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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Democracy Starts to Take in Africa

KAMPALA, Uganda -- One way of judging the repressive nature of an African president is by standing in the center of that leader's capital city and calling him awful names.

By that measure, President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda could be worse. He is being called a dictator, a thug, a power-hungry autocrat and even harsher things than that these days, and for the most part he is taking it, not trying to round up or eliminate all those who dare speak ill of him, which has been done in this country in the past.

On top of that, Museveni has been rather adept during his 19 years in power at rebuilding Uganda's tattered economy. He has won widespread praise for his early and activist leadership when it comes to combating AIDS. An erudite man, he speaks passionately of his desire for a modern, robust and, most of all, peaceful Uganda, and he sounds very much as if he means it.

But Museveni, billed during U.S. President Bill Clinton's administration as one of Africa's new generation of enlightened, democratic leaders, has proved himself something far less grand. He and others like him -- notably, Meles Zenawi of Ethiopia and Paul Kagame of Rwanda -- have disappointed those who were hoping for Western-style democracy to emerge in full flower in 21st-century Africa.

But if they have fallen short of that goal -- a naive one, they say -- they have succeeded in holding together troubled countries with undeveloped democratic institutions and traditions. If that has occasionally meant resorting to authoritarian methods, so be it, they say. That's African-style democracy, something the West would not understand.

With a long tradition of tyrants in its midst, Africa does seem to have improved its leadership, even as television images from the eastern precincts of the continent recently seem to show a region in crisis. Museveni, however flawed, is nothing like the murderous Idi Amin or even Milton Obote, another Ugandan strongman of the past. Meles, Ethiopia's hard-line prime minister, is a far cry from the dictator he ousted, Mengistu Haile Mariam. Kagame, despite his tight grip on his country, did quell the ethnic slaughter in 1994 that was orchestrated by the government he replaced.

But such leaders, promoted by Washington and other Western capitals as Africa's saviors, are increasingly seen as mere mortals. "I don't think Museveni was ever the leader the world thought he was," said Proscovia Salaamu Musumba, deputy president of the Forum for Democratic Change, a Ugandan opposition group. "It was an illusion."

The corruption is less blatant than it was with their predecessors, most here agree, and the jailing of opponents far less prevalent.

"They are better than the ones before, but in their burning desire to remain in power they are the same," said Ted Dagne, an Africa analyst with the Congressional Research Service in Washington. In what he called "a policy blunder from which we have yet to recover," American policy on Africa has focused too much on personalities, he said.

Perhaps the most prominent, and ambiguous, of those personalities is Museveni. While Uganda is preparing to hold its first multiparty presidential elections since he came to power 20 years ago, the government jailed the country's main opposition leader, Kizza Besigye, last week, accusing him of treason. Besigye returned to Uganda from exile last month to huge enthusiastic crowds and declared himself a candidate for the 2006 elections. Now he is off the campaign trail and in Kampala's maximum security prison.

The question remains whether there is such a thing as African democracy. It's not a complete oxymoron. Rigging elections, while still part of the landscape, is becoming a cause for embarrassment, done surreptitiously. Putting up with criticism and dissent is increasingly seen as part of the job. For every leader who clings to power, there are others who go when it's time to go.

Africa's heads of state do face extraordinary challenges, such as the scores or even hundreds of ethnic or tribal groups within their borders, as well as long histories with violent struggle. They have earned the right to define democracy for themselves and their countries -- so long as they don't scrap democracy in the process.