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Uganda's crackdown casts doubt on key U.S. ally

KAMPALA, Uganda—When then-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright visited this sunny, serene capital eight years ago, she hailed Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni as a "beacon of hope" for democracy in Africa.

Now many advocates of democracy worry that he's become a hindrance.

After 19 years, Museveni remains in office. He's had Uganda's law on term limits lifted so he can run for re-election in February. Last month he threw the man most likely to unseat him into jail on an assortment of charges of treason, terrorism and rape. After the media howled in protest and demonstrations flared in Kampala for two days, Museveni warned journalists not to discuss the case and surrounded the courtroom with a heavily armed paramilitary squad nicknamed the Black Mambas.

"Museveni has, in a few very clumsy moves, absolutely polarized this country and really raised fear in people's hearts about how stable this place is," said a Western diplomat in Kampala, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he hadn't been authorized to talk publicly on the topic.

The situation is part of a larger concern that African leaders whom the West has backed with millions of dollars in aid since the 1990s are proving to be less than the democratic ideal that U.S. and international diplomats had expected. This year, for example, Meles Zenawi of Ethiopia has faced massive protests against his re-election, which many think was rigged.

The trouble, some say, is that the West has been so eager to promote African success stories that it's been too quick to fall in love with men who say and do some of the right things, but ultimately prove to be more interested in power than democracy.

"Part of this dilemma we find ourselves in is partly our own fault, our tendency to allow ourselves to be romanced by single figures," said J. Stephen Morrison, a former State Department official in the Clinton administration. "We get carried away with our hopes and aspirations and projections of what these people are supposed to be."

Museveni won Western hearts in the early 1990s with successful anti-AIDS policies and economic reforms that lifted much of Uganda out of extreme poverty. He has supported the U.S.-led war on terrorism, and many in Washington saw him as a check on the spread of Islamic fundamentalism south from Sudan.

Uganda became a favorite recipient of foreign aid, which now makes up half of its annual budget. President Clinton visited in 1998 and President Bush came in 2003, congratulating Museveni for being one of the few leaders of developing countries to reduce the rate of HIV infection.

But the plaudits masked fundamental problems. Like many fledgling African democracies, Uganda outlawed political parties until recently, giving Museveni a monopoly on power and stifling dissent. He hasn't groomed a successor and recently said he'd like to hold office through 2013.

Longevity has begun to breed trouble, including allegations of corruption and torture of political opponents. Donors increasingly are concerned about aid money being diverted to fight a long-running war in northern Uganda against the mysterious Lord's Resistance Army rebel group.

This summer the Global Fund—a worldwide consortium against AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria—withdrew $360 million in funding, citing gross mismanagement. The money was reinstated last month. Recently the Netherlands became the first country to penalize Uganda for the recent political turmoil by pulling nearly $8 million in aid.

Museveni's harshest critics say the West didn't raise its eyebrows until too late.

"Donors are part of our problem," said Proscovia Salaamu Musumba, the deputy president of Uganda's leading opposition group, the Forum for Democratic Change. "They have invested in a person, not in institutions."

It's still unclear whether the jailed opposition leader, Kizza Besigye, who finished a strong second in the 2001 presidential election, will be allowed to run in February. The case is widely believed to have been mishandled—the rape charge is 8 years old and "spurious," according to John Nagenda, one of Museveni's top advisers—even as diplomats whisper that there could be some merit in the more serious charges involving links to rebel groups.

Still, many observers predict that Museveni would win a fair election. Uganda is much better off today than it was under Milton Obote, Museveni's authoritarian predecessor, or Idi Amin, who's blamed for hundreds of thousands of deaths in the 1970s.

Nagenda said Museveni had earned the right to seek office again and had done so legally, by getting Parliament's approval to lift term limits.

"Amin wouldn't have done it that way," Nagenda said. "He would have just said, `I'm here,' and gone ahead and done it."

But Uganda still is, for all intents and purposes, a one-party state, and the Parliament and courts can't be said to be entirely independent. Some experts worry about the precedent that Museveni could be setting for other African executives who still have the other branches of government in their pockets.

"What they're doing might be legal and constitutional, but it might not be democratic," said Ted Dagne, an Africa analyst for the Congressional Research Service. "The signal this is going to send is you can use the government machinery to ensure you stay in power indefinitely."

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

ARCHIVE PHOTOS on KRT Direct (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): Museveni

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