Uganda: A Good Man Gone Bad?

10 February 2006

Uganda: A Good Man Gone Bad?

By Gwynne Dyer

“I became a good man after I’d been a bad man for twenty years,” Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni told the BBC last year, recalling the days when most people saw him as a dangerous rebel. “When I was a guerilla fighting the regimes, I was always being called…all sorts of names, until my usefulness showed up much later. Therefore if I’m being reviled now, this is one of the phases of being misunderstood because the people have not seen what you’re trying to do.”

Museveni, who once declared that no African leader should stay in power for more than ten years, is now in his twentieth year as president, and he changed the constitution last year so that he could run for election yet again. He faces a serious challenge from Dr. Kizza Besigye, his former personal physician, but most people assume that he will win another five year term on 23 February. They also assume that if necessary he will cheat to win.

There is a strong sense of disappointment with Museveni. He took power at the head of a rebel army in 1986, ending twenty years of nightmare rule by two dictators, Milton Obote and Idi Amin, who had wrecked Uganda’s once-thriving economy and murdered hundreds of thousands of their fellow citizens. Most foreigners had seen him as just another killer on the make during the years when he waged a guerilla struggle in southwestern Uganda, but once in power he convinced them that he was much more than that.

For ten years he ruled as an autocrat while he restored order to the country, but then he held free elections in 1996 and won the presidency with 74 percent of the votes. Uganda remained dependent on foreign aid for about half of its budget, but Museveni became the aid donors’ favourite recipient.

He won their respect by running a relatively honest and competent government. He invited the Asians who had been expelled by Idi Amin to return to Uganda and reclaim their property (though few chose to do so). He waged the campaign against HIV/Aids with an openness that few other African leaders have been able to match, and actually managed to bring the rate of infection down in Uganda.

Bill Clinton held him up as the leading example of a new breed of African leaders, and Britain started giving its foreign aid directly to his government to spend as he wished, abandoning the usual process of choosing specific projects to support and closely supervising how the money was spent. It seemed that Museveni could do no wrong — and then he began to do wrong.

It started with the genocide in Uganda’s southern neighbour, Rwanda. Museveni had given shelter and arms to the Rwanda Liberation Front whose invasion finally ended the killing. The defeated Hutu militia that led the massacres retreated into the eastern Congo, and when it began guerilla attacks from there in 1998 both Rwandan and Ugandan forces invaded the Congo to suppress it. But they stayed to loot the Congo’s mineral riches.

The result for the Congo was an all-against-all civil war that killed several million people. For Uganda it was a huge inflow of illicit funds from stolen Congolese mineral resources, and a huge rise in the wealth and power of the military. Museveni’s Presidential Guard Brigade grew to over ten thousand soldiers, and many of the senior soldiers who had been with him from the earliest days acquired major financial interests whose protection required that Museveni stayed in power.

As late as the 2001 election, Museveni was promising to retire after the five-year term now coming to an end. But Kizza Besigye, who ran against him in that election on an anti-corruption platform, subsequently contested the results on the grounds that Museveni had won by violence and intimidation. He then fled the country after receiving death threats from the military: “I left in order to continue to be politically active rather than being behind bars or six feet under as had been threatened.”

Kizza Besigye returned from South African exile in November to contest this month’s election, and was almost immediately arrested and charged with treason, rape, terrorism and illegal possession of firearms. (There was no room on the charge sheet for the double-parking offences.) He spent December in jail, but the high court freed him on bail in early January despite Museveni’s best efforts, and he is campaigning vigorously for the presidency.

Opinion polling is in its infancy in Uganda, but it seems clear that Besigye leads among the educated, urban section of the population, while Museveni still commands a stronger following among the poor and the uneducated. There are more of the latter, so maybe he can still win honestly. Either way, he is expected to win, and much of the good he has done will probably be undone before he finally goes. Already half a dozen of Uganda’s leading foreign aid donors have suspended direct aid to his government.

What went wrong, above all, was the war in the Congo. Museveni’s senior soldiers, many of them his old companions from the guerilla war days, have grown too rich and powerful, and in a sense he has become their prisoner. It is a sad ending to his story.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 9. (“For ten…recipient”; and “As late…threatened”)