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Uganda's Presidential Elections

Author: Mary Crane, Editorial Coordinator
February 21, 2006

Introduction

Since rising to power at the helm of a rebellion led by his National Resistance Army in 1986, President Yoweri Museveni built a reputation as a "new breed" of African leader. The country has moved beyond the nightmare years of Idi Amin's rule, during which one million people were killed, and the time of reprisals under his successor Milton Obote, when 600,000 more Ugandans died. Since coming to power, Museveni has been credited by many with restoring a measure of stability, shepherding economic growth, reforming the government, and decreasing the HIV/AIDS infection rate among Ugandans. In 1998, President Clinton declared Museveni one of Africa's "renaissance leaders" bent on ending strongman politics on the continent.

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But Museveni's decision to run for a third term in the February 23 presidential election (ElectionGuide.org)—which he is expected to win—the imprisonment of his main political rival, and the festering conflict between government forces and the rebel Lord's Resistance Army in northern Uganda, have aroused international concern about the president. Observers in and outside Uganda worry the elections may reverse progress and create a scenario all too familiar in Africa: a power-hungry regime bent on self-preservation.

What recent changes has Museveni made to Ugandan politics?

Last July, Museveni used the parliament to remove presidential term limits in the constitution—reportedly paying each parliamentarian up to $3,000 for their support, though the government said the money was to help parliamentarians consult with their constituents. At the same time, voters overwhelmingly backed a return to multi-party politics in a national referendum. Museveni had established a no-party system in 1986, reasoning party politics would only exacerbate the tribal divisions responsible for the bloodshed under Amin and Obote. The almost simultaneous presidential term extension and the return to multi-party politics was a "very clever combination," says Princeton N. Lyman, CFR's Ralph Bunche Senior Fellow for Africa Policy Studies. "He did it to show he is moving toward democracy in a step-by-step way, but it's really questionable whether he takes all of that seriously."

Why are there concerns about his leadership?

While most experts are careful to commend Museveni for his reforms, he "has never built the civilian democratic institutions [necessary] for a continuing process of democracy," Lyman says, and "unfortunately, he is convinced that he is essential for continuing to lead Uganda." The latest development to worry political observers was the arrest and imprisonment of Museveni's biggest rival, Dr. Kizza Besigye. Besigye—once Museveni's doctor and a member of his rebellion—lived in exile in South Africa after unsuccessfully standing against Museveni in the 2001 election, during which there were credible reports of vote-rigging and ballot-stuffing. He returned to Uganda last October and was promptly arrested weeks later. He was charged with treason and rape in civilian court, and illegal possession of firearms in military court, although he is no longer a soldier. Most experts say the charges, which carry the death penalty, are politically motivated. The woman who has accused Besigye of raping her, Joanita Kyakuwa, has admitted in court that all her living costs have been covered by the State House—the president's official residence—since she reported the charge to Museveni five years ago.

Museveni has also clamped down on the press in recent months. Reports from Uganda say the government-controlled Media Council, which regulates Uganda's press, has threatened foreign correspondents. One such case involved the BBC's Uganda correspondent Will Ross, whose one-year accreditation was shortened to four months after he reported on the deaths of seven civilians in a northern refugee camp. In response, Reporters Without Borders issued a statement saying "if nothing is done to ensure the press is free to do its work, these elections will take place in a climate of intimidation."

Who are the candidates in the election?

According to independent polls, Museveni and Besigye—running on the Forum for Democratic Change (FDC) ticket—are the two frontrunners in by a large margin, though Museveni may not win the 50 percent necessary for an outright victory. Also running are Miria Obote, head of the Uganda People's Congress Party and widow of the former president; former Kampala Mayor Ssebana Kizito of the Democratic Party; and Abed Bwanika, the only independent candidate in the race. The polls also showed Museveni ahead in rural, largely uneducated areas and Besigye ahead in urban centers and among more educated voters.

Museveni has promised he would accept defeat if he lost the poll. "I will give out the keys officially when elections are well conducted and I lose. I will even support the winner," he told the Mbarara-based Radio West talk show in January.

How will the conflict in northern Uganda affect the elections?

Although Museveni has been credited with reform during his term, the ongoing conflict in Uganda's north between the government and the rebel Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) has undermined his reputation. Museveni said at a CFR meeting last September that "we have actually ended that conflict. We have defeated that terrorist group." But most human rights experts disagree. Since about 1986, more than one million of Uganda's ethnic Acholi people have been forced into refugee camps across the north and thousands more have been killed, injured, kidnapped, or forced to become child soldiers serving LRA leader Joseph Kony. There are now an estimated 1.5 million internally displaced persons in the north, living in camps where observers say they are not provided adequate protection, food, or medical supplies. In an open letter to President Museveni, Ugandan scholar Mahmood Mamdani wrote that a refugee camp of around 15,000 internees he visited in 2004 was protected by only fifteen armed soldiers and was regularly raided by the LRA. "Recent figures," he writes, "both official and unofficial, show that the level of excess deaths in the internment camps far exceeds those killed by the LRA." The UN Undersecretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs calls the conflict in northern Uganda "the biggest forgotten, neglected humanitarian emergency in the world today."

Many experts say Kampala could do more to quell the violence. Still others allege the government is using the conflict to justify the government's defense budget—which is protected from external audits—and maintain Museveni's status in Ugandan politics. "If the Ugandan army wanted to wipe out the LRA it would have happened by now," says the Africa correspondent for National Public Radio, Jason Beaubien. "There hasn't been the military will to do it."

Is it likely Museveni will win a third term?

Most experts say a third term is likely and that the current trend away from democratic rule during Museveni’s second term will continue. It is expected Museveni will carry the large, rural vote. “He very much is a ‘big man’ there,” says Beaubien, “and to some degree he’s made sure that’s the case.” Analysts and political observers note that Museveni has tended to reward his most loyal ministers and govern with political and local factions that do not challenge his hold on power. For instance, Health Minister Jim Muhwezi, who was censured by parliament in 1998 for corruption, is currently under investigation for channeling international anti-AIDS grant money into his own parliamentary campaign.

What is the international role in Uganda?

Uganda has received more than $11 billion in foreign aid since 1987, making up more than half of Uganda's budget. Many of these donors are now using aid as leverage to persuade Museveni to reform. The British government, like many other European donors that provide direct budgetary assistance to the Ugandan government, has scaled back and diverted aid from budgetary assistance to specific humanitarian programs. Britain's Secretary for International Development Hillary Benn announced that $26 million in direct assistance to Uganda will be diverted instead to relief projects, especially in the north. She cited Besigye's arrest and the use of state money to support Museveni's ruling National Resistance Movement as the main reasons for the shift.

Unlike much of the European aid, however, U.S. aid funds to Uganda have never taken the form of direct budgetary assistance, and have traditionally been channeled into specific humanitarian programs. Officials at the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) consider Uganda a close partner to, and supporter of, initiatives like the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, the Presidential Malaria Initiative, and the Millennium Challenge Account for development funds. Funds for these programs, which in 2005 totaled nearly $200 million, are often de-linked from politics to ensure civilians receive the help they need. The United States therefore faces a real dilemma, Lyman says, between taking money away from humanitarian programs and making a statement on Washington's commitment to democracy. "We don't have the kind of leverage people assume," he says.

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