Museveni lays ghosts of past dictators

Ugandan elections: Voters expected to endorse president who led them out of the darkness
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No one could accuse Ugandans of political apathy. They have turned up in their thousands, singing, dancing and waving branches at countrywide rallies in the run-up to today's elections, Uganda's first ever direct presidential poll.

In a nation where political parties are officially disallowed and where candidates must stand as individuals, such fervour might seem surprising.

Both main contenders have been campaigning tirelessly, criss-crossing the lush landscape before converging in the last few days on the capital, Kampala. Despite widespread predictions that the incumbent, President Yoweri Museveni, will comfortably win the elections, his main opponent, Doctor Paul Ssemogerere, has had more success in opinion polls and has drawn bigger crowds than was originally anticipated.

While today's vote is ostensibly about the direction Uganda will take in the future, the issues underpinning it point very much towards the past. Uganda was, in the words of a western diplomat here "the first major country in Africa to go to hell". Its people have bitter memories of the regimes of terror of both Idi Amin in the 1970s and of Milton Obote in the first half of the 1980s.

Foremost in the minds of most Ugandans is the desire to avoid a repeat of those terrible years during which as many as three quarters of a million people were killed. President Museveni is the man who defeated Obote and put and end to the brutal cycle of suffering and ruin.

Since the advent to power in 1986 of President Museveni and his National Resistance Movement, Uganda has known a decade of relative peace and prosperity. With an average economic growth rate of 6 per cent per annum, the country has become the darling of the western donor community which funds it to the tune of some pounds 350m a year. It is for this reason that the Museveni camp has chosen the uninspiring election slogan, "No change", which does little credit to the president's reputation as a reformer and moderniser.

The task facing Dr Ssemogerere, the candidate fielded by the two main opposition parties, is a difficult one. A former cabinet minister and the believed winner of the rigged 1980 elections which brought Obote to power for a second time, Ssemogerere is a respected politician. However, he lacks the charisma and track record of his opponent.

The Ssemogerere manifesto promises to replace Museveni's "no-party" system with multi-party democracy. It also pledges a negotiated resolution of a localised but vicious rebel insurgency in northern Uganda and improved relations with the Sudanese government, which is supporting the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) rebels.

The LRA's endorsement of Doctor Ssemogerere's campaign has, however, alienated many Ugandans, particularly in the south. Also causing concern to many is the alliance between Doctor Ssemogerere's Democratic Party (which has a southern support base) and the Uganda People's Congress (UPC), the party of the exiled Milton Obote, which draws most of its support from the north.

While himself of untarnished reputation, Doctor Ssemogerere has underestimated the terrible associations which the UPC holds for many Ugandans. By publicly announcing that he would not prevent Obote from returning to Uganda if elected, Ssemogerere sent shock waves through those southern areas which suffered most under the dictator.

"I feel frightened when I hear talk of Obote coming back", says John Mukasa, a farmer in a village within sight of Lake Victoria. "My wife was beheaded and I was tortured during that man's regime. I had two farms which were both destroyed by the army. It was Museveni who lifted Uganda out of the pit it had fallen in to. Now there are new houses appearing in this neighbourhood, the children are all going to school and there are smart cars on the road".

Mr Mukasa says he is not concerned by President Museveni's opposition to multi-party politics. Like the president, he believes political parties will resurrect the ethnic tensions which tore Uganda apart under dictators Amin and Obote.

There are, however, growing indications that the international community, in particular the United States, will reduce donor support for the Museveni government unless greater moves are made towards multi-party democracy.