Not too long ago Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni was considered a model of leadership in and for Africa. It was a Museveni-led liberation army which finally brought to an end the chaos and violence which followed the collapse of Idi Amin’s nightmarish dictatorship. His National Resistance Army simultaneously fought a military and political campaign. Even while engaged in military struggle it tried to set up elected, local representative committees in rural areas.
For years Uganda has enjoyed relative economic stability with growth rates of above five per cent and inflation in single digits (even while fighting a war in the north of the country against the bizarre Lord’s Resistance Army). A lot of the infrastructure destroyed or left to rot during the Amin era has been rebuilt and the early postwar growth reflected the re-utilization of abandoned capacity. Unlike in many parts of Africa undergoing World Bank-inspired economic reform, Ugandan economic growth was accompanied by significant social improvements. Primary school enrolment more than doubled and household surveys conducted by the Ugandan Bureau of Statistics showed steady reductions in poverty.
Uganda was exposed to the horrors of AIDS before most other African nations, but its efforts to deal with the disease have set an example for the rest of the continent. Museveni’s ABC approach to prevention – Abstain, Be faithful and use Condoms – has proved quite effective. And many African countries are learning from Uganda how to encourage frank and open discussion about AIDS, how to deal with entrenched cultural attitudes which fuel the spread of the disease and how to combat the stigma that is attached to people living with AIDS.
There was some concern when Museveni’s movement, having attained power, decided that political parties would not be allowed to field candidates at elections. They were held to be divisive forces in developing countries. Museveni argued that, while parties divided along class lines in the Western democracies, they tended to divide, quite dangerously, along religious and ethnic lines in Africa. Instead Museveni instituted the ‘movement’ system of politics where anyone who wanted to seek elective office could do so only on an individual basis, not through the sponsorship of a political party. The history of multi-party politics in Uganda and indeed in most of Africa has not been fantastic, so it didn’t seem altogether a bad thing to seek alternatives. And for many years the movement system did allow for a measure of open debate.
But in recent years, faced with strong and sustained political opposition, Museveni has become increasingly authoritarian. The hounding of political opponents worsened steadily and reached a new high when his former comrade-in-arms and personal physician Kizza Besigye mounted a strong challenge for the presidency during elections in 2001.
‘The anointment of Museveni and Zenawi as model leaders was premature, as is the reversion to the handy pessimism that Africa is a hopeless continent’
Museveni won and Besigye fled into exile complaining that the elections were heavily rigged and that his life was in danger. The last straw for many of Museveni’s former admirers was his decision in 2005 to change the Ugandan constitution to allow him to run for another term in office. Each Ugandan parliamentarian was reportedly offered the equivalent of $3,000 to approve this change. He then ran for the 2006 presidential elections, and predictably defeated Besigye, who’d returned from exile to run against him. Besigye was hardly able to campaign because on his return Museveni put him on trial on (probably trumped-up) charges of treason, terrorism and rape.
The disappointment about the turn of events in Uganda is probably made worse coming at about the same time as another former model, Ethiopia’s Meles Zenawi, member of Tony Blair’s Commission on Africa, is having his police force kill and lock away political opponents. A few years ago leaders like Museveni and Zenawi had inspired the idea that an African renaissance was afoot. Their recent tragic failings have revived the familiar prejudices about how Africa will perpetually remain the heart of darkness.
The anointment of Museveni and Zenawi as model leaders was premature, as is the reversion to the handy pessimism that Africa is a hopeless continent. Even as admirers abroad were promoting Museveni, many Ugandans were concerned that real political power in their country was really held by a small group of ex-fighters, like Museveni and Besigye, and that many at the top were deeply corrupt. One of the more sensational scandals of the late 1990s was the secret purchase by Museveni’s brother, an army general, of the country’s largest bank. It was never satisfactorily explained how he could buy such a substantial business on his army officer’s salary.
Museveni’s intervention in the Congo wars, moreover, went beyond the need to protect Ugandan territory. Congo has successfully proved at the International Court of Justice that the Ugandan regime and its allies systematically stole a lot of Congo’s wealth. It seemed that, because of what he had accomplished, people outside Uganda were ready to ignore the dark side of Museveni’s rule. Thus he enjoyed a far more favourable opinion in the international media than among his own people. And the world is only waking up to what many in Uganda long knew.
The relapse into pessimism because of the former models that have failed ignores the positive democratic pressures which forced these men, who were more admired than they deserved to be, to reveal their true colours. As the democratic changes achieved across most of Africa in the 1990s come under threat from power-hungry leaders, what is most remarkable is the readiness of political and civil groups to rise in defence of democracy. This political opposition to authoritarian leaders is being sustained even under the most difficult circumstances. And it is these democratic movements, not the transient darlings of the international media, that will determine Africa’s future.