- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 8, 2005

Uganda, the East African nation hailed during the Clinton administration as an emerging democracy despite its prohibition of political parties, is debating a move toward multiparty politics.

But it also is seeking to amend its constitution to allow President Yoweri Museveni five more years in power.

“Until recently, we considered a nonparty system necessary to avoid the tribal divisions that political parties had produced in the past,” Internal Affairs Minister Ruhakana-Rugunda said last week in an hourlong interview with The Washington Times. “The fact that we are moving away from a nonparty system to multiparty politics is an indication of the political maturity reached by Uganda.”

Ugandan Ambassador Edith Ssempala delivered virtually the same message during an earlier visit to The Times.

The two interviews appear to be part of a charm offensive intended to convince Washington audiences that Uganda is in step with President Bush’s call for a worldwide march toward democracy.

The move appears to be in response to insistence by Uganda’s donors — Western nations and nongovernmental organizations — that the African nation open up its political system. The donors contribute to about half of Uganda’s annual budget.

But in a public statement last week, Mr. Museveni said the donors’ generosity does not give them the right to dictate Uganda’s political system.

The interview with Mr. Ruhakana-Rugunda, conducted at the Ugandan Embassy, focused on Uganda’s many changes, most of them promising, since the Clinton administration. The changes reinforce the success the Museveni government has achieved in its battle against HIV/AIDS.

If a multiparty system takes root, it would open the political process to Ugandans who lack influence. But amending the constitution so Mr. Museveni can run for another term means that the outsiders will have to wait five more years before they are organized enough to participate.

The entire process is viewed with suspicion in some quarters.

“It looks to me like a trade-off: Uganda gets multiparty democracy, and the Ugandan president gets five more years in power,” said Joseph Sala, a former State Department official and observer of African affairs.

In its relations with neighboring countries, Uganda appears to have extricated itself from a morass of interventions — in Sudan on the side of the southern rebels and more recently in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

In 1999, Uganda and Rwanda intervened in Congo in a failed attempt to overthrow President Laurent Kabila. He subsequently was assassinated in January 2001, apparently by a bodyguard, and was succeeded by his son Joseph Kabila.

In an agreement with neighboring Sudan, the two countries have promised to stop aiding each other’s rebels. This put Uganda in a strong position to defeat a 16-year rebellion in the north by the Lord’s Resistance Army.

The LRA, led by Joseph Kony, is a movement mixing Christian mysticism, kidnappings, amputations and theft of children to act as soldiers. Underlying the rebellion is the dissatisfaction of some of the Acholi people, whose influence in Uganda was diminished by the 1986 victory of Mr. Museveni’s National Resistance Movement over preceding dictatorships.

Mr. Ruhakana-Rugunda, the internal affairs minister, described Uganda’s past support of rebels in southern Sudan, the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), as a just undertaking to prevent domination of the south by the Arab north. The Sudanese government and the SPLA signed a peace agreement on Jan. 9.

“We regarded it as a duty to help our brothers in southern Sudan in their fight against the north,” the minister said.

Uganda’s assistance to the SPLA had received strong backing in Washington, which waged its own political offensive against fundamentalist Islam in Khartoum and terrorist training camps that were suspected of operating in Sudan.

The September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States radically altered the situation in East Africa.

Sudan agreed to back the U.S. war on al Qaeda and made peace with the SPLA rebels, led by Col. John Garang, who is to be sworn in as Sudan’s vice president under the peace agreement.

This was followed by the agreement between Uganda and Sudan to stop aiding each other’s rebels, which ended the LRA’s sanctuaries in southern Sudan.

“The LRA has been severely weakened, and there is every expectation that the rebellion will be crushed soon,” Mr. Ruhakana-Rugunda said.

Uganda discarded another foreign affairs burden with its military exit from the territory of its western neighbor, the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

In the process of ending its Congo intervention, Uganda clearly alienated the Tutsi-led government in Rwanda, provoking minor skirmishes in Congo between Rwandan and Ugandan troops.

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