Where despots once reigned, a lazy afternoon

Eighty-Six-year-old Amos Kakuta opens the unlocked door, tip-toeing softly into the large ranch house. He sits gently on a flowered sofa, exposing a pair of socks with little Statues of Liberty on them.

His son - Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni - is taking a catnap on the other sofa.

The atmosphere in the Museveni household on Monday afternoon, election day in Uganda, was one of utter confidence and calm. The radio was off. All campaign advisers were absent. After a leisurely lunch of soup, chicken, and fish washed down with milky tea, it was time for a short snooze for the man who has ruled this Central African nation for 15 years and, based on yesterday's return, will likely remain president for another five years.

It's easy to see why.

After years of brutal reign under despots Idi Amin and Milton Obote in the 1970s and '80s - during which close to 800,000 Ugandans were killed, most wildlife was eaten or chased across the borders, and the economy and infrastructure fell apart - the country is making a comeback.

Many of the streets are paved, a good number of the phones work, poverty is down, primary school is free, AIDS infection rates are dropping, and rhinos are being brought back to the national parks in this country once dubbed by Winston Churchill as "the pearl of Africa." Economic growth has averaged 6.4 percent a year over the past decade, the capital is safe, and progressive affirmative action laws for women and disabled people have been passed in parliament.

Global embrace

The world community, by and large, sees Museveni, a gregarious, forceful, and often funny leader, as a hero - an example for all of what good, enlightened, African leadership can be.

The presidential campaign, however, has had its dark moments - filling some observers with foreboding about the direction of Museveni's leadership.

There are reports of vote-rigging in the western district; Kenyan citizens are suspected of trying to cast ballots in Uganda's east; angry southerners are complaining that their names have mysteriously disappeared from the registrar; and police are cruising the streets of Kampala to keep the peace.

One person died March 3, after Museveni's security unit opened fire on Besigye supporters after a rally, and 12 others were killed in other election violence, most of them supporters of the main challenger, Kizza Besigye.

Mr. Besigye's campaign has focused to a large extent on corruption.

"Corruption," Besigye has charged over and again during his campaign," is a real problem that needs to be addressed."

With reports of nepotism and lack of transparency increasing even as the growing economy has gone into a small slump, Besigye - who used to be the chief ideologue of Museveni's own National Resistance Movement - promised the people a fresh start.

"Someone had to step in and get things back on course," the opposition candidate said at a press conference earlier this week, committing himself to installing stricter rules of procedure and a better system of checks and balances.

The unpopular and expensive war in Congo, the ban on political parties, as well as the continuing violence in the north also featured as campaign issues that Besigye forced onto the agenda.

"Besigye brought in a fresh discourse to our political debate and pushed us to publicly discuss issues we were sweeping under the carpet or hiding in the closet," says Jotham Musinguzi, a senior researcher and lecturer at Kampala's Makerere University. "He did what no one else had the courage to do - so that even though he lost, he has won. He will always get credit as a true reformer."

Still, along with a sense of disappointment with Museveni's recent leadership, there is - among an increasing number of Ugandans and observers alike - a fear that the president is beginning to see the country as his personal kingdom and not as the democratic nation it prides itself on having become.

Says one high-level Western diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity, "Museveni has become more autocratic with time." The diplomat, stressing that while talk of Museveni turning into a dictator is premature, says it is a possibility that cannot be completely dismissed.

The president's heavy- handed behavior in the course of the elections - during which he illegally allowed military officers to campaign on his behalf, turned a blind eye to the reported intimidation and harassment carried out against his opposition by the military police as well as by his supporters, and ignored complaints of election rigging - has only heightened this fear.

"Losing," the president has said, "is just not an option."

Asked on numerous occasions earlier this week if he would step down if defeated, Museveni avoided a direct answer, instead insulting his opponents and claiming that if they themselves had not been rigging votes, they would be nowhere.

On the couch back at his ranch, Museveni stirs. "I am worried the pink ink is going to stain my nice white shirt," says his father, referring to the indelible ink voters have to dip their thumbs in as a sign that they have already cast their ballots.

"I know, I have the same problem," says Museveni, rubbing his fingers together in a plastic water basin, as a barefoot servant kneels at his side and holds the soap.

"So," says Museveni's father, as he gets up to walk down to his simple hut, and his son prepares to travel back to Kampala to await final election results, "What will you be doing tomorrow?"

The president, who was leading yesterday with more than 76 percent of the vote, peers out the executive ranch's living room window at the thousands of cattle grazing outside, adjusts his broad-brimmed cowboy hat, and replies: "A little celebrating. And then more of the same.... I have lots of work."

Material from The Associated Press was used in this report.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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