What if President Obama had a third term? He believes he could win one — or so he told African Union diplomats last year. “I actually think I’m a pretty good president,” he said. He still had ideas to move America forward, he added. His words were intended to make a point to Africa’s many entrenched Big Men — some in power for decades. The U.S. Constitution, Obama said, prevented him from having a third term. And a changeover to a new leader “with new ideas … and new insights” was good for a country.
His words didn’t make much impact. Not if Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni is anything to go by. On Thursday, he will celebrate 30 years in power — by winning five more in new elections. The outcome is a foregone conclusion. Museveni has become Africa’s 21st century gold-standard example of an entrenched Big Man skilled at manipulating the appearance of democracy without the crude violence of his brutal predecessor, Idi Amin. Museveni is more wily, more like Russia’s Vladimir Putin. And so much more dangerous, long term, for democracy.
A new Human Rights Watch report — “Keep the People Uninformed” — explains how Museveni aims to fulfill an election slogan: “president forever.” Journalists and opponents across Uganda, the report says, are increasingly being intimidated, silenced. One brave journalist described trying to tell the truth: “We are forced to cover up. … You don’t hit the nail on top. You have to communicate carefully.” A leader of a non-governmental organization described most Ugandans as having been cowed into “self-censorship.”
Most. But not all. Some in Uganda’s frustrated professional class are trying to speak out. About the intimidation. About spreading official corruption, rising unemployment, dwindling investment in public services — the hallmarks of Big Man rule. People such as Peter Mwesige, executive director of the African Center for Media Excellence in Kampala, have taken to Twitter and other social media.
Two years ago, Mwesige already lamented how journalists avoided investigating Museveni-regime corruption. The potential consequences were too great. News media outlets, for example, had been raided after publishing a letter about allegations Museveni was grooming his son for power.
Museveni himself once recognized what’s wrong with all this. “The problem of Africa in general and Uganda in particular,” he wrote in 1986, “is not the people, but leaders who want to overstay in power.” Back then, he was a candidate of hope and change. A guerrilla fighter turned democrat, Museveni brought back democracy, made Uganda a showcase for fighting AIDS, and stabilized a country brutalized by Amin — whose forces murdered 300,000, a nightmare conjured up in the movie The Last King of Scotland.
But then Museveni abolished presidential term limits. And morphed, like so many others, into a leader doing what it takes to stay in power. His perennial challenger, Kizza Besigye, once fled to the United States, fearing for his life. True, Uganda’s courts did rule that there were irregularities in past elections, helping Museveni’s appearance of fairness. But they upheld the results.
This time, it seems Museveni is making extra sure he does not suffer the fate of Ivory Coast’s ex-president, Laurent Gbagbo, who in January became the first African Big Man to face trial at the International Criminal Court — on counts stemming from the bloodbath that followed his refusal to concede electoral defeat in 2010. Or Burkina Faso’s Blaise Compaore, thrown out in a 2014 popular uprising when he tried to extend his 27 years in power.
The United States needs, at the very least, to loudly support the Ugandans who are trying to speak out — and to pressure Museveni and other African leaders. Too often, America turns an indulgent eye to those who help fight terrorism. Rwanda’s Paul Kagame, like Museveni, stabilized his country after its 1990s genocide, but now Rwanda’s parliament has voted to abolish two-term presidential limits.
Some African leaders have broken the pattern. South Africa’s Nelson Mandela, for example, regarded as a father-saint in most of Africa, gave up power after just one term. Nigeria’s Goodluck Jonathan conceded electoral defeat. It isn’t impossible.
Perhaps after Obama leaves office, he could build on his African Union words. Perhaps he could make it a mission to push African leaders harder. Sit down with Museveni and others, for example; persuade them to join the real African heroes club with Mandela and Jonathan. And do this as a new U.S. president with new insights and ideas settles into the White House.
– USA Today
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