- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 23, 2011

KAMPALA, Uganda | Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni did the expected over the weekend by winning another five-year term in a landslide victory to add to his quarter-century of rule.

Despite isolated reports of irregularities and intimidation, fears of mass unrest proved unfounded as riot police patrolled nearly empty streets across this dusty, potholed capital and other city centers.

The final vote tally Sunday marked an anti-climactic end to the country’s most expensive — and arguably most important — election in Uganda’s history.

The real drama begins now. Mr. Museveni, 66, head of the National Resistance Movement (NRM) will be hard-pressed to live up to his campaign promises to improve health care, education and industry and fix a swelling job mess with an unemployment rate as high as 60 percent.

“My fear is that young people’s expectations are higher than what our government can deliver,” said NRM official Robert Kabushenga. “The question is how efficiently the government can respond.”

Western governments once hailed Mr. Museveni as an African leader for embracing trade liberalization and steering Uganda through a period of uninterrupted economic expansion.

Yet critics say Mr. Museveni has come to resemble a typical post-independence African dictator. He expanded the government, bought off dissenters and beefed up security forces as he struggled to respond nimbly to pressing problems.

Now he is attempting to accomplish what arguably no modern world leader has done and be a force of progress after a quarter-century in power. Many Ugandans are betting that Mr. Museveni can beat the historical odds judging by his margin of victory over the weekend. He bagged 68 percent of the vote, while his nearest rival, Kizza Besigye, managed 26 percent.

Key economic indicators are encouraging. From 2001 to 2008, Uganda’s economy averaged 8 percent growth a year, the highest in the region. Central Bank Governor Tumusiime Mutebile predicts that it will grow 6 percent or 7 percent this year.

Trade with south Sudan also looks set to grow since the war-battered region voted to secede last month. South Sudan is Uganda’s largest export market, accounting for $185 million of exports in 2009, according to the Export Promotion Board.

Ugandan officials predict that Southern Sudan will join the East African Community trading bloc after it officially becomes independent in July. Uganda is setting up a $1.29 million industrial park in the northern town of Gulu to foster new linkages.

Revenues from an estimated 2 billion barrels oil discovered in the west of the country are expected to come on line in a few years. Government officials predict the oil revenue will help end dependency on foreign donors, which now accounts for about 30 percent of the budget.

However, the robust macroeconomic outlook is deceiving, say critics. They point to mounting debt, stagnating industries and a failing national agriculture program.

Nearly 390,000 college graduates compete for 8,000 job openings a year, according to Labor Department statistics. Corruption is endemic, eroding the quality of law enforcement, education and health care.

Poverty hovers near 30 percent, with average annual income of about $340. The country suffers from among the highest birthrates in the world and is undergoing a youth bulge, with more than half the population younger than 15.

The government is also reportedly broke, having passed a supplementary budget last month because of the high cost of the president’s re-election bid.

Simon Osborn, component manager of the Deepening Democracy Program who compiles polling data in Uganda, estimates that Mr. Museveni’s side outspent the opposition by a ratio of more than 50-to-1.

He spread campaign money to poll workers in 111 voter districts. His campaign also spent lavishly on posters, advertisements, cell phones, communications bureaus, tents, sound systems, security and travel. He also coaxed the neediest voters with flour, salt, sugar and soap.

“The elections and campaign period were generally peaceful, but we note with concern the diversion of government resources for partisan campaigning and the heavy deployment of security forces on Election Day,” State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said.

“We are also disappointed by the disorganization at polling stations and the absence of many registered voters’ names from the voter rolls, irregularities that could have been avoided by appointing an independent and more representative Electoral Commission,” Mr. Crowley said. “Nevertheless, we urge all participants to abide by the official results, refrain from violence, and channel grievances through Uganda’s independent judiciary.”

The Democracy Monitoring Group noted that while this election was not characterized by the physical and psychological intimidation, it was replaced by an astonishing level of flagrant vote-buying. The voter fraud may come at a high price of its own, said Paul Busharizi, business editor at the government-run New Vision.

“The government has dug a much deeper hole than any election it’s been in, and it might not have realistically factored what would await them in the aftermath of the election,” he said.

What is certain is that Mr. Museveni is hoping oil will help fix the mess.

London-based Tullow Oil PLC plans to start extracting the crude next year. Volumes could reach 200,000 barrels a day by 2015. Plans to build a refinery could boost revenues significantly, which Mr. Museveni says will be used to fund new roads, generate power and improve health care and education.

Critics say the entrenched government’s systemic dependence on nepotism and corruption could derail Mr. Museveni’s grand plans. Uganda ranks 127 out of 178 countries on an international transparency index.

Despite Mr. Museveni’s landslide victory, voters have shown signs of frustration, with 19 ministers, many of them from Museveni’s party, losing their seats over the weekend.

Voters have been more forgiving toward Mr. Museveni, who is widely synonymous with stability, having transitioned the country out of decades of war.

Mr. Busharizi says Mr. Museveni is helped further by the fact that “Ugandans have shown themselves willing to wait for whatever their leaders promise.”

Mr. Museveni is taking no chances, judging by the massive security presence across the country on election night and Mr. Museveni’s confident insistence that there will be no Egyptian-style uprising in Uganda.

The success of his security forces in preventing the levels of violence during the previous two presidential elections may buy Mr. Museveni some time with voters.

As the driver of a Boda-boda, or motorcycle taxi, who declined to be named, said winding through this capital’s desolate streets of the weekend: “Many of us are sick of Museveni, but we fear seeing those military trucks.”

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