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Ugandan Vote Tests Democracy

Prepared by: Mary Crane, Editorial Coordinator
February 21, 2006

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Once seen as a model for sub-Saharan Africa, Uganda is attracting growing concern about its leaders' commitment to political reforms. The country is poised to hold its first multiparty elections in twenty-five years (Reuters) but the last few weeks of campaigning have been marred by violent clashes between security forces and supporters of the leading opposition candidate. The February 23 elections (ElectionGuide.org) offer Ugandans a choice of whether to validate decades of leadership by President Yoweri Musevini, as outlined in this CFR Background Q&A by cfr.org's Mary Crane. Lead opposition candidate Kizza Besigye has made a strong showing in recent opinion polls (Monitor), but Museveni is still expected to win (Mail and Guardian), though without the 50 percent he needs for an outright victory.

Museveni, who has ruled Uganda since 1986, was once hailed for his vigorous efforts to reduce levels of HIV/AIDS and for bringing relative stability to the war-torn country. He now faces charges that he is unjustifiably holding on to power (FT). Museveni rewrote the constitution to extend presidential term limits and has been accused of using the police and security forces to beat back opposition supporters (Telegraph). Besigye claims charges against him for rape and treason were politically motivated and part of Kampala's efforts to handicap his untested Forum for Democratic Change party (BBC).

There are fears that Uganda, which has enjoyed relative peace since Museveni seized power and ended the violence of dictators Idi Amin and Milton Obote, may now be heading down an all-too-familiar path of iron-fisted politics and instability. Uganda's story looks ready to become the next chapter in a larger African narrative (Knight-Ridder) where leaders that Western donors have backed since the 1990s are now falling down on their promises of reform. The University of Iowa's Joel Barkan, part of a Woodrow Wilson International Center panel on "Challenges and Change in Uganda," says the international donor community must acknowledge Museveni's administration "is an increasingly corrupt and authoritarian regime that has probably overstayed its welcome." Still, others point to the ongoing violence in northern Uganda (PhilaInquirer)—one of "Africa's greatest nightmares" (Vanity Fair)—as another reason to pressure for change in Kampala. Although in a CFR meeting last fall Museveni said he has "actually ended that conflict," critics like Ugandan expert Mahmood Mamdani allege Museveni has allowed the violence to fester there in order to justify his undisclosed defense budget.

Uganda is often touted as a success story in Washington and the Bush administration has made it eligible for funding through initiatives like the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, and the Presidential Malaria Initiative. Funds for these programs totaled nearly $200 million in 2005, according to the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). Election observers predict this week's vote will be far from free and fair: This Human Rights Watch report outlines some of their most pressing concerns. Experts say the United States must now decide whether to halt funds for their humanitarian programs and take a stand on Washington’s oft-stated priority of defending democracy.

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