Longtime Ugandan Leader Faces Multi-Party Vote

Ugandans vote for president in the country's first multi-party election in 25 years. President Yoweri Museveni has led the country for two decades and is expected to win. But he faces strong opposition, and critics say he has become increasingly autocratic.

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

This is DAY TO DAY from NPR News. I'm Madeleine Brand.

ALEX CHADWICK, host:

And I'm Alex Chadwick. In West Africa, Ugandans, today, voted in that country's first multi-party elections in a quarter century. For almost all that time, President Yoweri Museveni has held power, and he is running again.

BRAND: He had to amend the constitution in order to run, which he did. A lot of the campaign has been about President Museveni's increasingly autocratic leadership and his controversial decision to abolish presidential term limits. NPR's Jason Beaubien reports from Kampala.

JASON BEAUBIEN, reporting:

Uganda has a tortured past. It suffered under some of the worst dictators ever seen in modern Africa. In the 1970s, Idi Amin slaughtered hundreds of thousands of Ugandans. The brutal and sadistic Amin was followed by Milton Obote, who, by many accounts, was even worse, so when Yoweri Museveni seized power in 1986, he was welcomed as a man bringing peace to a decimated country. Twenty years later, Museveni still portrays himself as the only man who could prevent Uganda from tearing out its own entrails.

And it's a message that resonates, even with voters who were born after the perches of Amin and Obote. At one of Museveni's last rallies of the campaign, Robert Tumucimas(ph), a student at Makarari University, was waiting to greet the president.

Mr. ROBERT TUMUCIMAS (Student at Makarari University): Ugandans knew fear because we were brought up in fear since 1962. Uganda was under torment. People were killed. From the '70s, the only man that brought the Ugandans together.

BEAUBIEN: Tumucimas says people might be dissatisfied with something Museveni has done, but they prefer to stick with the devil they know.

Mr. TUMUCIMAS: So people fear, if he loses power then else could happen, but that's why many people are coming out to support to defend what they have.

BEAUBIEN: And Museveni has performed something of a miracle in East Africa. Uganda, last year, had an economic growth of 9 percent, Museveni put into place universal primary education and cut poverty rates from 56 percent to 38 percent over the last decade. But as the years tick by and the '70s consolidated power increasingly in his own hands, he reluctantly agreed to multi-party politics, only after significant pressure from western nations. Western aid and development agencies incidentally fund almost half of his national budget.

Last year, he pushed through constitutional reforms that boost the president's power, and, as he says, makes sure that his plans cannot be held hostage by parliament. He also lifted term limits so he can stay in office into a third decade, this despite pledging in a 2001 interview with the BBC's Julian Marshall that he's retire this year.

Mr. JULIAN MARSHALL (BBC): Constitutionally, Mr. President, finally, you're only allowed to serve two consecutive five-year terms. Can I have an assurance from you? Can the Ugandan people have an assurance from you that you will stand down?

President YOWERI MUSEVENI (Uganda): I will not stand again because I have also some work to do in my village, which I will not been doing for the last thirty five years.

BEAUBIEN: Joaloco Unyanga(ph), the Director of Human Rights and Peace Center in Kampala says Museveni's broken promises that he'd retire our good lesson.

President MUSEVENI: Not only for Ugandans, but for Africans, generally speaking, which is that you can't trust anybody, or rather, as President Reagan used to say, trust, but verify, and I think we need to make sure that at every time, every minute, we ensure that our leaders are kept on the mark.

BRAND: Museveni, today, is running against Kizza Besigye in a race the local opinion polls predict Museveni will easily win. The 62-year-old Museveni is now saying that he also plans to run for president again in 2011. Jason Beaubien, NPR News, Kampala.

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