Uganda’s mixed fortunes after 27 years under Yoweri Museveni’s leadership
President insists corruption is being tackled and Uganda is not reliant on aid
Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni (left) is welcomed by his South African counterpart, Jacob Zuma, at a meeting of leaders from the Southern African Development Community in Pretoria this week. Photograph: Siphiwe Sibeko/Reuters
For many Ugandans, Yoweri Museveni is the president who brought democracy to a country reeling after decades of dictatorship and went on to steer it towards strong economic growth. For other more critical voices, however, he is the leader who, after almost three decades in power, increasingly looks like Uganda’s president for life.
Museveni has been president for 27 years. Rumours abound in the capital, Kampala, over whether the man once hailed as part of a new generation of African leaders will run for a fourth term in 2016.
Sitting in the relatively modest villa that forms the centrepiece of his cattle farm in southern Uganda, Museveni insists it is up to his party to decide if he contests the presidency again but he hints it is a possibility – because, he seems to suggest, there might not be anyone else up to the job.
“My plans are determined by the tasks we face. What tasks does Uganda face and which of our cadre can manage them? That is how I have been involved all this time,” he says.
“If those tasks were not there, I would be very comfortable to go and retire.”
Museveni proudly details Uganda’s successes. In addition to healthy economic growth rates, the country has surpassed the millennium development goal of halving the 56 per cent poverty rate it recorded in the early 1990s. Like other African countries, it has attracted investment from China in recent years. Chinese companies are working on several major infrastructure projects including roads and dams.
But per-capita income hovers around $500 (€374) and economists warn that Museveni’s much-vaunted goal for Uganda to become a middleincome country by 2017 is overly ambitious. Its population is strikingly young – almost 60 per cent is under 20 – but with youth unemployment estimated at 62 per cent, it is a demographic that presents challenges as well as potential.
In 2011, Ugandan youths were at the forefront of street protests – violently quashed by security forces – over rising commodity prices and crippling government corruption.
Uganda’s graft problem seeps into almost every conversation in Kampala, and many believe it is getting worse. A recent report by Human Rights Watch accused the government of failing to hold to account senior officials implicated in the theft and diversion of public funds.
“No high-ranking government official, minister or political appointee has ever served a prison sentence despite investigations into numerous corruption scandals over many years and an impressive array of anti-corruption institutions,” it said, noting that Museveni’s “promises to tackle corruption have proliferated while officials responsible for graft at the highest levels go free”.
Last year Ireland and other donors suspended millions in aid after Uganda’s auditor-general discovered that funds from several European countries had been siphoned into the private bank accounts of officials in the prime minister’s office.
The money had been allocated for development projects in war-scarred northern Uganda and Karamoja, the country’s poorest region.
Ireland responded by suspending more than €16 million of assistance due to be channelled through Ugandan government systems. While Uganda has refunded the €4 million of Irish aid misappropriated, the Irish Government says it will not lift the suspension of funding until it is confident internal financial controls have been strengthened and the officials involved in the fraud have been brought to justice.
“Ireland has pressed the government of Uganda for concerted action following the fraud,” a spokeswoman for Irish Aid said. “To date, the Ugandan DPP has opened 99 case files and Irish Aid will be following these cases very closely.”
Museveni insists corruption is being addressed. “Yes, the problem is there and it is big, but it is being tackled,” he says.
“The answer is to continue to hold the front line against corruption and bribery. The accounting officers, the auditors, then prosecutors, then judges: these are the frontline fighters against corruption.”
Turning to the issue of the misappropriated aid money and the subsequent suspension of donor funds, he becomes defensive. “We are the ones who arrested the thieves and we are prosecuting them . . . We ignored those who were making a fuss suspending aid because the money was given back and, after all, these people were not only stealing the donor money, they were also stealing our money. How could [the donors] be more concerned than me?”
Museveni argues that Uganda is not reliant on donor funds. “Fortunately we have managed our economy well and we have a little bit of our own money. In the last budget, only 18 per cent of the budget is from what you call donors, the rest is our own money, so if the Irish want to keep the money suspended, that is up to them but we are moving on anyway. We don’t depend on it.”
Human rights groups say they detect a growing authoritarian mood in Uganda: several media outlets were forced to close this year and new laws passed in May restrict the holding of public meetings.
Museveni dismisses concerns about a shrinking media and civil society space. “There is so much freedom, it is actually chaotic,” he says. “They even write false stories, how can you say there is less freedom? Those are just lies, we ignore them.”
In his book What is Africa’s Problem?, published in 1986, the year he came to power, Museveni wrote: “The problem of Africa in general and Uganda in particular is not the people but leaders who want to overstay in power.”
Reminded of this and his own considerable time as president, he does not flinch: “I was talking about staying in power without elections.”
Many in Kampala wonder if Museveni’s son, Brig Muhoozi Kainerugaba, is being groomed to succeed him. “The man is still in the army, he loves the army and he has not even stood for [local council elections],” the president replies.
“If in the future, he wants to run and Ugandans want to elect him, that is up to him and the people of Uganda.”