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Third term zeal in Africa

Ugandans vote Thursday on whether to give President Museveni a third term.

By Abraham McLaughlinStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / February 23, 2006



KAMPALA, UGANDA

During one of the last days of presidential campaigning in Uganda - a country once heralded as a beacon of progress - riot police in pick-ups screech up to the main opposition party's final rally Monday and fire tear gas at hundreds of peaceful opposition supporters. "This is democracy and peace - teargas?" yells one man, choking on the bitter smoke.

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As Ugandans vote Thursday in what many observers worry will be a flawed election, Africa has many examples of creeping disregard for democracy: Along with Uganda's president, leaders in Chad, Namibia, and Nigeria have - or may soon - muscle through changes to their constitutions to allow them tostay in power for three terms. In fact, a kind of third-term fervor seems to be spreading again among some African presidents.

Yet, elsewhere among Africa's 53 nations, there's a different story: maturing democracy. South Africa's president recently declared he won't stand for a third term. And a political upheaval in Kenya hints at waning "big man" politics.

"The whole idea of the strongman as the dominant power in African politics is being challenged" in places like Kenya and South Africa, even as, conversely, leaders like Uganda's President Yoweri Museveni continue to act like uber-chiefs and have "failed desperately to build democratic institutions," says Peter Kagwanja of International Crisis Group in Pretoria, South Africa.

A defiant leader

Strolling onto the sweeping lawn of his rural retreat in western Uganda on Saturday, Mr. Museveni had these words of greeting for a group of foreign reporters: "Here are the rumormongers, the many rumormongers."

Museveni has long been combative and defiant - often to great success. Twenty years ago, after five years of bush war, he ejected one of Africa's more oppressive leaders, Milton Obote. He also played a key role in longer term efforts to remove the infamously brutal Ugandan dictator Idi Amin, who was forced out of power in 1979. The stability he has maintained since has made him popular among many Ugandans. [Editor's note: The original version misdated when Museveni helped oust Idi Amin.]

Museveni has also fought to uplift Uganda's once-tattered economy. Last year it achieved a growth rate of nine percent. That's the essential argument in Africa for third terms: A single leader has brought stability and prosperity to a troubled country - and therefore should continue to govern, lest a less-capable person replace him.

"I have been a freedom fighter for 40 years," Museveni says, implying he won't stop now. Last year he changed the constitution so he could run for a third term - in part to chase his dream of regional economic integration in Africa, a la the European Union. "This phase [of the freedom fight] is about struggling for one country in East Africa" in order to boost trade and investment among the region's 90 million people.

In the campaign, his government has taken an increasingly preemptive and combative approach. It tear-gassed opposition supporters before their rallies even began. The government and its allies charged the main opposition candidate, a former Museveni ally, with terrorism, treason, and rape. Kizza Besigye hasn't been convicted of anything - but has spent many days in court, rather than on the campaign trail. "Right from the word go, there was no even playing field," argues Dr. Besigye, who is especially popular with the young and unemployed.

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