Uganda’s long-time ruler changes tune on longevity

Uganda

KAMPALA, Uganda (AP) — Uganda’s president came to power in 1986 as an idealistic former Marxist rebel who denounced power-hungry African leaders. Nearly three decades later, President Yoweri Museveni is now accused by some in the opposition — and others who served prominently under him — of becoming the type of politician he once despised.

Museveni travels the world in a private jet paid for by taxpayers and recently added two new Mercedes Benz limousines to his convoy. Some say he wants to rule for life, while others worry that Museveni, in the style of some other African strongmen, is trying to groom his son as the country’s future leader. That charge was given credence by the defection last month of an army general who urged an investigation into reports of an alleged plot for the first son to succeed his father.

Gen. David Sejusa, who is in London and faces arrest if he returns to Uganda, says he is fighting the use of state institutions such as the military to keep Museveni in power. Sejusa is a member of the army’s high command and a decorated hero of the bush war that brought Museveni to power. His case has focused attention on the political evolution of a president who promised many years ago that his government would bring what he called “fundamental change” to Uganda.

“The problem of Africa in general and Uganda in particular,” Museveni said in a speech in 1986, “is not the people but leaders who want to overstay in power.”

In “What is Africa’s Problem?” — a collection of Museveni’s early speeches as president — he warns against official corruption, saying: “How can we hope to convince anyone of the rightness of our cause if our own people are violating our stated goals, thereby undermining our program? Corruption is a problem which, if not checked, will hinder progress in all sectors of society.”

Museveni said at the time that he despised African leaders who wasted taxpayer money on things like luxury cars and he urged public officials to “realize that social property is, in many ways, even more important than private property.”

In 1996, a year after the promulgation of Uganda’s constitution, the country held national elections widely praised as free and fair, boosting Museveni’s growing reputation with Western donors as a reform-minded progressive leader. In 1998, while traveling in Africa, former U.S. President Bill Clinton put Museveni in the club of what he said was a “new breed” of African leader.

But some critics now say it’s tough to imagine Museveni giving a passionate speech on corruption.

“I think Museveni’s determined to stay in power at all costs,” said Mwambutsya Ndebesa, a professor of political history at Uganda’s Makerere University. “He genuinely believes that he’s the only one with the vision to run this county. Is this project sustainable? My answer is no. If he doesn’t change this position he’s taking this country to the cliff.”

Museveni, who is in his late 60s, has now held power in Uganda for 27 years, making him one of Africa’s longest-serving leaders. In 2005 he had lawmakers remove term limits so could run again. He has won two elections marred by irregularities or violence since then.

Frank Tumwebaze, a government minister who speaks for the president, said Museveni’s early criticism of long-serving leaders had been taken out of context by activists who fail to acknowledge that elections are held regularly in Uganda.

“For us as (the ruling party), we are convinced that if we front Museveni in 2016 he will give us better winning chances than any other person,” he said. “Museveni has been winning elections. We know where he is popular and why he is popular.”

Museveni, who was last re-elected in 2011, is praised by many here for presiding over a growing economy and restoring political stability after years of dictatorial rule. That view, however, is being disputed by some who say he has slowly transformed Uganda into a quasi-military state.

Human Rights Watch, which says the government increasingly harasses civic groups, accused Uganda’s security forces of “using lethal force” to quell anti-corruption riots on the streets of Kampala in April 2011. At least nine people were killed.

“Uganda has had militarism for quite a bit of time,” said Frederick Jjuuko, a political activist and law professor at Uganda’s Makerere University. “But it is this regime that has perfected it. It handles matters political using military means.”

As an example, Jjuuko cited the seizure last month of Uganda’s Daily Monitor newspaper by security officials looking for evidence against Sejusa, whose concerns about an alleged plot to assassinate officials opposed to the rise Museveni’s son had been published by the newspaper. The daily’s printing press was disabled for 10 days.

A government minister said the authorities allowed the newspaper to resume operations after its bosses agreed that security stories are “a no-go area” for its reporters.

Uganda is set to become a major oil producer by 2016, when elections are due. Many here believe Museveni will seek another five-year term in office. Some analysts say the country’s unpredictable political transition threatens the oil sector even before the first drops of oil flow, with Museveni exercising tight control of it.

Sejusa charges that Museveni is plotting to keep power within his family — the same allegations made over the years by opposition leader Kizza Besigye, a retired army colonel who fell out with Museveni over what he said was the president’s rejection of the ideals for which they fought a guerrilla war.

“Typical African story,” Sejusa said in an email to The Associated Press.

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