Leading article: Two steps forward and one back

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The Independent Online

It is all too easy to feel weary about Africa. Take yesterday's elections in Uganda. Under the country's constitution, the President was only allowed two terms of office. But Yoweri Museveni got parliament to change the rules to allow him a third term, threatening, according to his critics, to become president for life. Museveni believes he is the only person to lead Uganda. Thus power corrupts - though the delusion of indispensability is not, of course, confined to African politicians.

Yet even his opponents concede that Museveni has been for two decades an outstanding leader. He instituted free schools, doubling the numbers in primary education. He introduced affirmative action for women, created a new constitution and loosened government control of the media. His anti-Aids campaign combined education, condoms and abstinence to reduce the rate of HIV infection from 30 per cent to single-digit figures. He rehabilitated infrastructure, improved incentives for production and exports, reduced inflation, improved domestic security and brought back Uganda's Asian entrepreneurs. He turned one of the poorest countries in Africa into the fastest growing economy on the continent; for 20 years growth has averaged 5 per cent, with a phenomenal 9 per cent in 2005.

It has not all been success. His military adventures in the Congo have drained resources. He has been unable to finish off the rebel Lord's Resistance Army, whose rampages have forced more than 1.6 million people into in refugee camps. And, in recent years, he has demonstrated an increasing intolerance of his critics, cracking down on journalists and arbitrarily arresting and harassing opponents. His chief rival in yesterday's poll, Kizza Besigye, was diverted from campaigning by a trial on trumped-up charges of treason and rape.

Having said that, Uganda is in a far more robust state now than when President Museveni took power in 1986. Civil cases brought by his supporters to get Mr Besigye's candidacy nullified have failed, and the Ugandan press has been outspoken, showing that a free press and independent-minded judiciary are real. And the President himself has conceded that his old ban on party politics - which, when he took over, were feeding tribal and religious divisions - has served its purpose. These were the first multi-party elections for 25 years, turn-out was high, there was no significant violence and reports of voting irregularities were only sporadic.

Given all this, it seems likely that President Museveni will be re-elected, but not by the landslide he wants, and possibly having to face a second round run-off with his main rival. Such is the two-steps-forward, one-step-back world of African politics.