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One of President Museveni’s military bodyguards passes a billboard at an election rally in the lead-up to Uganda’s first multi-party election since Museveni came to power.


Tourism of the more adventurous kind may be increasingly common – tracking mountain gorillas near the border with Rwanda and DR Congo, or rafting on the Nile, which starts its long journey to the Mediterranean here – but to many outsiders Uganda’s claim to fame is still little more than Idi Amin, the jovial but brutal dictator whose ‘reign of terror’ in this former British colony lasted from 1971 to 1979.

But 27 years after Amin was overthrown, civil war continues to plague Uganda, and there are increasingly disturbing echoes of the tyrannical past in the regime of Yoweri Museveni. When Museveni took power in January 1986 following a guerrilla war, he was soon seen by the West as a leader who might usher in a new era, someone with whom it could do business. To some extent this has happened: Uganda has been seen as a ‘model student’ by the World Bank and the IMF and is ploughing much of its debt relief into making primary education available to all. It has also been notably successful in fighting the HIV/AIDS pandemic that ravaged the country in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

But Museveni, it is increasingly clear, has a profound dislike for dissenting opinions. Last February he was re-elected president for a further five years – just after he scrapped presidential term limits from the constitution. Museveni’s top challenger was his former doctor and retired colonel, Kizza Besigye.

Besigye accuses Museveni of being dictatorial and nepotic – and he has paid a high price for that view. Shortly after Besigye lost an earlier election to Museveni in 2001, he fled into exile in South Africa due to harassment by state agents. He returned last October, only to be thrown in jail on charges of rape, terrorism and illegal possession of firearms. He was nominated for president while in jail, and though he was acquitted in court of the rape charge, the others still stand. Besigye supporters are often arrested and tortured by security agents, and scores are in jail.

Museveni’s critics say his Ankole people – just one of the more than 60 ethnic groups recognized by Uganda’s constitution – provide the majority of army generals and cabinet ministers, with his own Hima sub-group the main beneficiary.

Museveni’s young brother, Salim Saleh, whom he once dismissed from the position of army commander because of his excessive drinking and indiscipline, and whom the UN accused of looting resources when Ugandan troops occupied neighbouring DR Congo seven years ago, has just been named a minister. In May, Museveni’s wife was elected to Parliament. His son has trotted through army ranks to become a battalion commander in his father’s élite Presidential Guard Brigade and is more powerful than most generals. Military rank matters in Uganda because not only has the country at one time or another fought the armies of DR Congo, Rwanda and Sudan, but it has faced a civil war in the north since 1988. Mystical guerillas calling themselves the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) and led by an illiterate former catechist, Joseph Kony, claim they want to replace Museveni’s regime with one based on the biblical Ten Commandments but their main characteristic has been their brutality. The Government and the LRA are currently negotiating a peaceful end to the war which has displaced two million people and turned Kony’s Acholi home into a wasteland.

If the civil war can be resolved, Uganda will be even more attractive to foreign investors – its GDP has grown at more than five per cent a year over the last decade. But growth is slowing, partly due to power shortages. Though just six per cent of Uganda’s population have access to the national electricity grid, supply meets less than one-third of demand so that even the dusty capital Kampala is in darkness at least three nights a week. The rich own inverters or solar panels; middle-income earners have to run diesel-run generators; the poor, needless to say, must do without.

Fact file

Leader President Yoweri Museveni.
Economy GNI per capita: $270 (Kenya $460, Britain $33,940).
Monetary unit Uganda Shilling.
Main exports coffee, tea, fish, cocoa, vanilla, tobacco, cotton. About 80% of Ugandans are engaged in agriculture, which accounts for about 44% of GDP. Remittances from Ugandan migrant workers in Europe and America have grown exponentially, and the country has launched a policy to encourage people to work abroad – including several hundred guards at US military facilities in Iraq.
People 27.8 million. People per square kilometre: 115 (UK 245). The population growth rate of 3.2% means it is growing by more than a million a year.
Health Infant mortality 80 per 1,000 live births (Kenya 79, Britain 5). Better quality reproductive health services are sorely needed to reduce population growth, decrease high infant and maternal mortality rates, and sustain achievements in the fight against HIV/AIDS and other infectious diseases.
Environment There is a high rate of deforestation, reclamation of wetlands, as well as overfishing. The National Environment Management Authority is addressing the challenges.
Culture The Baganda, Banyankole and Basoga are the largest ethnic groups. Approximately 99% of the population is of African descent and 1% European or Asian. Despite Amin’s expulsion of Asians in the 1970s, there is a fairly large Indian population in the main urban centres.
Religion Christian 62%, Muslim 13%. Around 19% follow traditional religions, which are also respected by many Christians and Muslims.
Language English is the official language, and there are plans to make Kiswahili an official language too. *Human Development Index*: 1990 0.409; 2003 0.508 (Kenya 0.474, Britain 0.939).

Country ratings in detail

Income distribution Despite overall growth, 38% of the population live below the poverty line of one US dollar a day, compared with 34% five years ago.
Literacy Though more than 30% of Ugandans are illiterate, the introduction of universal primary education is changing the situation.
Life expectancy 48 years (Kenya 48, Britain 79). Up from an AIDS-driven low of 42 years when last profiled.
Freedom This year Uganda held the first multiparty elections in 25 years, and parties which were under lock for two decades can now operate. But state agents often harass, arrest and sometimes torture opposition leaders and supporters.
Position of women Uganda has strong affirmative action clauses in the constitution, which outlaw any laws or customs that hold women as second citizens. There are special women MPs and councillors, and female students enter university with lower points than male. But cultural practices still strongly disadvantage women.
Sexual minorities Homosexuality is an offence punishable by life imprisonment. Museveni is one of Africa’s most prominent gay-bashers.
Previously reviewed 1995
New Internationalist assessment In May Museveni appointed to his cabinet some moderate members of the opposition, and political parties now operate more freely that at any time in the past. His government is also talking peace with the LRA rebels. But trumped-charges against Besigye, rising unemployment, widening income inequalities, rampant corruption, and the massive power blackouts which are stunting economic growth don’t augur well for the country’s future.

New Internationalist issue 394 magazine cover This article is from the October 2006 issue of New Internationalist.
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