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Museveni ignores critics

Philipp Sandner / mcFebruary 26, 2014

Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni has a signed a new anti-gay bill into law despite a torrent of international criticism. He wants to demonstrate his grip on power after almost 30 years as the country's leader.

Uganda Präsident Museveni
Image: AP

When Yoweri Museveni came to power in Uganda in 1986, he wanted to make a better job of running the country than his predecessors. He had fought against the repression of two previous rulers, Idi Amin and Milton Obote. On becoming president Museveni railed against corruption and "heads of state who stayed in power too long." He insisted that he himself would not seek to remain in office beyond the two terms permitted under the constitution.

Museveni, as the self-proclaimed liberator of Uganda, quickly found backers in the West. It didn't seem to matter that for years his National Resistance Movement was the only party in the country. The Ugandan economy improved under his leadership – it has notched up growth rates of between 5 and ten percent since his second term. The poverty level has gone down. At the beginning of the 1990s, more than half of all Ugandans lived on less than a dollar a day – by 2005 it was 31 percent.

A woman infected with HIV takes her medication at a Ugandan refugee camp near Gulu in 2007
A woman infected with HIV takes her medication at a Ugandan refugee camp near Gulu in 2007Image: picture-alliance/dpa

Fighting HIV/AIDS

Museveni, a devout Christian, introduced welfare and public health reforms. His unusually open and candid campaign against the AIDS epidemic became a yardstick for the whole of Africa. It had a simple message: "Be abstinent, be faithful to one another, but if you can't, then use a condom." That message worked. According to the United Nations only 6 percent of Ugandans were infected with the HIV virus in 2004 – the year before the figure was 18 percent.

Even in his youth, Museveni never lacked determination. Born on August 15, 1944 in in the southwest of what was then the British Protectorate of Uganda, he studied economics and political science at the University of Dar es Salam in neighboring Tanzania in the 1960s. This was an era of political change and upheaval. Tanzanian president Julius Nyerere was busy at work on his African brand of socialism. In Tanzania, exiles from neighboring countries were planning liberation struggles in countries such as Namibia and Mozambique. Museveni found himself swept away by their ideals and fervor. He underwent training in guerrilla tactics with Frelimo, the Mozambique Liberation Front.

Uganda Militär
Uganda's defense spending totalled more than $1 billion in 2011Image: picture-alliance/Demotix /Hudson Apunyo

Museveni says he is still fighting

Museveni had barely returned to Uganda – where he worked for President Milton Obote's secret service – when Obote was ousted from power by Idi Amin in a coup. Museveni returned to exile in Tanzania and planned a counter attack. In 1979, Obote was returned power in Uganda with the help of the Tanzanian army and fellow Ugandan exiles.

Museveni's battle in pursuit of his own political ambitions continued until he was sworn in as president on January 29, 1986.

Even as president, the ex-rebel continued to rely on the military. With his campaign against Joseph Kony's Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) he sought to justify a ballooning defense budget, which crossed the US $1 billion ( 700 million euros) threshold in 2011. But by that time the LRA rebels had long since retreated into neighboring countries. At the start of the new millennium, Museveni made a name for himself as an ally of the United States in the "war on terror," in particular through the deployment of Ugandan forces in Somalia.

He amended the constitution so that he could stand for office a third time in 2006. This dismayed even his own political allies in Uganda. "I've been fighting since 1971," Museveni told his critics. "Should I – at the half-way stage – just give everything up and slink away?" he asked.

Uganda Wahlen 2011 Opposition Kizza Besigye
Kizza Besigye: 'in 50 years of independence, never a peaceful change of government'Image: MARC HOFER/AFP/Getty Images

Staying in power

The bigger the protests in support of the Arab Spring in the streets of north Africa became, the more repressive the measures Museveni deployed against peaceful Ugandan demonstrators - such as opposition leader Kizza Besigye and his "Walk to Work" campaign. Besigye led popular protests against the high cost of living in Uganda in 2011. After the elections that year, in which Museveni was reelected, Besigye observed: "In 50 years of independence, there has never been a peaceful change of government (in this country)."

Uganda faces setbacks in the fight against HIV/AIDS. Infection rates started rising again in the mid-2000s and this trend could get even worse now that Museveni has signed into law a controversial bill criminalizing homosexuality – already illegal in Uganda - still further. Experts fear the criminalization of same-sex relations will lead to people being denied HIV counseling. On the day he signed the bill Museveni claimed that the West wanted to promote homosexuality, but he would not tolerate "this interference in Uganda affairs." With this legislation Museveni is causing offense to those very same partner countries that have supported Uganda with development aid down the years. The United States is one of Uganda's biggest donors. President Obama describe the new law as an "affront" and warned it could "complicate" Uganda's relations with Washington.

Uganda President Yoweri Museveni unterzeichnet Anti-Homosexuellen-Gesetz
Museveni signed the anti-gay bill into law defying warnings from the US it would 'complicate' relationsImage: Reuters

Museveni signed the bill, ignoring all western criticism or warnings. It was the act of a president who believes he has to insist on Africa's right to independence, time after time. He supported his Kenyan opposite number, Uhuru Kenyatta, in his dispute with the International Criminal Court in The Hague.

After 28 years in power, Museveni appears impervious to criticism. And he has the support of many Ugandans. "I support Museveni because he has been in power since I was born," is a remark often heard in Uganda. Museveni is expected to run for office again in 2016. The ruling party has urged him to do just that.