- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 17, 2011

KAMPALA, Uganda | Tension is mounting over Uganda’s presidential and parliamentary elections on Friday, with charges of outright vote-buying and threats of postelection violence marring the political landscape of this East African nation.

At stake are the stability of a key U.S. ally in the war on terrorism in one of the most volatile areas of the world, the vitality of Africa’s third-largest economy and the control of a newly discovered oil field that promises to yield 2 billion barrels.

Two recent polls show President Yoweri Museveni garnering as much as 65 percent of the vote, despite his heading a nation since 1986 that suffers from endemic corruption, crumbling infrastructure, rising unemployment, waning quality of services such as health and education, and smoldering tribal tensions.

Election observers and opposition leaders say Mr. Museveni and his National Resistance Movement (NRM) party are buying their way to re-election, outspending the opposition — 10-to-1, by some estimates — in what is widely considered the most expensive campaign in Uganda’s history.

Observers with Uganda’s Democracy Monitoring Group have cited witnessing or hearing of instances of bribery in 8.9 percent of their field reports, while eyewitness accounts have filtered in daily on Uganda Watch 2011’s website with lines like: “Here in Kyanamukaka at the Parish, Gwezzimwe Spek Ssekandi has give for women voters [about $126] at 6:15 p.m.”

Mr. Museveni himself reportedly has been seen handing villagers brown envelopes of cash, which critics claim are bribes, but his supporters say are rewards for outstanding performers.

In addition, Nandala Mafabi, chairman of parliament’s Public Account Committee, said most of parliament’s recent $260 million supplementary budget has been allocated to bodies connected to the Museveni campaign.

Last month, parliament approved the distribution of $8,700 to each parliamentarian — 330 in all — to “monitor” government programs, though the timing of the disbursement has been called into question by opposition leaders and civil-society groups.

NRM official Robert Kabushenga has disputed claims that Mr. Museveni’s poll lead is attributable to patronage and the power of incumbency, saying the longtime president has run a more sophisticated campaign than in past elections.

Mr. Kabushenga said Mr. Museveni is using his “Everyman” appeal to connect to voters of all ages, noting a rap song the 67-year-old president recorded last year that quickly became the country’s most popular cell-phone ring tone.

But Uganda’s main opposition leader — Kizza Besigye, who also is Mr. Museveni’s former personal physician — has said he could not rule out the possibility of violence if the election is deemed fraudulent, adding that he will not personally incite any violence.

“As long as there is repression that is sustained for a long time, that pent-up anger builds and at some point explodes. The ground is certainly set for that kind of public expression,” he told Reuters news agency about the prospect of Egypt-like violence after the election.

Mr. Besigye, chairman of the Forum for Democratic Change, lost elections to Mr. Museveni in 2001 and 2006 that the Supreme Court ruled were marred by cheating, intimidation and other irregularities.

Recently, Finance Minister Syda Bbumba announced that the government is broke, but many Ugandans hope that oil will address many of the country’s economic and other woes. More than 2 billion barrels have been discovered, and the government expects oil revenues to come streaming in in the near future.

The World Bank says the find could double government revenue within six to 10 years and contribute up to 15 percent of Uganda’s gross domestic product — all but ending the country’s dependency on foreign aid, which accounts for about 30 percent of its budget.

So far, the oil deal has been shrouded in secrecy, and analysts suspect the Ugandan government — with its history of corruption and profligacy — will fail to share its newfound oil wealth with the masses.

Western leaders, who once hailed Mr. Museveni as a new kind of African leader, had by last year grown critical of his increasingly autocratic tendencies and of the corruption in his party.

But when the al Qaeda-linked militant group al-Shabab claimed responsibility for two suicide attacks in Kampala last July, Mr. Museveni became an enthusiastic proxy in U.S. terrorist concerns in Somalia, lending the bulk of the 6,200 African troops stationed there.

Washington’s tone has noticeably softened since then, though U.S. officials say they are impartial observers of Friday’s election.

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