Will Uganda gamble on democracy?

In his small office above the family tyre business in the Ugandan capital, the smell of rubber compound wafting in through the door, Augustine Ruzindana was on an international conference call with Australia, Britain, the Czech Republic, Germany, Peru and the United States.

Mr Ruzindana, chairman of the Ugandan parliament's public accounts committee, is also the only African council member of the International Anti-Corruption Conference, which was meeting by phone.

It is a sign of the international esteem in which Uganda is held, in contrast to many of its violent, chaotic neighbours. But at the end of the hour-long call, he began explaining why his country was not ready for full democracy.

"We have looked at multi-party systems in other African countries," he said, "and found they operate only in the urban areas. In the countryside there is always a one-party state. The political classes and urban dwellers in Uganda feel stifled, but the rural majority feels our system has created harmony, and they fear losing it."

Some time before 4 July, more than 14 years after President Yoweri Museveni's National Resistance Army marched into Kampala and took power, Ugandans will vote in a referendum on whether to return to party politics or stick with the existing system, in which the President's National Resistance Movement, or NRM, is the only body with full political powers.

Elections have been held - Mr Museveni won thumpingly in 1996, when the parliament also came into being - but candidates had to stand as individuals. Nobody doubts the NRM will win, not least because the old political parties are boycotting the poll, arguing that a basic human right such as free association cannot be put to a vote.

Western countries, which have pumped aid and investment into Uganda, do not seem inclined to press Mr Museveni to move faster towards democracy. Far from it: he is still regarded as a model for other African leaders.

Although donor nations have rejected appeals to help pay the costs of the referendum, they are funding a voter education programme run through private bodies such as religious and women's groups, a move regarded here as an endorsement of the government's "no politics" strategy.

The irony is that if the NRM fought a free election as a political party, it would be sure to win easily. The party can point to growing prosperity, with rapid economic growth during the 1990s: last year, despite a slowdown, the economy still grew by 4.5 per cent.

Shortly after Mr Museveni took over, Kampala was a shabby, dangerous city, patrolled by teenage fighters in wellingtons. Now the capital is a battleground only for mobile phone companies competing to sign up subscribers among the highly visible middle class.

Uganda is also the only African country in which new cases of Aids, the scourge of the continent, are falling. The memory of the murderous Amin and Obote regimes is fresh enough to remind people how much they have to lose.

The recent cult massacre in the south-west of the country, most of whose victims were poor, barely literate rural women and children, has shed unaccustomed light on how insecure life still is for the most disadvantaged Ugandans. It would not be surprising if the prospect of radical change unsettled them.

Unlike, say, Zimbabwe, Uganda's version of the one-party state is far from monolithic. "A lot of power has been decentralised," said William Pike, editor in chief of New Vision, a government-owned newspaper. "We have one of the most liberal economies in the region. State-owned companies, the vehicle of patronage in most African countries, have been sold off. Almost every radio station is private now, and there is plenty of free speech."

Local councils have been given greater powers, and the parliament is asserting its right to challenge government decisions. But Mr Pike admitted Mr Museveni and the NRM are at a low ebb.

Apart from the economic slowdown and lingering insurgencies which affect a third of the country, Uganda is embroiled militarily in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The intervention has absorbed much of the president's attention, is unpopular and has undermined confidence among investors.

The issue is not as prominent as in Zimbabwe, where President Robert Mugabe's Congo adventure - aiding the opposing side to the Ugandans - has caused such public outrage. As in Zimbabwe, there are complaints in Uganda that senior generals are making money in Congo, which explains their reluctance to withdraw their troops.

Increasing corruption is also seized upon by Mr Museveni's critics to argue that he is losing momentum after so many years in power. His so-called "movement" philosophy, they say, is nothing but window-dressing for classic African "big man" politics.

"The argument is not whether Museveni has done well or not, but whether we should have a system in which he is subject to scrutiny," said Anthony Ssekwekeyama, national publicity secretary of the Democratic Party. One of the country's main "old" parties, it has traditional links with the Catholic church.

"The international community has to learn a lesson here," said Mr Ssekwekeyama. "If you bump into a really good fellow like Museveni, you should help him create a system that can survive the individual. There would be an immediate military struggle for power if he went today. If he wants to be remembered, it should be as the man who created a broad national consensus and a durable political system."

That is exactly what Mr Museveni has done, say leading NRM figures such as Mr Ruzindana. "The improvements have been qualitative," he said. "We are not worried about the system surviving Museveni. We are building viable democratic institutions which are not dependent on one individual.

"There is far more tolerance now of differences in opinions, tribes, religions. The main problem is within the political class, which is frustrated because it sees no chance of power."

Under Uganda's "movement" system, much imitated elsewhere in Africa, bodies such as the Democratic Party should have withered away. That is unlikely to happen, whatever the result of the referendum, and Mr Ruzinda admitted the vote would not be the end of the matter.

"The NRM's basic thinking has been to create the right environment for healthy politics," he said. "It was a bit Utopian, and we haven't succeeded."

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