni as a hero for bringing an impoverished and demoralized country back from the brink of collapse, but now fear he may have let power go to his head.
But Museveni has loyal supporters. Days after the president's speech, I watched a parade of motorcycle taxi drivers wrapped in dry banana leaves, which I was told later is a symbol of support for Museveni's third term.
First used for smuggling goods over the Kenyan border, these taxis, known as "boda-bodas" (or "border-borders"), have grown in importance as a means of public transport in Kampala and other towns, ferrying passengers through constant traffic jams. They have also become a major source of income for young males and a vital political constituency for President Museveni. On this day, hundreds blocked parliament's gates and paraded along Kampala Road to Constitution Square, calling for the judges to resign.
To get the opposition's viewpoint, I interviewed Democratic Party President Dr. Paul Ssemogerere. In 1980, following the overthrow of Amin, Ssemogerere lost a rigged presidential election to Milton Obote. Then in 1996, campaigning to institutionalize a multi-party democracy, he lost to Museveni in Uganda's first presidential election in more than decade.
In recent years, the soft-spoken 72-year-old has filed a series of lawsuits against the government, contending that Museveni's Movement is a political organization and ought to be kept separate from government institutions.
I arrived at Democratic Party headquarters in a third floor
office above a busy shopping plaza in downtown Kampala. Sitting
in a sparsely furnished room painted green and white in his
party's colors, Ssemogerere is a veteran politician who seemed
energized by the recent court victories.
Democratic Party President Paul Ssemogerere, who won a series of lawsuits against the government, sits in party headquarters.
He began by saying that Museveni's "no-party" system is based on the belief that Uganda can't handle its own political differences. He argued that Uganda must now make a break from Museveni and his Movement organization.
"President Museveni puts down the constitution for trying to tame his power. But that is why we have fixed terms in the constitution -- to limit the power of the president," he told me. "Everybody knows the power of the incumbent to reward people for their patronage. He can appoint ministers and order the army to suppress the opposition like a dictator."
However, the president's press secretary, Ekomoloit Onapito, brushed off such criticism. Onapito assured me that Uganda was heading towards multi-party politics and a secure democratic future. He cautioned that Museveni may still decide not to run for a third term, although Museveni's silence on the issue and the absence of an heir apparent made me skeptical that the president would do so.
"If the people decided they want to him to continue, they'll have the right to decide that through a referendum and then through an election," Onapito said. "They could still say no."
The Reform Agenda
A party activist organizes framed pictures of delegates from the Reform Agenda.
While Ugandans recognize that the outcome of the U.S. presidential election can impact their country in terms of trade, AIDS funding and military assistance, they are understandably more focused on their own constitutional issues.
The Museveni government has been a close ally of the U.S. though Ugandans in general oppose the U.S. war in Iraq. American officials have frequently met with Museveni to discuss democratic reforms and to discourage him from seeking a third term.
At the US embassy's Fourth of July celebration, according to local newspapers, Ambassador Jimmy Kolker said Ugandans need to recognize "the peril of disregarding the right of citizens freely to organize, associate, and assemble as a means of expressing their political will."
Although foreign aid makes up more than half of Uganda's budget, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund have not been as willing to speak out against a third term for Museveni. Many Ugandans believe this reluctance is based in part on Museveni's willingness to implement their economic policy reforms.
"We believe support from the west should depend on performance and democratization," said Beti Kamya, a spokesperson for the Reform Agenda, an opposition founded by disenchanted Movement members. "As much as we appreciate our development partners, the money shouldn't just be a blank check. It should also be helping build democratization and setting benchmarks to see that happen."
John Nagenda, chairman of the Uganda's Wildlife Authority and a media advisor to Museveni, told me that despite criticisms, western leaders know a strong ally when they see one.
"The president has been very effective. Outsiders and business leaders come here and they applaud," Nagenda says. "I do not think they will turn their back on him."
Uganda's parliament is split over the prospect of Museveni's
The gates of Parliament in downtown Kampala.
