When Uganda’s president,Yoweri Museveni,came to power in 1986 after a long bush war,he promised a sea change for his landlocked country: peace and security for all,democracy,prosperity and frugal governance. He made a point,then,of lambasting the pathetic spectacle of rotten African leaders flying to summits in executive jets. In 2001 he promised to serve only the two terms provided for by the constitution. In 2005 he reneged by changing the constitution so he could serve a third term. He is likely to run again in 2011,and win.
Judged by his original promises,Mr Museveni has been a failure. The north of the country,terrorised by the rebel Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA),has been a blood-spattered mess for two decades-and still awaits a real peace. Democracy has been corroded by the army’s continuing power,as well as by Mr Museveni’s refusal to relinquish office. The economy is stumbling. Frugality has been trumped by corruption.
A million-plus people,most of them resentful Acholis,still live in squalid camps in the north. The monstrous ragtag militias that drove them out of their villages are still at large; a recent military campaign against the LRA in neighbouring Congo has been indecisive. Troops from Uganda,Congo and South Sudan,backed by Ugandan air raids and American intelligence,hammered the LRA’s camps towards the end of last year. But,like mercury,the LRA fighters slipped away through the jungle in several directions,burning villages,butchering hundreds of civilians and kidnapping children to slave for it. The UN’s head of humanitarian affairs,Sir John Holmes,says the campaign’s result was catastrophic. The war goes bloodily on.
In the capital,Kampala,you see tell-tale signs of a country struggling to keep up. In contrast to Ethiopia,another regime run by former guerrillas,Uganda has a colourful abundance of mobile phones and banks; its economy has grown steadily in recent years. But the government’s hopes that it would grow this year by 9 per cent look fanciful; the real rate may be closer to 4 per cent. Uganda’s tax authorities say they are unlikely to meet targets because businesses are flagging. The country is struggling to attract foreign money. Investors often complain that Ugandans are not skilled or hard-working enough. Many of the country’s chief executive officers are brought in from Kenya.
Though Mr Museveni is more interested in cows than Bentleys,pilfering by officials has damaged his standing at home and abroad. Western aid-givers say they have lost patience yet continue to pay for a third of Uganda’s budget. Mr Museveni is said to have incensed the IMF by buying a new Gulfstream V executive jet to replace his existing Gulfstream just after the fund agreed to its latest debt-relief package.
Uganda should benefit from recent oil finds in Lake Albert,but many worry that its government may spend too much of the cash on the armed forces. That would fit a pattern of indulging the men with guns. Uganda’s army is one of Africa’s strongest. The police have tripled in size to 40,000 in recent years; the president keeps them sweet by giving recruits paramilitary training,heavy weapons included.
In the longer term,Mr Museveni has ambitions to turn the East African Community (EAC),which includes Kenya,Tanzania,Burundi and Rwanda as well as his own country,into a single-currency trading zone. He has rejected the efforts of the African Union’s new year-long chairman,Muammar Qaddafi,an old ally,to move towards what the Libyan leader describes as a United States of Africa. That would,perhaps,overshadow his own ambition of becoming the EAC’s first president.
Yet while Mr Museveni plots his future,he is oddly blasé about other challenges. He has made no effort to groom a successor from within his ruling National Resistance Movement,leaving his wife and son as front-runners. He conflates population growth with market growth. The percentage of Ugandans in poverty remains above one-third,so absolute numbers have risen. The relatively few Ugandans in paid employment are under strain. The fecundity of the land,with its plentiful harvests,may take the edge off political protest for now. But Uganda is drifting,even as its population has grown from 15m when Mr Museveni took office to 31m today.
© The Economist Newspaper Limited 2009