JOHANNESBURG — African leaders joined thousands of Ugandans Tuesday on an airstrip in the capital of Kampala where 50 years ago Uganda announced independence from British rule.
The East African country has come a long way from the days when brutal dictators were in charge, but it has not had a single peaceful transfer of power since 1962 and the potential for instability remains as opposition activists intensify their campaigns and authorities clamp down.
President Yoweri Museveni took power by force in 1986 and has ruled since. He has not said if he intends to run in the 2016 vote, but some in the ruling party are starting to demand his retirement, saying his long stay in power hurts the party’s popularity. For opposition activists, the fact that Museveni has held power for more than half the time Uganda has been independent is reason enough to use the anniversary to demand his unconditional exit.
“We have to show the whole world that there is no independence in Uganda,” said Ingrid Turinawe, a prominent political activist. “Why should we celebrate? What is there to celebrate?”
Military police surrounded the home of Uganda’s top opposition leader on Monday, effectively putting Kizza Besigye out of circulation. Besigye had threatened to stage a rally in Kampala to spotlight the government’s alleged failures.
David Mpanga, a lawyer for Besigye, said his client’s house has been “besieged” by police and his movements restricted. Police last Thursday fired teargas to disperse a rally called by Besigye, who was then taken into a police cell before being allowed to return to his heavily monitored home.
“We are not yet there,” said Nicholas Opio, an independent political analyst, talking about good governance in Uganda. “We are still on the road. There are bigger questions to be asked of this government. There is an aura of paranoia on the part of the state and this paranoia is a result of the increasing unpopularity of the regime.”
Henry Kyemba, an author and politician who worked for Ugandan dictator Idi Amin before fleeing to England, said the country had progressed from the days of Amin, who ruled by military decree and whose regime killed thousands of Ugandans. He describes Uganda today as hopeful despite the lack of peaceful political transitions.
“That is a most unfortunate situation and we should try and reverse it,” said Kyemba, whose 1977 book about Uganda under Amin is titled “A State of Blood.”.
The national celebrations Tuesday were attended by at least 15 heads of state, including two of the longest-serving leaders in Africa: Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe and Yahya Jammeh of Gambia. Britain’s Queen Elizabeth was represented by Prince Edward, the Duke of Kent, who in 1962 handed over the symbolic instruments of power to a young Ugandan politician who would be overthrown eight years later by the army chief, Amin.
Uganda’s population has since grown from 7 million to 34 million. The World Bank says Uganda has sustained a record of “prudent macroeconomic management and structural reform.” In 1996, at least 44 percent of Uganda’s population lived below the poverty line. By 2009, according to the World Bank, the figure had fallen to 24.5 percent.
Angelo Izama, a political analyst with a Kampala-based think tank called Fanaka Kwawote, said that while Uganda has made progress on issues such as women’s rights, poverty reduction and the rule of law, the country remains in a perpetual state of political crisis.
“Unfortunately, Uganda advances through crises,” Izama said. “The next crisis will be the question of succession. The oil resource has upped the ante on what succession means.”
In 2006 Uganda discovered commercially viable oil deposits in the Albertine Rift, along the border with Congo, raising expectations in a country that exports mostly cash crops such as coffee and tea. Officials now estimate Uganda’s crude oil deposits at 3.5 billion barrels, the basis for Museveni’s claim last month that the country will achieve middle-income status in about 50 years.
But some suspect the discovery of oil may have given Museveni a new incentive to hang on to power as well as a source of money to build and maintain that patronage networks that have enabled him to rule so long.
“A number of independent and donor-funded studies have characterized today’s government of Uganda as one of neo-patrimonial rule,” the watchdog Global Witness said of Uganda shortly before Museveni was re-elected last year. “This is a system of government which is dominated by an individual leader whose personal authority is indistinguishable from that of the state and in which political power is maintained through a combination of patronage and the selective use of intimidation and force.”