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Church leaders in Uganda praying for strongman to go

- - Wednesday, May 16, 2012

KAMPALA, Uganda — Influential church leaders are calling for an end to the 26-year rule of President Yoweri Museveni, who is resisting efforts to restore term limits on his office and is facing record-low public-approval ratings.

Catholic Archbishop Cyprian Kizito Lwanga urged Mr. Museveni to retire after the end of his current term in four years.

"The best present Museveni can give to Ugandans in 2016 is peacefully handing over power," he said at an Easter Mass.

Zac Niringiye, an assistant Anglican bishop in Kampala, has been crisscrossing the eastern African nation, seeking support for the restoration of term limits that were scrapped in 2005.

"The time has come to imagine a different future," said Bishop Niringiye, who added that his life has been threatened since he started his campaign for term limits.

"I hear security forces are plotting against me, but this is part of God's ministry," he said.

The Rev. Joseph Serwadda, a Protestant pastor of the Born-Again Faith Federation, recently called for Mr. Museveni simply to "step aside."

Christians make up more than 80 percent of the population of 36 million, but Muslims, who compose only 12 percent, have also complained that Mr. Museveni has been meddling in Islamic affairs.

The criticism from the prominent religious leaders is reflecting the feelings of a growing number of Ugandans dissatisfied with more than a quarter century under Mr. Museveni.

A recent public opinion poll found that 74 percent of Ugandans think the country is heading in the wrong direction one year after Mr. Museveni was re-elected.

Inflation has soared to more than 20 percent. Police have killed unarmed protesters in demonstrations, and some of the president's closest associates have been accused of corruption but sheltered from prosecution.

The combination of criticism from religious leaders and the decline in popularity has the Museveni regime on the defensive.

Mr. Museveni, in a television interview last week, warned the church officials: "When you go in public [to criticize the government], I will one day also give you a counter-lecture."

Prime Minister Amama Mbabazi recently told the religious critics that they are as ill-equipped to get involved in politics as "a doctor [is] to assume a role of a teacher."

Mr. Museveni came to power in 1986, after years of guerrilla warfare that first overthrew dictator Idi Amin and later Milton Obote. He created a transitional government and established stability after years of civil strife.

Mr. Museveni won the presidency in 1996 with 75.5 percent of the vote in an election that foreign and domestic observers declared valid.

He was re-elected in 2001 with 69 percent of the vote and should have left office after that second five-year term under the limits established in Uganda's 1995 constitution.

However, Mr. Museveni's ruling National Resistance Movement allegedly paid members of parliament $2,000 apiece to amend the constitution and eliminate term limits in time for him to run for a third time in 2006. His winning margin declined to 59 percent.

He won a fourth term last year and improved his victory margin to 68 percent of the vote.

The last two elections were marred by widespread allegations of ballot-box stuffing, illegal campaign spending and intimidation of voters and opposition candidates.

Mr. Museveni has mostly dealt with religious leaders through persuasion rather than brute force like Amin, who executed church critics and banned Pentecostals from practicing their faith. Mr. Museveni has also given religious leaders gifts like cows and cars.

In response, the clergy has mostly refrained from opposing his policies until recently.

Nevertheless, Ugandan Anglican Archbishop Luke Orombi has not backed the term-limits campaign of his Kampala bishop.

The country's most popular born-again pastor, the Rev. Robert Kayanja, who attracts thousands of viewers to his weekly televised worship service, has voiced no criticism of Mr. Museveni and is widely thought to be a close ally of the president's.

The influential Inter-Religious Council of Uganda also discourages religious leaders from weighing in on term limits.

"The [dialogue] should not be about Museveni stepping down, but about establishing institutions that promote good governance and democracy," said Joshua Kitakule, the council's secretary-general.

However, Bishop Niringiye predicts more religious leaders will join the call for term limits after key interreligious meetings in the spring and summer.

"They know the longevity of Museveni isn't good," he said, "but they're waiting for things to happen."