In Africa, 'tis the season, apparently, for treason.
In recent days and weeks a number of high-profile politicians across the continent have been accused of great acts of disloyalty. But critics say the charges often have less to do with national betrayal than stifling dissent, and observers say the practice is exposing how a winner-take-all political paradigm still prevails across Africa, even in countries that have made significant democratic strides.
Most notably in Uganda, the top opposition candidate in the country's upcoming presidential elections Kizza Besigye now sits in jail on treason charges. Riotous protests by his supporters have left one person dead - and the usually peaceful capital in uproar.
In Ethiopia, Prime Minister Meles Zenawi - one of the African leaders most heralded by donor countries as democratic - announced last week that key opposition leaders would be charged with treason for inciting insurrection.
The moves are symptomatic of both the fragility and brutality of African democracies, experts say. "Politics are still very much a zero-sum game," says Richard Cornwell of the Institute for Security Studies in Pretoria, South Africa. "The concept of a loyal opposition hasn't really grounded itself." And, he adds, "There are no silver medals for losers."
Indeed, after defeat in Uganda's 2001 election, Dr. Besigye fled to South Africa, citing fears for his safety. So when he returned Oct. 26 to a hero's welcome from supporters, it seemed democracy might be blossoming. After all, Uganda has received more than $11 billion in US aid since Museveni took power in 1986 to strengthen its infrastructure and democratic institutions, among other things.
But on Monday, Besigye was accused of planning an armed struggle to overthrow the government by leading a rebel army, and by forging ties with the Lord's Resistance Army, which has conducted a 19-year rebellion in northern Uganda.
Besigye now languishes in jail, and the government can keep him there for up to 360 days. "They always use treason to hold people in prison as long as they want," says Morris Ogenga-Latigo, a member of parliament and of Besigye's Forum for Democratic Change party.
For decades African governments have used treason charges to immobilize opposition parties. South Africa's apartheid-era government did so with Nelson Mandela's African National Congress, which faced trials that "paralyzed the ANC leadership by forcing them to concentrate on what were ultimately unjustified charges," says Patrick Laurence of The Helen Suzman Foundation in Johannesburg. It's a much-repeated pattern, including with Zimbabwean opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai, whose treason trial was a great drag on him and on his party for several years.
But treason charges can backfire, Mr. Laurence points out, saying they cause opposition leaders "to conclude that their only option is to try to overthrow the government" by extra-legal or violent means.
For sure, treason charges often signal rising political tensions - and that the regime is scared for its survival.
• Mr. Meles of Ethiopia said Monday several opposition leaders and newspaper editors had been involved in a Ukraine-style "Orange Revolution gone wrong" in which 42 people were shot dead last week by police. He said they'll face treason charges, which could result in the death penalty.
• Two Kenyan cabinet ministers are being investigated for treason after saying a proposed new constitution could spark coups in the east African nation.
• Zambia's President Levy Mwanawasa has accused a civil-society organization called the Oasis Forum of treasonous activities. It helped prevent Mr. Mwanawasa's predecessor from extending his time in office - and is continuing to try to rein in presidential powers.
• Several trials are proceeding in Nigeria, where leaders of two rebel groups - and some military officers - are charged with treason.
In the weeks since his return to Uganda, Besigye's campaign attracted sizable crowds, even on Mr. Museveni's home turf, according to several observers. That surprised the government. Now they're thinking, "As long as they keep Besigye in prison, they'll be safe from his popularity," Mr. Ogenga-Latigo says.
Uganda's government rejects that interpretation. "This is not political persecution," says Onapito Ekomoloit, Museveni's press secretary, noting Besigye has been charged with a criminal offense.