March of democracy falters in Africa

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The Independent Online

Democracy in Africa took a faltering step forward but yet another step back as Liberia formally announced the election of the continent's first woman president, while in Uganda, the government's chief rival was charged with treason.

Kizza Besigye, Uganda's opposition leader who is seen as the main challenger to President Yoweri Museveni in multi-party elections next March, was arrested yesterday on the orders of the President. Meanwhile, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf became the Liberian head of state.

Mr Besigye was accused of plotting a rebellion against Mr Museveni's government and having links to Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) rebels in the north. He has lived in exile for the past four years and returned to Uganda only three weeks ago.

His supporters brought the centre of Kampala, Uganda's capital, to a standstill yesterday and police responded by firing tear gas into the crowds. When the demonstrators hurled rocks, security forces beat them back and fired into the crowd.

Mr Besigye's Forum for Democratic Change (FDC) condemned the charges as politically motivated attempts to thwart opposition to President Museveni. The government is determined to change the country's constitution to let the President run for another term and seems even more determined to make sure he is the only candidate who stands a chance of winning.

Wafula Oguttu, an FDC spokesman, said: "Museveni is just trying to remove him from campaigning and from standing in the election because he knows Besigye will defeat him."

Meanwhile, results of the presidential election in Liberia were marred by the reaction of the victor's main rival, the footballer George Weah, who is demanding a re-run of the vote.

Mrs Johnson-Sirleaf officially became the continent's first elected female president yesterday, but celebrations were muted amid the former Chelsea player's allegations that the election was rigged.

The 18 MPs from his party who won seats have said they will boycott parliament, even though the African Union (AU) and several African countries have declared the elections to be free and fair.

Treason charges have also been brought against Ethiopian opposition leaders by Meles Zenawi, the Prime Minister, after post-election riots left more than 40 people dead. He claimed that senior members of the rival Coalition for Unity and Democracy were inciting violence when they called for Ethiopians to protest against alleged fraud in the parliamentary elections in May.

In all three countries, politicians who claimed to be in favour of democracy panicked when it became clear that democratic elections could in fact undermine their position. Condemnation from external bodies such as the AU or even foreign governments do little to persuade them to stick to electoral protocol.

Mr Weah ran a populist campaign, presenting himself as closer to the common people than Mrs Johnson-Sirleaf, who was educated at Harvard University. He appears to be genuinely astonished that he lost the presidential elections.

Likewise Prime Minister Zenawi, a member of Tony Blair's Commission for Africa, pledged to run free and fair elections, but did not appear to have thought about the possibility of losing.