Longtime President Tightens Grip on Uganda

After seizing power in 1986, Uganda's President Yoweri Museveni was showered with Western aid and praised for his efforts to combat the spread of HIV. But his reputation has faded and the arrest of a top opposition leader is further eroding it.

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In East Africa, Uganda is holding its first multiparty presidential elections in a quarter-century. They leading opposition candidate, however, has been arrested and charged with treason. And President Yoweri Museveni, who was supposed to step down in 2006, has amended the constitution to allow himself to run again. In recent years, Uganda has been praised by many Western leaders for boosting economic growth and aggressively tackling HIV, but critics of Museveni now say the country is becoming increasingly authoritarian. NPR's Jason Beaubien has the story from Kampala.

(Soundbite of marching band)

JASON BEAUBIEN reporting:

A clattering marching band led supporters of President Yoweri Museveni to the launch of his campaign for a controversial third term. Museveni seized power in 1986 as the leader of a rebel army, and he's ruled this East African nation ever since. Addressing his party faithful, Museveni promised prosperity for all.

(Soundbite of public address)

President YOWERI MUSEVENI (Uganda): (Foreign language spoken)

(Soundbite of cheering)

BEAUBIEN: Western nations fund almost half of Uganda's national budget, and it was under pressure from donor nations that Museveni reluctantly agreed to open the country to multiparty elections. Museveni controls the government, the political party and the military, and his critics say he's now using all these institutions to try to crush his main political rival. Kiza Besigye, the leader of the opposition FDC, or Forum for Democratic Change, returned from exile in November, and three weeks later, he was arrested. Wafula Oguttu, the secretary for information for the FDC, says the treason and rape charges are fabricated to keep Besigye out of the presidential race. Oguttu says earlier this year, the FDC got assurances from the government that Besigye could return from exile in South Africa.

Mr. WAFULA OGUTTU (Secretary for Information, FDC): The government told us that the prisoner could come back because there was no problem with him. They didn't have any case against him.

BEAUBIEN: The treason charges related to claims that Besigye is the leader of a little-known rebel group called the People's Redemption Army. The PRA, according to the Ugandan army, operates across Uganda's western border in the northeast of the Congo. Oguttu disputes that the PRA rebels even exist. Showing the heavy-handed manner in which the Ugandan government is treating the political opposition on this day, Ugandan soldiers line the street, blocking the entrance to the FDC's headquarters. Oguttu says the staff had announced that they were going to stand out front and wave to the motorcade of visiting South African President Thabo Mbeki.

Mr. OGUTTU: But the government did not want us to do that, so they came and they forced us inside our premises and locked the gate and beat up the poor.

BEAUBIEN: Over the last two decades, Uganda has often been held up as a model African nation. Museveni pushed free-market economics, introduced free primary education and bolstered the public health-care system. Western development agencies have poured money into the country. But over the last few weeks, several European nations have denounced what they say are anti-democratic trends and slashed aid to Uganda. Earlier this year, Museveni amended the constitution to allow himself to stay in office, and the other main concern is the treatment of Besigye. Besigye originally was charged with treason in the Kampala High Court, then the army opened another case against him before a military court, even though he's not a soldier. When the High Court was about to release Besigye on bail, armed men in black T-shirts wielding AK-47s stormed into the court, disrupted the hearing, and Besigye's been incarcerated ever since. The gunmen are part of an elite army unit, but because of their black T-shirts, the media has dubbed them the Black Mambas.

Mr. MOSES ADRIKO (Ugandan Law Society): One of the things that we are asking the constitutional court to do is to establish who exactly these armed men are and also to declare their actions unconstitutional.

BEAUBIEN: Moses Adriko, the head of the Ugandan Law Society, says it's outrageous to have soldiers besieging a court of law. Adriko says he's worried Uganda could be slipping back towards the despotic rule of Idi Amin.

Mr. ADRIKO: For example, the government recently banned public demonstrations, banned talk in the media about the case concerning Dr. Besigye and his 22 co-accused. Now if the public cannot freely exchange views and ideas in the media, then of course we're heading for a dictatorship.

BEAUBIEN: The Ugandan attorney general argued that Besigye should be disqualified from the upcoming election because being in prison, he couldn't hand in his nomination papers in person. Museveni's top legal adviser in a letter to the electoral commission wrote that Besigye is not on the same level of innocence as other presidential candidates. Brushing aside all of the irregularities of his political rival's treatment, Museveni says Besigye's case is strictly a legal matter.

Pres. MUSEVENI: It's not me. It is the law. The law has got all the solutions for Dr. Besigye.

BEAUBIEN: President Museveni says Besigye has two options, what Museveni terms a hard or a soft landing. The first option, according to Museveni, is for Besigye to fight his treason charges in court and possibly face the death penalty, or Besigye can confess to his involvement with the PRA rebels, apply for amnesty, and Museveni says he'll forgive him.

Pres. MUSEVENI: So really it's up to him to choose which he wants, whether he wants a hard landing or a soft landing.

BEAUBIEN: Besigye says he's innocent and will fight the charges in court. The big question now is whether Besigye's two trials will be over before the presidential election at the end of February. Otherwise, Uganda's first multiparty elections in more than two decades could pit an incumbent and statehouse against a challenger campaigning from prison.

Jason Beaubien, NPR News, Kampala.

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