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Last Updated: Saturday, 24 December 2005, 12:01 GMT
Uganda highlights African dilemmas

By Fergal Keane
BBC, Kampala

Britain has decided to suspend its aid to Uganda - some 15m ($26m) worth - amid growing concerns about the rule of President Museveni. But has this decision come too late?

President Yoweri K Museveni
Yoweri Museveni has been president of Uganda since 1986

"Hello, my name is Gorgeous."

They were his exact words. That was his name.

He was a dapper young fellow with an earnest manner, not what one expected from a member of a presidential security detail... a little too innocent for the job I thought. Gorgeous.

I mention him here only because of the incongruity of the scene, the juxtaposition of that name and the apparently gormless individual to whom it was attached, with the spectacle of state power that was unfolding around us.

We were a collection of local and international journalists being shepherded by Gorgeous into the grounds of President Museveni's official residence in Kampala, State House.

On the avenue leading to the house was a line of jeeps upon which sat the grim-faced warriors of the Presidential Guard.

It is said that this army within an army numbers in the thousands and that the president's son is an officer.

The Guard is certainly well-armed.

I saw heavy machine guns, the long barrel of a mounted artillery piece and a glistening forest of automatic rifles.

'Reptilian'

President Mobutu, former president of the Democratic Republic of Congo
Mobutu was ousted in 1997 when Rwanda invaded DR Congo

I was immediately carried back nearly 15 years to an encounter in what was then Zaire, now the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The country was in the midst of chaos.

There had been an attempted rebellion by soldiers protesting against the lack of pay.

The Presidential Guard had been called out and - with the help of French and Belgian troops - forced the mutinous soldiers back to barracks.

A few days later, President Mobutu - the most venal and reptilian of all Africa's dictators (a quite extraordinary distinction it has to be said) - emerged from the riverside palace to tell us the crisis was over and we should all go home.

I vividly recall him turning on me when I asked how he felt.

"How do you think I feel?" he spat.

Charm offensive

I mention Mobutu's name because it came up during the course of my interview with President Museveni.

President Museveni (l) with President Mugabe (r) in 2004
There was none of the venom of Mobutu or the dark threats made by the likes of Robert Mugabe

I had suggested that he was becoming another Big Man of Africa, like Mobutu, locking up his political enemies and putting power before the wellbeing of his country.

Of course he did not agree.

He accused me of stereotyping Africans.

I half expected one of his lectures about the evils of colonialism, a favourite fallback of the African Big Man class whenever some meddling foreigner questions their way of doing things.

Mr Museveni is a charming man, however.

There was none of the venom of Mobutu or the dark threats made by the likes of Robert Mugabe.

And unlike Mobutu, one has to point out that last time out, Mr Museveni was elected to power in a democratic poll.

For much of the last nearly two decades he has done much that has been good for his country.

Global business associates

For many years now President Museveni has been touted as one of a new breed of African leaders.

President Museveni (l), Prime Minister Tony Blair (c), President Mkapa of Tanzania
There is a gap between Western perceptions and African realities

Of course that was said once about Robert Mugabe, too.

Political leaders in the West, and many in the media, have been so desperate to believe in a new Africa, so desperate they have fallen for every leader who has talked the language of pluralism and respect for human rights.

They especially liked these men if they followed World Bank and IMF prescribed solutions to their country's economic problems.

They were - from Mugabe in the early 1980s to President Museveni and the prime minister of Ethiopia now - the kind of people one could do business with.

And so eyes and ears were closed to the nastiness practised by the security agencies of these new African leaders.

Western naivety

The West is being defeated by the politics of wishful thinking in Africa.

After the decades of blood and famine, Western leaders wanted an end to the misery and the constant tugging at the post-colonial conscience.

They have seen us coming with our desperate will for Africa to succeed

Many of our leaders acted from genuinely high principles.

But I also think there is a patronising expectation that these new Africans can be managed and moulded in the same way a previous Western generation had manipulated African leaders during the Cold War.

I am afraid the manipulation has worked the other way.

They have seen the West coming with a desperate will for Africa to succeed, hands wringing over past failures and abandonments, eyes blind and ears blocked.

Now that the subtle repression of such states has become more publicly brutal - the locking up of the opposition leader in Uganda, the jailing of scores of opposition supporters in Ethiopia - countries like Britain appear shocked.

They have moved to cut aid.

It is all much, much too late.

Leaving Uganda, our plane banked over Lake Victoria, against a magnificent red sun but I felt, for the first time in many years, a deep pessimism about Africa.

The new Big Men have read the West well and I feel they will be with us for a long time to come.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 24 December, 2005 at 1130 GMT on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

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