Renaissance Leader Runs Out of Steam

>> Thursday, December 27, 2007

By William Wallis, FINANCIAL TIMES
Published: November 20 2007 06:27 | Last updated: November 20 2007 06:27

Much hope for Africa’s emergence was invested until relatively recently in a new generation of leaders from Ethiopia, via Uganda to the Cape.

African countries, so the thinking went, had a better chance of emerging from poverty and conflict with tough visionaries, who believed in self-reliance, at their command. Uganda has been one example of how that thinking has, in less than a decade, been turning on its head.

In the mid-1990s Yoweri Museveni, the president, was at the heart of a group of leaders lauded in Washington, the UK and parts of Africa itself, as the vanguard of an “African renaissance.” If there is talk this week of another African dawn, when 54 heads of state descend on Kampala for the Commonwealth’s biennial summit, it will be for different reasons.

Hopes for Uganda today – as for other parts of the continent – are less bound up in its leadership. Instead they are inspired by technocrats keeping a tight rein, against considerable odds, at the central bank; by graduates emerging, politically conscious and connected to each other by mobile phones; and by dynamic businesses thriving – relative to the past – alongside steady inflows of foreign investment. He still has many supporters. But Mr Museveni is now viewed increasingly by diplomats, donors, and a good number of Ugandans themselves, as an impediment to the country’s prospects. To his reported irritation, an increasing number tell him that, to protect his legacy, he should go.

It is revealing that of the handful of “renaissance leaders” in whom so much hope once rested, four have taken their countries to war. None has yet relinquished power or prepared a smooth succession, and most have become more autocratic with time. Mr. Museveni, now in his 21st year in power, has been no exception.

Like other liberation movement leaders he has resisted the transition from military to democratic rule. In the past decade, he has led Uganda into two wars in neighbouring Congo in which his army’s reputation was damaged by complicity in plunder and abuse. Until a lull last year, the army also fought a brutal rebellion at home, to the enduring bitterness of Ugandans in the affected north who felt peace could and should have been made sooner.

Nor has the state shown much sign of becoming more tolerant. In some respects, human rights groups say, the opposite has been the case, especially since 2005 when the constitution was altered to allow Mr Museveni to stand for a third elected term at the same time as political parties were legalised. The main challenger in elections last year has been in and out of courts. A number of Uganda’s more strident journalists have been too.

Yet, Mr Museveni is also a victim of his own success. The economic recovery he has been instrumental in engineering has put strains on infrastructure that threaten future growth. Having opened the books to more scrutiny than many of his peers, more evidence has emerged of nepotism and corruption. In new property developments sprawling over Kampala’s seven hills, in shopping malls and grinding traffic, there are signs of a re-emerging middle class, bringing yet more demands.

“Underneath, structural change is taking place in society. The number of people with secondary school education is rising and so is their demand for jobs. This in turn is creating a civil conscience in society,” says Andrew Mwenda, an outspoken Ugandan commentator. Members of a new generation, such as Mr Mwenda, tend to view the ruling class as corrupt and anachronistic, and value less the stability Mr Museveni represents to more conservative Ugandans who lived through darker periods in the past.

When he took power in 1986 after a five-year guerrilla war, Uganda’s economy was on its knees. Society had been traumatised by the manic rule of Idi Amin, followed by the murderous regime of Milton Obote. It was hard to argue with Mr Museveni’s vision of how democracy in Africa should evolve – around a single movement in which different groups could be represented but without political parties around which divisive ethnic interests could coalesce.

Uganda was a “sick patient” he said, persuading much of the world that he was the right man to heal it. Overcoming initially Marxist leanings he went to the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund to bankroll his recovery programme. In the ensuing years Uganda threw open markets, privatised state industries, and floated its currency. It also restored properties and businesses seized when Idi Amin expelled a whole mercantile and professional class of Asians from Uganda in 1972. Setting a precedent for the sanctity of property rights, this helped encourage an influx of foreign investment from other quarters too.

“Museveni did one thing that will forever be his saving grace,” says Andrew Rugasira, whose “Good African Coffee” company supplies UK and South African supermarkets. “He liberalised the economy so everyone from petty traders to big industrialists can do their thing.”In the past 20 years growth in gross domestic product has averaged 6 per cent – a record unparalleled over such a span in Africa. With assistance from foreign donors, poverty has been reduced from 56 to 31 per cent, Aids infection rates among the sexually active have declined from 18 per cent to more like 7, although there are signs of a recent climb, and universal primary and now secondary education have been introduced.

Yet Uganda is still among the world’s poorest countries, dependent for 40 per cent of its national budget on foreign aid. It was only in 2000 that it regained the per capita GDP levels at independence in 1962. With a population of 28m growing at 3 per cent, overwhelmingly rural and with a majority under the age of 15, the strains are visible.

“On the macroeconomic level Uganda is still doing very well. But they need to get to the next frontier. Health performance is stagnating. In education there is a quality quagmire. On infrastructure – you can’t keep building new roads if you don’t maintain them,” says a senior donor official.“Underlying all of this, the main architecture of success is no longer working – the government machinery,” the offical adds. “We no longer have a critical mass of well-educated, effective bureaucrats who have the interests of the people at heart.”

Mr Museveni, who visited US president George W. Bush in Washington this month, is an experienced tactician. He has maintained strong support abroad partly by collaborating in the US war on terror, and most recently by sending the only peacekeeping troops to Somalia, where the west fears a resurgence of al-Qaeda-linked Islamists. He has also tried to make peace in Uganda’s war-torn north – something his supporters hope will deliver him votes if, as anticipated, he stands for a fourth elected term in 2011. But friends as well as critics say his style of government has become less inclusive and more dependent on patronage than the persuasive power of his ideas.

“The very institutions he spent years building, he is now weakening,” says a senior donor official. The danger is that maintaining power has become more of a priority than putting it to good effect, argues Mr Mwenda. That formula for political and economic stalemate is one that has cost many countries, not only in Africa, dearly.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2007


About This Blog

The X.U.G (Xpose Uganda's Genocide) Coalition was created to bring to light the truth about Yoweri Museveni's woefully undemocratic regime and the ongoing secret genocide in northern Uganda, with the aim of the restoration of human rights and peace.

The coalition's secondary goal is to ensure accountability for reconstruction and development funds slated for war-torn N. Uganda by the US and other donors.

A crisis of epic proportions, the genocide being carried out against the Acoli for the last two decades has produced devastating consequences.

For the sake of current and future generations in Uganda, the world must recognize and end the genocide in Uganda. All Ugandans have a right to basic human rights, including the right to health, protection and education.

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