Guerrilla leader turned textbook dictator

February 16, 2011 12:00 am

, KAMPALA, Feb 16 – Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, who is seeking re-election on Friday, has stamped out a dozen rebellions and outfoxed scores of political opponents during his 25-year rule.

A charismatic and at times hilarious public speaker, Museveni won praise abroad and support at home for adopting progressive policies, installing a disciplined army, and shepherding Uganda through years of economic growth.

But, in 2011, Museveni\’s Uganda is plagued by poor service delivery, a feckless parliament, and a justice system that has proven incapable of suppressing egregious government corruption, analysts say.

Museveni, who has over the past 25 years expanded from trim rebel leader to rotund head of state, is likely to win another five-year term in the February 18 elections.

If his regime doesn\’t change course it "could relegate Uganda to the list of unstable African nations," US Ambassador Jerry Lanier wrote in a leaked cable, accusing the president of "autocratic tendencies".

Born to a farming family, probably in 1944, Museveni, who nearly always sports a beige safari hat secured with a chin strap when outdoors, emerged in the 1970s as one of many exiled Ugandans working to topple the military dictator, Idi Amin Dada.

His Tanzania-based Front for National Salvation united, with the Tanzanian army\’s backing, ousted the strongman in 1979, and Museveni was named to a military commission charged with overseeing the restoration of civilian rule in Uganda.

He swore that if the 1980 elections were not free and fair he would go to the bush and fight.

Early in 1981 his National Resistance Army overran remote military barracks in his native western Uganda. Five years later the NRA captured Kampala and Museveni became president.

Shortly after taking power, Museveni argued Africa\’s problem was leaders who refuse to retire.

His decision two decades later to scrap presidential term-limits and to retain power indefinitely is, according to many former allies, his greatest betrayal.

"In his imagination he thinks he\’s the only one who can change the fortunes of this country. He doesn\’t believe in institutions, he just believes in himself," Mugisha Muntu, Museveni\’s longest serving army commander, told AFP.

Muntu joined Museveni\’s rebellion in 1981 as a young graduate, disillusioned that Amin\’s brutal dictatorship was replaced by the equally ruthless second-coming of Milton Obote.

Tapped at 32 to run Museveni\’s army, Muntu worked closely with a president whose early years in office saw stunning and unexpected success.

Museveni defeated or struck deals with some 14 rebel groups, although it took him until 2006 to expel the Lord\’s Resistance Army, who terrorised Uganda\’s north for more than 20 years.

One of the first African leaders to speak openly about AIDS, he spearheaded a campaign that reduced Uganda\’s prevalence rate from over 20 to around 6 percent.

He liberalised the economy, bringing goods and renewed prosperity to the once destitute capital, Kampala.

Museveni became a darling of the West, but from the outset, argued Muntu, was carefully working to concentrate power in the presidency so that before the constitution demanded retirement in 2006, he would be able to amend it.

"Museveni out-manoeuvred the whole system," said Muntu, who broke with the regime in 1999, but is one of the few opponents to whom the president still offers kind words.

Norbert Mao, an opposition candidate who has been courted by Museveni for defection accuses him of "treating everyone like a prostitute" and saying "what\’s your price?"

Many of Museveni\’s erstwhile opponents are now in cabinet, or campaigning alongside him, after publicly "defecting" into his party.

Uganda has held three elections since 1986, and Museveni\’s support has declined in each, prompting many to argue his expected re-election will be fuelled by money and fraud.

Karuhanga Chapaa, an opposition political consultant, said he expects Museveni, who never discusses succession, will try to hold onto to power instead of giving Uganda its first democratic power change.

"I am disappointed that my president, who I valued so much, who I believed in so much, is the one doing this to the country and to himself."


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