Wednesday 11 December 2019

No sign of Uganda's 'president for life' relinquishing power

President Museveni og Uganda meets students at UCD on a state visit to Ireland in 2000.
President Museveni og Uganda meets students at UCD on a state visit to Ireland in 2000.

Mary Fitzgerald

In 1986, Uganda's newly installed president Yoweri Museveni wrote a book titled What is Africa's Problem? One sentence in particular has continued to dog him since. "The problem of Africa in general and Uganda in particular is not the people, but leaders who want to overstay in power," he wrote. Thirty years on, Museveni ironically looks like Uganda's president for life.

Earlier this month, he was re-elected yet again in a ballot that saw him garner 60pc of the vote and drew criticism from opposition parties who allege the election was rigged. US Secretary of State John Kerry called the septuagenarian Museveni to express concern over harassment of opposition figures and the blocking of social media on polling day. Museveni was unapologetic, telling Kerry "not to worry" and rejecting EU criticisms that the electoral commission was biased in his favour.

"I told those Europeans ... I don't need lectures from anybody," Museveni told media at his sprawling residence in rural southwestern Uganda. It was characteristically testy bombast from a man who is known not to mince his words. I met Museveni in 2013, driving through rutted roads to take tea with one of Africa's longest-serving leaders at the same country home. When I reminded him of what he wrote in 1986 about African politicians who cling to power, he did not flinch.

"I was talking about staying in power without elections," he said with a smile.

Uganda is currently abuzz with speculation that Museveni, now 71, will manoeuvre a constitutional change to allow him stay in power for even longer. At present he is barred from running in the next election in 2021 because he will be past the age of 75, the cut-off point for presidential candidates. While Uganda has an age limit for presidents, there are no presidential term limits - Museveni got rid of them a decade ago.

In an interview with the BBC this week, he said: "We don't believe in term limits… If you don't want them to be there forever, you vote them out."

Irish diplomats will be watching closely to see how the situation unfolds. Uganda is a key partner country for Irish Aid, Ireland's overseas development programme, but the relationship has not always been smooth. In 2012, Ireland suspended €16m of development aid which was due to be channelled through Ugandan government systems, following the discovery of fraud in the prime minister's office. The money had been earmarked for development projects in northern Uganda, a region ravaged by a 20-year war, and Karamoja, the country's poorest area.

The Ugandan government later refunded in full the €4m of funding which was misappropriated and a number of investigations are ongoing. Over the last two years, the Irish Aid programme in Uganda has been implemented through non-government systems.

While acknowledging corruption was a problem, Museveni was dismissive when I raised the issue of the Irish Aid suspension with him, arguing that Uganda was not reliant on donor funds. "If the Irish want to keep the money suspended, that is up to them but we are moving on anyway," he said. "We don't depend on it."

The controversy over Museveni's disputed election puts donors like Ireland in an uncomfortable position - and not for the first time. In 2014, Western donors were aghast when Uganda introduced harsh penalties for homosexuality. Donors cut aid, but reversed the decision later when the law was struck down by a Ugandan court.

The ageing president is well aware he is a crucial Western ally in a tough region. He is helping mediate an end to the Burundi conflict and Uganda contributes 5,000 troops to the African Union force in Somalia.

But at home Museveni's record is mixed. When I met him three years ago, he boasted of healthy economic growth rates and major investment from China, including for badly needed infrastructure projects. Critics, however, point to per-capita income of around $500 and youth unemployment levels of around 62pc in a country where almost 60pc of the population is under 20.

For many older Ugandans, Museveni is the man who delivered the country from decades of despotism, under leaders such as Idi Amin (Forest Whitaker's character in The Last King of Scotland), and went on to steer it towards economic growth. Many young Ugandans, who have known no other president, feel differently. In 2011, the frustrations of that young generation boiled over into street protests - violently quashed by security forces - over rising food prices and government corruption.

From my meeting with him in 2013, it was clear Museveni has a high sense of self-regard. When I asked him if he would contest the presidency this year, he said it was up to his party to decide but hinted it may happen because, he appeared to suggest, there may not be any one else who could do the job. Three years on, it looks like Museveni won't be retiring anytime soon.

Irish Independent

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