25 November 2012

Uganda: How Museveni Has Outfoxed the United States and Allies

Four months after Yoweri Museveni captured power with his NRA rebels, US President Ronald Reagan ordered strikes against Col Muammar Gaddafi's government in Libya.

It was in response to a bomb blast at a Berlin discotheque, carried out by suspected Gaddafi agents. However, these events would have little meaning in Uganda which was still nursing the scars of the Luweero bush war where thousands had died. Our economy was on a death spiral and a staccato of gunfire rent the air as a rebellion sprang up in northern Uganda.

But hope had replaced trepidation amongst the citizens who had lived through the reign of terror under Idi Amin and the anarchy under the Obote II regime. Museveni introduced new reforms like free markets, fiscal discipline and the regime postured itself as a benevolent amalgamation of all political shades.

Attempting to mimic a Marxist lifestyle, the NRA soldiers lived simple life-styles, while ministers wore cheap Kaunda suits and used budget Toyota Laurel vehicles. Gradually, the economy began to make a turn around as the West hailed Museveni as one among a new breed of African leaders who would not overstay his welcome.

Yet many historic events like the collapse of the Berlin Wall, the release and retirement of iconic South African leader Nelson Mandela, the US invasion of Iraq, the terrorist attack on the World Trade Centre, the Rwanda genocide, the apocalyptic tsunami and the death of Pope John Paul II have come to pass but Museveni continues to reign.

Initially, Museveni was expected to serve for four years but in October 1989, the NRC extended the interim period of his regime for five more years until January 1995 in order to allow time to draft, debate, and adopt a permanent constitution, and to complete the political, economic, and rehabilitation programmes that had been interrupted by the civil wars in the north and eastern Uganda.

Keeping his word?

Today Museveni's old image swirls over him like an apparition. He has joined that exclusive club of long-serving presidents like Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe, the Equatorial Guinea's Obiang Nguema Mbasogo and Cameroon's Paul Biya. According to the former Army Commander and newly-elected FDC President, Maj Gen Mugisha Muntu, Museveni's continued stay in power contradicts what he preached in Luweero.

"Long-serving leaders like Bokassa [former Central African Republic leader] and Mobutu Sese Seko [former Zaire President] were despised as autocrats during the Luweero bush war," says Muntu, who joined Museveni in the bush-war just after completing university.

Just like Muntu opines, many of his peers believe Museveni does not live up to his word.

In his book Impassioned for Freedom, his childhood friend and now first deputy Premier Eriya Kategaya shared this frustration when Museveni, who had promised to serve one last term, wanted to hang onto power after 2006. "A man can only shift positions on his bed but not go back on his word."

Boniface Byanyima, under whose tutelage Museveni was raised, also speaks of Museveni as a man you can only trust at your own peril. "I told my daughter Museveni was not a reliable character," Byanyima told The Observer. "You cannot understand him at once. There is one side, which he shows you and another side he keeps to himself."

So why has Museveni changed from a leader who mocked African leaders who stayed in power for so long?

Appearing on the BBC no-holds-barred show hard-talk, early this year, it came of no surprise that Museveni encountered the same question by the host Stephen Sackur. "After a quarter of a century in power, have you forgotten your own words?" the host asked much to the chagrin of the President.

Museveni's answer was curt, "I've not forgotten my words. What I meant was, people who stay long in power without being elected. And the quarter of a century you are talking about I've been in government I've been elected all the time."

His response would only elicit further prodding from the host who would later question the President why he lifted the presidential term limits and yet the 1995 Constitution ushered in during his regime provided for two terms.

"I think term limits is not really the crux of the matter. What is the crux of the matter is the ability to elect or otherwise. I think we are leaving the core issues and going for the peripheral issues," responded Museveni with a tone of uneasiness.

Survival instinct:

Though the Western media has not spared Museveni criticism, it's the president's eagerness to please Western powers that has endeared him towards the US. Eventually in the much-later years where Museveni's popularity has gradually been subsiding, his fanatical embrace of Western policies has largely shaped his political survival narrative.

Though his critics accuse him of being a pawn of geopolitical gamesmanship, Museveni has a strong survival instinct. The conflict in Somalia handed Museveni a perfect opportunity to prove his pan-African credentials, portray himself as the anchorman of peace in the Great-Lakes region and more importantly get off the US radar list of countries with poor democratic ratings.

Uganda has since then won glowing praise from the West for its exploits in Somalia, which had been turned into an enclave of Islamic militancy and a breeding ground for al-Qaeda. He is well aware that the West will turn a blind eye to Uganda's tainted human rights record as long as their interests are well-served.

"You cannot eat democracy," was a response from a senior Commonwealth official in the aftermath of Dr Kizza Besigye's arrest on November 14, 2005.

US blank cheque:

Though the West often condemns the violent crackdown on opposition protests and rallies and, on a number of occasions, suspended aid as a result of graft, their engagement with Museveni, for example on fighting terrorism, is a much bigger priority. Uganda has been a major US ally in the geopolitics after Osama bin Laden sought a safe haven in Sudan in the early 1990s.

US presidents Bill Clinton and George W Bush fell for Museveni's charm offensive and admired his enthusiasm for the war against terrorism, both paying him visits. However, when US President Barack Obama got elected for his first term in 2008, some thought the blank-cheque endorsements had ended.

He aroused exuberance and many expected he would re-set American policy towards the continent of his father's birthplace. It would not be business as usual, anymore. During his visit to Ghana in 2009, Obama stepped up the ante. In his fervent speech, Obama outlined what hopefuls thought would be a paradigm shift towards Africa.

The days of the so-called Big Man or one-man rule, was over in Africa, Obama declared. Development depends on good governance. He spoke on hallowed grounds where the revered pan-African hero, Nkwame Nkrumah had whipped a frenzy amongst a fervent crowd on the eve of Ghana's independence on March 5, 1957. Obama's speech emboldened pro-democracy activists, as many prophesied the winds of change were about to blow across Africa.

But Obama was entangled in a cobweb of both domestic and foreign perils. He had inherited an economy in recession, two wars with disastrous effects, a restless Middle-East and a hostile Iranian regime.

Therefore, Obama spent most of his first term attempting to navigate the proverbial corner.

Second term lucky?

On November 8, 2012, Obama won a second term and just like four years ago, he is still confronted with monumental challenges. It's likely that before Obama pays much more attention to Africa, he will be preoccupied with rescuing the US economy from what has come to be known as the fiscal cliff.

Will he pay much more attention to the issues of governance and civil liberties affecting many African states including Uganda in his second term?

Pundits argue that as long as Museveni continues to ingratiate himself towards the West and the US economy remains in dire straits, Obama will only offer a cursory glance at Uganda's political challenges. Today Gaddafi is dead, after the west backed rebels to topple him.

It is remarkable that one of the few leaders who condemned the West for bombing Gaddafi out of power was Yoweri Museveni. It would appear that as long as he serves their strategic interests, America and Europe will not offer more than perfunctory protestations.

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