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Last Updated: Thursday, 22 September 2005, 16:10 GMT 17:10 UK
Uganda gears up for multi-partyism
Robin Lustig
By Robin Lustig
BBC News, Kayunga, central Uganda

In the fifth of his five-part Looking for Democracy series, the BBC's Robin Lustig reports from Uganda.

A polling station at the recent referendum in Uganda
Voters showed little enthusiasm for the recent referendum
Uganda is often called a no-party democracy, because until now, no political party has been allowed to contest an election.

All candidates present themselves simply as individuals, without party labels.

But things are changing. The country depends heavily on international aid to survive.

Foreign donors - or "development partners" as President Yoweri Museveni prefers to call them - have been pressing for a more orthodox form of multi-party democracy.

Sure enough, after a referendum on the issue in which fewer than half of Uganda's voters bothered to participate, parties will now be allowed to fight elections.

So is Uganda now about to become more democratic?

'Strong nation'

Yes, said President Museveni, when I interviewed him at his isolated private ranch in the south-west of the country recently.

Uganda has changed, he told me. Twenty years ago, it was divided and riven by religious and ethnic factionalism.

Now, he said, the wounds have healed, and the country is strong enough to survive multi-partyism.

Andrew Mwenda
Radio host Andrew Mwenda has been charged with sedition
But in Kayunga in central Uganda, where I attended the celebrations for International Youth Day, even members of the Movement, Mr Museveni's formidable political organisation, are not too sure.

The chairman of the district council, Steven Dagada, worries that widespread poverty and illiteracy make rural farmers susceptible to manipulation and factionalism.

Party democracy may be all right for the advanced and the literate, he says, but the no-party system, under which candidates were elected simply on the basis of who they were and what they had done, has worked pretty well.

Opposition politicians see it differently. How can you have real power if you are not allowed to organise, they ask.

Or, in the colourful phrase of opposition MP Norbert Mao: the president says the people can have a voice, but not a choice.

So does the opposition have any influence in a no-party system?

Mr Mao has another well-honed aphorism: we have our say, he told me with a smile, but the government have their way.

Lively debate

There is no shortage of people having their say in Uganda - it has one of the liveliest and loudest political debating cultures of any African nation.

The newspapers are full of anti-government anger; the radio talk shows crackle with anti-Museveni invective.

The opposition kept going on about how they wanted to be allowed to contest elections. Fine, now they can. Let's see how well they do
A government minister

The president says he regards a free press as an essential part of any democratic system but he adds: "It must be disciplined."

Sometimes, he phones in himself to a radio talk show to put someone right.

While I was in Kampala, I met the most controversial of all the radio talk show hosts, Andrew Mwenda.

President Museveni attacked him by name - he called him "this young boy, Mwenda" - because of what he had said about Uganda's involvement in Rwanda and the circumstances surrounding the death of the Sudanese vice-president John Garang in the crash of a helicopter belonging to President Museveni.

The day after I met Mr Mwenda, the government shut down his radio station; and a day later, Mr Mwenda himself was arrested and told he would be charged with sedition, which carries a maximum sentence of five years in jail.

So is Uganda a democracy, or on the way to becoming one? It will, I think, be more democratic with multi-partyism than without it.

But I remember what one government minister told me when I took part in one of those raucous radio talk shows.

"The opposition kept going on about how they wanted to be allowed to contest elections. Fine, now they can. Let's see how well they do."

He sounded like a man who was confident that he would not be out of a job any time soon.


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