Uganda slips through West's democracy net: The aid weapon is forcing change in Africa, but its use is selective

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The Independent Online
THROUGHOUT Africa multi-party democracy, the new enthusiasm of the West, is triumphing. Only three years ago the very mention of it brought denunciations of neo-colonialism, but now the weakness of Africa and the power of the aid donors have changed some minds. Even the staunchest opponents of multi-party democracy - Daniel arap Moi of Kenya, Felix Houphouet-Boigny of Ivory Coast and Hastings Kamuzu Banda of Malawi - have been forced to hold elections.

Only two of the new multi-party democracies, Benin and Zambia, can be considered true successes, and Zambia has reverted to a state of emergency. Threats from the aid donors have tumbled the one-party states into multi-party elections but one country - Uganda - has resisted and still gets aid. President Yoweri Museveni has banned all party-political activity and rules through a de facto one-party state.

But the winds of change bringing free markets, democracy and accountable government have blown through Kenya. When President Moi did not bend to the wind, Kenya became the first country to be given explicitly political goals by its aid donors.

Mr Moi was told to hold multi-party democracy elections or he would get no aid. He held the elections but he still did not get aid and this week he rebelled - denouncing the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank for imposing 'dictatorial and suicidal' policies on Kenya. Kenya is now the unlikely battleground for a war between the West and Africa.

Next door, aid-rich Uganda, one of the poorest and weakest countries in Africa, sails on apparently unaffected by donor demands for elections. One reason is the strong personal chemistry between Baroness Chalker, the Minister for Overseas Development, and President Museveni. One of her first trips to Africa was to Uganda in 1986, days after Mr Museveni took over, and the relationship between the baroness and the philosopher-fighter has blossomed.

Another reason is that although Mr Museveni has been dictatorial and respressive at times, he is an angel compared to predecessors such as Idi Amin and Milton Obote. He has also taken some tough economic decisions pleasing to the donors. And his political ideas for Uganda make a lot of sense. To Mr Museveni multi-party democracy represents a return to the tribal- and religion-based politics of the past. He wants a democracy which grows from the local to the national without getting snarled up in regional, tribal or religious differences. He has not banned the traditional political parties but they are not allowed actively to campaign and they are marginalised from the political scene.

When the National Resistance Movement - Mr Museveni's rebel group that overthrew President Milton Obote - came to power it tried to cultivate grassroots democracy. Local leaders were supposed to elect regional leaders who were supposed to elect national leaders. But in Uganda, as elsewhere, village democracy has not produced national leaders. Uganda's rulers are the same people who arrived with Mr Museveni. The Constitutional Commission, which reflects Mr Museveni's views, now recommends Uganda should go for a 'no-party' democracy and that parties be restricted for another seven years.

How long will the aid donors accept this defiance? In the longer term Mr Museveni must either allow multi-party democracy and turn the NRM into a political party, or try to run a 'no-party' election. He has his own reasons for wanting a 'no-party' democracy. He comes from a small western group, the Bahima. He lost the only election in which he has ever stood and in a multi-party system that turned tribal, he and his group would be annihilated.

Even those donors who believe Mr Museveni does put forward a sensible political dispensation for Uganda and possibly for Africa cannot allow it to set a precedent for rulers such as Dr Banda and Mr Moi. Mr Museveni's best hope is that his more philosophical and constitutional approach will give him some time with the donors in which they will lose their enthusiasm for democracy in Africa and stick by their friends again.