Uganda's leader of 25 years seeks to extend rule

After 25 years as leader of Uganda, Yoweri Museveni asked his countrymen Friday to cast ballots that would give him five more years in office — not as an old-style African strongman, but as a president who has fostered peace, stability and growth.

Museveni, an ex-rebel commander who seized power at the head of a guerrilla army in 1986, once criticized African rulers who clung to power.

A popular revolt forced Egypt's president out last week after nearly three decades in power. The continent's remaining long-serving leaders — like Moammar Gadhafi in Libya (1969) and Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe (1980) — now face a groundswell of angst aimed at their removal.

The 60-something Museveni, who wears a floppy hat and may soon cut a rap album, has mostly escaped that kind of wrath. That's despite reneging on a 2001 promise to retire from politics and despite lifting a two-term limit on the presidency so he could run in 2006.

"You can still call him an autocrat or traditional African strongman," said Frederick Golooba-Mutebi, a researcher at Kampala's Makerere University.

But while Museveni's rule rests on the same rampant corruption and strong-arm tactics as other African leaders, he has been better at selling himself to the West, Golooba-Mutebi said. An anti-AIDS program has won praise, as has Uganda's commitment of thousands of troops to Somalia to fight al-Qaida-linked militants.

"He is much more skilled at PR," Golooba-Mutebi said. "That is the key difference."

The counting of ballots from Friday's vote began immediately after polls closed, and final results are expected Sunday. Most observers expect Museveni to win, though top challenger Kizza Besigye — Museveni's former physician — has strong support too.

Showing off his ink-stained finger and thumb, 19-year-old Ian Kaganda said that after living all his life under Museveni's leadership, he wanted someone new.

"From when I was a baby to now there has been only Museveni," Kaganda said after voting at an open-air polling station in Konge, a village on Kampala's outskirts. "We want a change now."

As in many African countries, Uganda's capital city is a hotbed of opposition sentiment and Museveni enjoys greater support in rural areas.

"Museveni has brought us peace and that is the most important thing," said waitress Maggie Namuganda, 26. "Without peace you can have no freedom, so that is why I am supporting Museveni."

Museveni himself has predicted a "big win" in just the second multiparty election to be held in Uganda in 30 years.

Besigye, who won 37 percent of the vote in the 2006 presidential election, plans to release his own tally of results and is threatening Egypt-style unrest if the results are out of line with his backers' expectations. Besigye insists Uganda is ready for popular revolt.

Museveni, who is vague about his age and says he is 66 or 67, promised to jail anyone who tries to spark unrest, saying that no one can use extraconstitutional means to take power.

Besigye has already called the election "fundamentally flawed," pointing to the incumbent's control of the electoral commission and the failure to give new voters identity cards as proof that the president will rig the vote.

John Mary Odoy, director of Democracy Monitoring Group, said several abnormalities were reported Friday, including ballots pre-marked for Museveni's party and observers being refused access to polling stations.

Besigye, the candidate for the Inter-Party Cooperation coalition, lost to Museveni in 2001 and 2006, and failed to get the results overturned in court despite proof of widespread intimidation.

While previous election campaigns were marred by violence against opposition candidates, observers say Museveni allowed opposition candidates a freer hand to campaign this year, perhaps thinking that allowing true competition would win him points with voters.

The approach is a far cry from Africa's dictators of old. Idi Amin, who ruled Uganda from 1971-1979, butchered his opponents. Jean-Bedel Bokassa, who ruled Central African Republic from 1966-79, was widely accused of eating those who dared oppose him.

Today's strongman tends to stay in power by leading pseudo-democracies — delaying elections as needed or entering into unity governments even when the opposition gets more votes.

Angola is still a virtual one-party state headed by President Eduardo dos Santos, who has been in power since 1979. At the end of 2009, he announced that presidential elections in the former Portuguese colony, which is a major oil and diamond producer, would be delayed from 2009 to at least 2012.

In Zimbabwe, Mugabe has ruled since independence from Britain in 1980. He was at first viewed as a liberator and statesman, but has been accused of using violence and fraud to hold onto power. After troubled elections in 2008, he was forced into a power-sharing agreement with his longtime rival.

Still, tiny, oil-rich Equatorial Guinea is more of the old school. President Obiang Nguema Mbasogo seized power more than 30 years ago and has been accused of human rights violations including unlawful killings, torture, and arbitrary arrests. Obiang denies the allegations.

Edward Bbaale, a 40-year-old garbage collector who is backing Museveni, hopes his country will escape such post-election violence.

"I pray to God that the one that loses the election accepts defeat peacefully," he said.


Associated Press writer Godfrey Olukya in Kampala contributed to this report.