The luckiest dictator in Africa

As Uganda goes to the polls, its 25-year president has struck oil – and good fortune

On 18 February, the polls will open in Uganda, a country now known to be floating on so much oil that it could slide down a slipway, across Kenya, and into the Indian Ocean. Up for grabs is the presidency, all parliamentary and local government seats; in short, everything. And that oil. After being left to its own devices for two similar elections in the past decade, the former protectorate has again come under the gaze of Britain's fickle eye.

At the very top, Stetson wedged on, rap propaganda pouring forth from his election bandwagons, stands the President, Yoweri Museveni, in power for 25 years and leader of the National Resistance Movement (NRM). Seeming to take their lessons from history – in many cases an open, raw and still weeping history – a large number of Ugandans, in all likelihood another clear majority, seem reluctant to vote for change. Few blame them, and given the black gold sloshing around, even fewer are rushing to urge them to change their minds.

Since independence in 1962, when Britain handed over the reins of power to King Edward Mutesa II, there have been five regime changes in Uganda, none of them free of bloodshed. From Milton Obote to Mr Museveni via Idi Amin and several of his own Generals, gaining power in Uganda has necessitated a protracted period of violence. Nothing has made the people believe it is possible this time. "I want change. If a change happens, I will be the happiest woman in the world. But it will not. It cannot," Christie, a 27-year-old female Kampala taxi driver tells me.

For here is where a quarter of a century of peace, public stability, and continuous economic growth jostle and dance in the halo above Mr Museveni's head. In 2008, as the West flailed pathetically in the worst of the global financial meltdown, Mr Museveni still succeeded in leading a country with economic growth at 7 per cent. The expectations for 2011 are for growth of at least 4 per cent, and maybe as much as 10 per cent. And all this before the effects have even been felt of the 2.5 billion barrelsof oil (at a conservative estimate) found by the FTSE 100 company Tullow Oil. When you add the laudable reduction in HIV/Aids rates which have been overseen by Mr Museveni – from a prevalence of 15 per cent of all adults in 1991, the figure now stands at under 5 per cent – you can see why the President feels he deserves to stay.

Whispers may have started, after the 2001 election, of systematic intimidation, violent persecution, and endemic bribery. They may even have grown to shouts after the 2006 version. But if this was really a land of African corruption, where were Mr Museveni's palaces in the jungle? Why did Swiss banks not house half the country's resources in its vaults? And what was the first lady doing shopping in Kampala when she could have gone to Paris for the day? The answer seems to be that here the corruption is less the collection of baubles and more the accumulation of power.

The West may not have listened back then, but it should start opening its ears now. With 2.5 billion barrels of oil, great power comes easily; so, too, should great responsibility. Mr Museveni may not have followed the example of Zaire's late president, Mobutu Sese Seko, or other legends of lavish corruption, but his reported actions, seen in the cold light of our "good governance" era, are, in their own way intimidating.

In this election, promises are handed out as easily as back-slapping. Many focus on the appalling state of the roads. Driving through a particularly bumpy patch in Kampala's Kasanga district, Mike Kironde, a teacher, pulls over and starts talking to road workers as we wait for a dumper truck to drop its load. Laughter erupts as he suggests that it is all an elaborate, last-ditch "bribe" to the electorate from the President. Midway through last November, just over 10 weeks before the election, Mr Museveni implemented a £241m road improvement scheme.

One senior American businessman working in the capital makes the point that the new government could transform the country's entire road network with the $405m capital gains tax it is expecting from the Tullow Oil deal. He also acknowledges, with a grin, that that it is "unlikely".

In 2005, Mr Museveni reversed his own constitutional laws, allowing himself a third, fourth and who knows eighth term in office. Local reports claim that the small matter of a "gift" to MPs helped smooth the bill's passage through parliament. Allegedly, the success of this "democratic tool" has resulted in an increase in its use, although the price may have increased too. Last week it was widely reported that MPs had received a "brown envelope", containing £5,379, although some MPs are said to have returned the money untouched.

The military has long been under suspicion, its accountability shrouded in clouds of "national security" claims. Indeed, as far back as 2001 the UN was calling for two of Uganda's highest generals to be brought to justice for benefiting from war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. One is reported to be Mr Museveni's brother, the other his wife's cousin. Neither has ever faced trial.

What is remarkable, or perhaps remarkably worrying, is that this head-deep-in-the-sand approach seems to reflect the weary will of the electorate. Twenty-five years of one man, one party, appears to have pushed Uganda past the tipping point of much in the way of change. "What if the opposition come in and do a worse job because they have no idea what they are doing?" taxi driver Christie asks, her eyebrows jutting together. "I was born in 1983, so all I remember is Museveni. The others have no experience. How could they do better?" The President is the status quo. He is safety. It's a powerful weapon, and he knows it.

This entwines itself usefully around the niggling sensation that the opposition may not be any better. "People now see Besigye [Kizza Besigye, the leader of the main opposition party, the Forum for Democratic Change (FDC)] in the same way they do Museveni. He has held on to power just like the President. He should not be here any more. Now all the people are interested in is whether he will lose by more than in 2006," complains Kironde.

It is the third time Dr Besigye has led the opposition fight. In the independent Democracy Monitoring Group report from December 2010, the public are said to have labelled the FDC as second only to the NRM in levels of corruption. The problem for Dr Besigye is that bribery is so embedded that it has become the norm. Nearly 80 per cent of those questioned said that they expected to receive "gifts" during the election. And what is left of the professional classes – a recent estimate suggests that more than 700,000 educated and qualified Ugandans live, love and work abroad – seem accepting of their fate.

As the election campaign marches into its final days, the chances of game-changing momentum seem as remote as ever. Not that this has stopped Mr Museveni and the NRM planning for trouble. Uganda's independent newspaper, the Daily Monitor, has been reporting on the formations of private militia for months. The government does not deny it, but calls them "crime preventers".

Uganda may have universal primary (since 1997) and secondary (2007) education, but it doesn't have jobs. Forevery 400,000 graduates emerging from tertiary education each year, fewer than 10,000 can expect to find stable employment, which means there are approximately 50 qualified Ugandans for every available position. Lots of people have lots of time on their hands.

Such realities mean some violence is expected, particularly after the election, because Mr Museveni isn't going anywhere. But Tullow and its shareholders can breathe easy; they will get their New Year wish for "stability". As James Dharia, one of the countless entrepreneurs fighting for survival in Kampala, says: "The trouble will come when Museveni dies, not when he is still alive."

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