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A threat to Africa's success story

FOR THE PAST decade, Uganda has been one of Africa's success stories. It has been held up as an African poster child for economic reform, improved human rights, and a champion in the struggle against the HIV/AIDS pandemic. The man responsible for its success has been President Yoweri Museveni. Charismatic and affable, Museveni is regarded as one of the most influential leaders in Africa. However, his thirst for power and quest for a controversial third presidential term may return Uganda to its dictatorial past.

Before Museveni came to power in 1985, Uganda was one of Africa's most notorious killing fields. From 1971-78, Uganda was ruled by Idi Amin, a former Ugandan army sergeant who seized power from the country's first elected president, Milton Obote. During his eight years in office, Amin unleashed a reign of terror. He started by expelling some 70,000 Ugandans from the country and confiscating their land and property. As his tyranny gained steam, he turned on his fellow Africans. Under his orders, Amin's troops killed more than 500,000 Ugandans in the central part of the country.

A Tanzanian-led invasion of Uganda in 1978 led to the overthrow of Amin's bloody regime, but it did not usher in a period of peace. Backed by Tanzania's president, the late Julius Nyerere, Uganda's first president, Milton Obote, was returned to power. However, instead of instituting economic and political reforms, Obote engaged in retribution, unleashing his troops on previous political adversaries, as well as the remnants of Idi Amin's discredited army. In three years, Obote was able to create nearly as much havoc as Amin.

A younger Yoweri Museveni led the successful guerrilla campaign that stopped ethnic killing and ousted Obote and his thugs from power. Although it took some months for Museveni to solidify his authority over several rival political groups and pacify the majority, by 1986 he was able to consolidate his authority, stop the political violence, and win political recognition from Uganda's neighbors.

Unlike Obote and Amin, Museveni established himself as a genuine reformer and innovative thinker. Demonstrating remarkable courage, he reversed Amin's 1971 Asian expulsion order and agreed to return all the houses, shops, and large agricultural estates to their previous Asian owners. He also adopted a major economic reform program, which won the praise of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank.

However, Museveni's greatest success came in public health when he became the first African leader to speak out publicly against the dangers of the HIV/AIDS pandemic. Mobilizing his government, Museveni's leadership has made Uganda a model in the fight against HIV/AIDS in the developing world.

While Museveni's reforms and leadership have led to stability and growth, his handling of two domestic issues threaten to disrupt the progress that Uganda has made over the last 15 years and to cast Museveni as just another African president unwilling to give up power.

Under a new constitution in 1996, Museveni was limited to two five-year terms. However, over the last two years, Museveni has shown an increasing desire not to move on when his term ends in 2006. A strong critic of Uganda's former political leaders, Museveni has been a reluctant supporter of a full return to multiparty politics in his own country. Now, with political party activity expanding, Museveni seems determined to engineer a controversial constitutional change that will clear the way for him to remain in power.

All of Uganda's major opposition parties have accused the Ugandan president of using the police to intimidate their leaders and suppress public demonstrations. Museveni's attempted power grab has also caused a deep rift inside his own political organization. When several of his Cabinet colleagues voiced opposition to the constitutional amendment extending presidential terms, Museveni threw them out.

Many observers see Museveni's efforts to amend the constitution as a rerun of a common problem that afflicts many African leaders -- an unwillingness to follow constitutional norms and give up power. Museveni's reluctance to move aside may also be motivated by a desire to protect those around him, including his son and half brother, from charges of corruption for alleged involvement in illegal activities. If Museveni succeeds in remaining in office, he will probably tighten his grip on power and slow down the return to multiparty democracy.

Much depends on what Museveni decides to do in the next year and whether the United States, Great Britain, and Africa's new reformist leaders will speak out against Museveni's efforts to retain power. Uganda may also be an early test of whether the Bush administration's policy of promoting democracy extends to major African countries.

If Museveni succeeds in his desire to win a third term, we may be looking at another Mugabe and Zimbabwe in the making.

Johnnie Carson, a former US ambassador to Uganda, is senior vice president at the National Defense University in Washington.

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