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.
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.
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.
The moves have also sparked growing criticism of Museveni from abroad, especially from former colonial power Britain, which has begun to cut aid to Uganda.
But Museveni is defiant. "If the international community has lost confidence in us, that is a compliment," he says, retorting that they have consistently failed to stop killing and genocide in Rwanda, Uganda, and Sudan. "We don't need the confidence," he says, "of people who are habitually wrong."
Among African leaders, Museveni isn't alone. Chad's Idriss Deby changed his country's constitution and will likely win a third term this year. But resulting discontent has sparked a rebellion that could force him from power - or grow into a war between Chad and Sudan.
Even Nigeria's president, who has preached democracy and peacemaking across the continent, is considering a constitutional change to allow himself a third term. Nigeria began holding public hearings Wednesday on the issue. As one third-term supporter there put it, "Do you just change your gown when it is not dirty?"
Yet this isn't the only trend. South African President Thabo Mbeki told an interviewer recently, "By the end of 2009, I will have been in a senior position in government for 15 years. I think that's too long."
In Kenya two events hint at progress. Three ministers resigned in recent weeks over corruption suspicions. And in November, the president lost a hard-fought referendum on government reform - thus proving that the power of the people and institutions are stronger than the leader. Now, says ICG's Mr. Kagwanja, "Kenya is actually poised for one of the most democratic elections in Africa in 2007."
Museveni's third-term ambitions have created a quandary for diplomats here. Western donors provide roughly half the operating budget for Museveni's government. They could cut this aid. But doing so, they argue, wouldn't hurt the president - and could spark a humanitarian crisis.
Also, donors have already invested so much. "One disincentive for donors to disengage is that he's been the darling for so long," says one Western diplomat. In 2004, the US gave Uganda, with its 27 million people, more aid than Nigeria, which has 128 million people, or South Africa, which has 44 million.
To be sure, some donors have trimmed aid. In December, Britain shifted $26 million in direct aid into humanitarian assistance, which flows to aid agencies like the UN. It froze another $8 million.
Yet, because of humanitarian concerns, many donors say they only have the carrot of persuading Museveni to retain his vaunted-leader status. "Do we have any sticks?" says the diplomat, "Not at this point."
At Museveni's last major campaign rally this week, horrors of Uganda's past leaders compared favorably with its current one.
Standing five feet tall, a sprightly widow recalls how her young husband was dragged out of their house and hanged by government agents under the regime of Obote, whom Museveni dislodged. Catherine Kachoine says her seventh child was born in their house - because she was too scared to leave to go to the hospital. Now people don't often disappear into the night, and she hasn't been stopped or harassed by police in years.
As for the future, Museveni has stated publicly he'll run for a fourth term. But that's not enough for this widow. "Me," she says, as others around her cheer, "I want a fifth term."