Once considered a reformer by many of his countrymen and foreign observers, President Yoweri Museveni has become a power-hungry leader, said a friend who’s known him for six decades.
Eriya Kategaya served as a senior Cabinet minister under Gen. Museveni for 17 years before being ejected from the ruling party, the National Resistance Movement, in 2003.
Mr. Kategaya opposed Gen. Museveni’s desire to amend Uganda’s 1995 constitution to remove presidential term limits that would have forced him to step down next year.
“I thought our opportunity had come after doing so much,” he said. “First of all, being the first administration to last for 20 years, but also to set a precedent for this country that a president can retire peacefully and hand over peacefully to another leader.”
Uganda has yet to experience a substantial, nonviolent transition of power in the 43 years of its independence from Britain.
Last month, Gen. Museveni announced he will run for office again in upcoming February elections, breaking his promise in 2001 that the current five-year term would be his last — a pledge that convinced several loyalists, including Mr. Kategaya, to campaign for him.
Even more Ugandans were disappointed in July when Gen. Museveni used Parliament to successfully erase term limits from the constitution. A majority of lawmakers received cash payments of about $2,800 each to ensure the measure’s passage.
“That provision was not wise at all, because the problems Africa faces are not always time-bound,” Gen. Museveni said. “If a problem is not solved, you must keep on trying.”
To his supporters, that means improving Uganda’s economy by industrialization and commercial farming, as more than two-thirds of the population depends on subsistence agriculture.
To a growing number of critics, however, Gen. Museveni’s determination is being used to thwart his political rival, Dr. Kizza Besigye, leader of the opposition Forum for Democratic Change (FDC).
Once Gen. Museveni’s physician in the president’s guerrilla days, the presidential rival languishes in jail awaiting trials next week in separate civilian and military courts.
In the former, Dr. Besigye faces charges of treason and rape as the government accuses him of plotting its overthrow with two rebel groups, including the Lord’s Resistance Army; in the military court, the physician is charged with terrorism and illegal possession of weapons.
A constitutional court has yet to rule on whether it is legal for Dr. Besigye to face two trials at once.
Government spokesmen said the doctor must answer for conducting a war against the country, but his party rejected that argument.
“If you oppose Museveni — to him, then, you are an enemy of the country,” said Wafula Oguttu, a former Museveni ally who now sides with the FDC. Dr. Besigye now belongs in that camp after challenging Gen. Museveni in the 2001 election, now convinced that his former comrade never will step down.
Official results showed the incumbent captured 69 percent of the vote and Dr. Besigye 27 percent, but the Supreme Court said significant vote-rigging took place, though not enough to nullify the results.
Fearing for his safety, the physician then fled to South Africa, where he spent four years before returning to Uganda in late October. Enthusiastic crowds dissatisfied with Gen. Museveni’s rule lined up to see the opposition leader, and sizable crowds followed him around the country, including in western Uganda, which is Gen. Museveni’s base.
While Dr. Besigye’s public support seems to grow the longer he’s in jail, what disturbs many Ugandans is how Gen. Museveni has used the military to enforce the clampdown.
“There has been a slow military coup,” said Mr. Oguttu, the other former Museveni ally to switch sides. “The Cabinet is not in charge here.”
The FDC on Monday wanted to salute South African President Thabo Mbeki on his state visit for hosting Dr. Besigye for four years, only to find military police and soldiers surrounding their party headquarters. Troops and military vehicles also are deployed in the center of the capital whenever Dr. Besigye appears before the High Court.
At a Nov. 16 bail hearing for the physician, black-shirted commandos called “the Black Mamba Urban Hit Squad” deployed on the grounds of the court, which evoked memories of Idi Amin’s regime when, in 1972, thugs grabbed the chief justice, stuffed him into the trunk of their car and drove away.
Justice James Ogoola called the recent incident the most “naked and grotesque violation of the twin doctrines of the rule of law and the independence of the judiciary.”
This lurch toward autocracy is not lost on Ugandans old enough to remember the optimism that accompanied Gen. Museveni’s seizure of the presidency in January 1986. He criticized African leaders who overstayed in power and promised better times for his country.
Mr. Kategaya said: “Remember when he was sworn in in 1986, he said: ‘This is not a change of guard; this is a fundamental change.’” Soon after that, Gen. Museveni gained international support for adopting free-market economics, for establishing a freer political climate and for his frank approach to combating HIV/AIDS.
That impressed Western donors, who have poured more than $11 billion into Uganda since 1987, according to the Finance Ministry. In 1998, President Clinton declared Gen. Museveni to be one of five “African renaissance leaders,” which added luster to his reputation as a “new breed” of leader.
That praise, according to the opposition, was mistaken.
“Museveni has never been a democrat, but he did embrace economic reform. Now he is reversing many of the reforms he encouraged 10 to 15 years ago,” said Joel Barkan, a fellow at the National Endowment for Democracy who specializes in East Africa.
European governments, including those of Britain, Ireland, the Netherlands and Norway, are becoming skeptical, too.
They all have made slight cuts of $10 million or less to the aid they give Uganda because of the worsening political situation there.
The World Bank also has suggested a $15 million cut in annual budget support, owing to excessive government spending on public administration.
While the cuts remain small, foreign aid provides a big chunk of Uganda’s annual budget. This year, the government said the proportion of foreign aid has declined to about 40 percent of the government budget, but in previous years, it has been more than 50 percent.
A complete withdrawal of aid is unlikely, Mr. Barkan said, because donors don’t want to wreck the aid-dependent Ugandan economy, though a larger cut is possible if Gen. Museveni wins next year’s election by questionable means.
Mr. Barkan said Washington’s decision to embrace Gen. Museveni, along with Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, Eritrean President Isaias Afewerki and Rwandan President Paul Kagame is a cautionary lesson about the cult of personality. He said leaders should be embraced when they try to build strong institutions, which are more essential, and when there is clear evidence that they’re succeeding in this effort.
“But when the new leader only talks about reform, or when reform is dependent solely on him, we should be very wary, because such reforms are unlikely to endure,” Mr. Barkan said.