Betty Udongo, a Parliament member from the Nebbi region in the northwest, on the Congo border, is a pleasant, friendly woman. She sells crafts at a stall across from Uganda National Theatre and plans to start a mango juice company. Udongo told me she is concerned a new president could plunge the country back into chaos.
"It is (the West) who is pushing multi-party politics," she said. "But already we have members of parliament not speaking to each other. Look at our history; we've never had the quality of life we now have under Museveni."
Down the hall, another member of Parliament, Augustine Ruzindana, had a different view. Once considered to be a possible successor to Museveni, he is now an outspoken critic of the president, and chairman of the Parliamentary Advocacy Forum, a group of bi-partisan legislators outside the umbrella of Museveni's Movement organization.
He insisted that government security forces have repeatedly harassed government leaders who have criticized the Movement organization. But Ruzindana told me he is confident there are enough votes in Parliament to defeat a national referendum on a third term.
"The path we are going down is taking Uganda into a seriously autocratic period," he said. "The misuse of security and the use of force against people who disagree with you politically are widespread...Nepotism has risen and the continued disregard for law is threatening the country."
Later I traveled to Mengo, the home of the Buganda kingdom, the largest traditional monarchy in Uganda. Under British rule and briefly following independence, the monarchy wielded a great degree of influence and power in Uganda, but today the monarchy acts mainly as an advocacy group.
I asked Arthur Bagumywa, a Bugandan minister and a former member of Parliament, for his views on Museveni's administration.
"Corruption is rampant. Votes are being bought," he said. "Rigging an election is at an all-time high so you could not change the system substantially even if you wanted to. People give money, sugar and other bribes. We are a poor people so you buy votes and use the army to intimidate."
On the last leg of my trip, I took a boda-boda taxi to the outskirts of Kampala.
Here, delegates and the Parliamentary Advocacy Forum voted to transform the Reform Agenda into to a full fledged political party and adopt a party platform for the 2006 elections.
However, Dr. Kizza Besigye, the party's leader, was conspicuously absent.
Besigye is an intriguing figure. Years ago he was part of Museveni's NRM rebels fighting in the bush and he served as Museveni's personal physician. Besigye appeared in the spotlight in 1999 when he spoke out against corruption and undemocratic policies within President Museveni's Movement organization. And in the 2001 elections he emerged as the first credible candidate to challenge Museveni by forging alliances with several opposition groups including the Democratic Party.
Besigye, whose supporters describe him as quiet and serious, claims that he was constantly harassed after the election, which he lost to Museveni, though he disputed the results.
Twice, following the election, he boarded flights to Kenya and South Africa, but was prevented from leaving by government security forces. He is now in exile in South Africa, but he is expected to return to Uganda soon to mount a presidential campaign promising democratic reforms and a fight against corruption.
The 360 people who packed the hall held up peace signs and shouted chants of "Reform!" after Besigye, in a written statement, urged delegates to prepare to build institutions that are stronger than "just one man."
Leaving the meeting, I couldn't help but recall the furor over the disputed 2000 vote count in Florida and the ongoing debate over the fairness of the U.S. electoral college system. Even in a well-established democracy such as the United States, a sharply contested, photo finish presidential election can rattle the system.
Perhaps Uganda is already strong and resilient enough to adopt multi-party politics and a new leader. But days before I left, a local newspaper reported that police had halted the Democratic Party celebrations of the recent court rulings -- not an encouraging sign.
As Uganda begins its long run-up to the 2006 presidential
election, I wonder if the country will be plagued by violence
and political suppression. If that happens, President Museveni
could tragically be remembered not as a wise leader and international
statesman like Nelson Mandela, but as another African politician
unable to give up power.
Jonathan Jones is a student at U.C.
Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism.
Previously, he worked as a reporter at the Daily Local News
in West Chester, Pennsylvania.
what people said about "Dispatches from a Small Planet: Election
Go to Intro:
from a Small Planet: Election 2004
back to top