Ugandans see Amin parallels in longtime leader

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KAMPALA, Uganda — Ugandans increasingly are comparing their current president to their former “president for life” — Idi Amin, whose ruthless dictatorship during the 1970s earned him the nickname “the butcher of Uganda.”

No one is accusing President Yoweri Museveni of the atrocities that were emblematic of the Amin regime. But Ugandans are invoking images of Amin as Mr. Museveni enters his 27th year of rule, resorting to force and patronage to preserve power.

Joseph Kalyamagya, a 50-year-old construction business owner, was a boy when Amin seized power. His memories are still vivid of teachers, clergy and neighbors who disappeared; of four-star hotels converted into torture chambers; and of rumors of corpses being fed to crocodiles.

“We’re going through a silent killing now,” said Mr. Kalyamagya. “That’s the only difference.”

For decades, such a comparison was nearly sacrilege in this East African country scarred by one of the continent’s most violent post-independence histories. A former rebel, Mr. Museveni ushered in a long period of peace, stability and economic growth.

Now the economy is declining. The inflation rate reached 30 percent in October, and unemployment affects eight out of 10 youths, according to the World Bank.

Graft is at a record high, with presumed corrupt officials shielded from prosecution and with supplementary budgets ordered to cover up financial malfeasance.

Bloody riots last year left at least 12 dead. In a resumption of protests, opposition leaders have been jailed and police have fired on unarmed civilians.

Conditions have become so dire that some Ugandans are voicing a vague nostalgia for Amin’s regime, especially his public works programs.

“The last 12 months have made it easier to dream of Amin in a positive way,” said Frederick Kisekka-Ntale, a researcher at the Makerere Institute of Social Research in Kampala. “Bad as Amin’s regime was, there seemed to be a better management of public resources.”

During his eight-year reign that ended in 1979, Amin built hospitals, an international conference center, a national coffee trust, and a satellite radio and TV station.

A top public-policy analyst cautioned against sentimentality for Amin.

“Under Amin, the press was controlled by the military. Parliament was suspended. He ruled by military decree. It was a reign of terror,” said Arthur Bainomugisha of the Advocates Coalition for Development and Environment, a Kampala-based think tank.

Amin killed an estimated 300,000 people. Thousands fled in fear to neighboring countries. After converting to Islam, Amin praised Adolf Hitler for systematically killing Jews.

Amin awarded himself the country’s highest military honors and declared himself “the conqueror of the British Empire” and “big daddy.”

It is estimated that two-thirds of Ugandan army soldiers were killed during Amin’s first year in power, many of them from northern tribes seen to be loyal to his predecessor, Milton Obote.

Amin expelled Uganda’s South Asian community, which, along with embargoes from Western donors, plunged the country into economic collapse.

Mr. Museveni is credited with distancing Uganda from its brutal past.

He came to power promising security, and he has delivered stability, even in the north of the country, where Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army sought to impose a brutal, theocratic government.

Trade liberalization and economic growth followed, averaging about 7 percent over the past decade. However, most Ugandans have not felt the benefits.

The same ruler who once said Africa’s problem is leaders who stay too long in power has since turned into a textbook dictator, many Ugandans say.

The country’s manufacturing base is mostly dormant, and most finished products are imported.

Mr. Museveni’s party has dipped into the national treasury to fund elections. Opposition members and demonstrators complain about the militarization of police — with the government spending more than $200,000 a day to fight political protests last year, according to government records.

The media remain relatively free, although newspapers and radio stations have been shut and journalists have been harassed more frequently. More than 80 cases of mistreatment within the past year were reported by the Human Rights Network for Journalists.

Forty percent of Ugandans get by on less than $1.25 a day, according to the World Bank.

“Ugandans see contradictions to the narrative of ‘new,’ ” said Mr. Kisekka-Ntale. “There’s a sense that things are becoming not so far from what the [Museveni] regime prevailed against.”

Opposition leaders have seized on the comparison with Amin for political mileage. Main opposition leader Kizza Besigye last year said Amin was a better president than Mr. Museveni.

At 26 years in power, Mr. Museveni is the longest-serving ruler in East Africa and fourth-longest on the African continent.

At a recent retreat for the ruling National Resistance Movement, a parliamentarian called on Mr. Museveni to restore term limits, which he persuaded parliament to scrap in 2006.

He has not named a successor, although his son, Lt. Col. Muhoozi Kainerugaba, and Prime Minister Amama Mbabazi, who is facing allegations of corruption tied to the oil sector, are rumored to be at the top of the list.

Mr. Museveni said the country’s fortunes will improve after Uganda’s oil, estimated to be worth $2 billion, starts flowing soon. Billions of barrels of oil were discovered about five years ago.

Moses Kityo, a 62-year-old shopkeeper, is less optimistic.

“It will make no difference,” he said, roaming this city’s main hospital, Mulago, which he said was run better under Amin.

“They start very good,” he said. “Then they stay on, and it all turns out the same.”

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