Tea with the messiah

Yoweri Museveni was once hailed as a model for African leaders, but they don't say that any more. Wh

The summons took a roundabout route, sent to a newspaper editor in Kampala, who relayed it to a friend in Nairobi, who forwarded it to me. "Your writing has attracted the president's attention," said the head of Uganda's media centre in the e-mail. "He is anxious to interface with you. When can you come to Kampala?"

I knew, without needing to ask, exactly which article had piqued President Yoweri Museveni. It was a column in which I'd bemoaned African leaders' habit of fiddling their constitutions in order to remain in power. I'd cited M7, as he is known in Kampala, as a prime offender, arguing that the scrapping of Uganda's two-term limit showed how the man hailed in the 1990s as one of Africa's "new breed" of leaders had never grasped the notion that democracy was built on institutions rather than individuals.

Interface? What, in the Ugandan context, did that mean? Twenty years ago, no journalist in her right mind would have scurried to Uganda, where Idi Amin and Milton Obote's bloody excesses took place, to "interface" with a tetchy head of state. Nevertheless, whatever one may think of Museveni's regime, that I never once thought I could be at risk was a telling tribute to his 20 years in power.

No, it was far more likely he would simply blast me with charisma, a technique used to woo the likes of Lynda Chalker, Clare Short, Hilary Benn and all the other representatives of donor countries that each year provide his government with 40-50 per cent of its operating budget.

"He's on a PR offensive," a Ugandan colleague told me. "It looks like you are one of the candidates chosen to buff up his image."

My arrival in Kampala coincided with the opening of the government's media centre. As marabou storks wheeled in languid circles in the sky and his soldiers paced outside, President Museveni slouched grim-faced in his chair, showing no sign of the legendary charm as his staff introduced themselves.

Then he began to talk, and an extraordinary thing happened. His eyes boggled, his hands flew, his face came alive. He cracked jokes in Luganda and dropped the odd proverb. Lecturing "my children, my young friends" on the need to develop "ideological understanding", he talked about how larvae became butterflies, said Africa was undergoing a similar metamorphosis, and cited the 500 years it took Europe to move from feudalism to modernity.

Soon, the staff were chuckling. Then it was my turn. "I understand," he said, "that you need to be cured of pessimism." Turning to his personal assistant, he listed a set of speeches I should be given to read. "She needs medicine."

I was treated to a slightly perfunctory lecture, this time on the failure of the western media to recognise the "strategic bottlenecks" crippling Africa, such as the Balkanisation of the continent into units too small to sustain trade or growth and the unfairness of an international quota system that forced African nations to keep producing low-value raw commodities.

If multi-partyism, term limits and other such "procedural issues" were so essential, how, he asked, did I explain the fact that African countries such as Senegal remained underdeveloped, while countries such as China, which had embraced none of those things, flourished? "You can see that those pro cedural things are like the jam you put on bread," he said. "You don't eat jam on its own. It helps you to eat the bread." Then he was off to take part in a televised press conference focusing on the ongoing peace talks with the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA), Uganda's northern rebel movement.

With its juxtaposition of muscularity with humour, peasant wisdom with western scholarship, all delivered in the "don't-worry-your- little-head-about-it" tone of an elderly uncle, it was a typical Museveni performance. For years the man touted as Africa's philosopher king, who seemed to combine military prowess with intellectual sophistication, has relied on his gift of the gab to seduce western allies and Ugandans alike.

But the charm has been wearing thin of late, exposing something that looks very much like the arrogance of tenure. Museveni's decision to stand for a third term, the crude hounding of his opponent Kizza Besigye - charged with treason and rape - the human-rights abuses committed by an ever-visible army, and the accusations of sleaze swirling around the presidential family, have all undermined his stature. A recent report from the United States Agency for International Development decried the rise of presidential authoritarianism, the use of patronage and selective intimidation to maintain political power, the subversion of formal democratic institutions, and the military's role in politics.

When First Lady Janet Museveni, a born-again Christian, last year compared her husband to the Messiah, it did little to reassure. The baby-faced former rebel chief, who once impertinently told Mobutu Sese Seko (the late president of Congo) and Daniel arap Moi (the then Kenyan president) that it was time for them to go, has started to look like something of an African cliché himself.

So Museveni has every reason to savour the PR coup that fate has dealt him. After two decades of terrorising the north, the LRA leader, Joseph Kony, looks likely to come in from the cold. A final deal with the government is being hammered out as dispirited rebels head for two camps in southern Sudan to disarm.

The LRA campaign, and the Ugandan army's response to it - which consisted of herding the villagers on whom Kony preyed into squalid camps - has wrecked the north, excluding it from southern Uganda's economic success. Jan Egeland, the UN emergency relief co-ordinator, called it the world's most neglected emergency. With some two million people living in camps for internally displaced people and dependent on food aid, the conflict had become an international scandal, an indictment of Museveni's rule.

In truth, the tentative settlement with the LRA is largely the result of events outside Museveni's control. A historic peace deal between Sudan's southern rebels and the Khartoum government, which supplied Kony with weapons, cut the ground from under the LRA.

But Museveni has undoubtedly been cunning in the use to which he has put the International Criminal Court. In 2003 he asked the ICC to investigate LRA abuses against the civilian pop ulation, including amputations, kidnappings and the snatching of young girls as sex slaves. The court duly issued international arrest warrants for five LRA commanders, providing Museveni, who is offering the same men amnesty, with a stick to wave whenever it looked like they were trying to abandon the peace process.

ICC warrants cannot be rescinded, but Museveni airily told a press conference after our interview that as long as Kony ceased his criminal activities "we will work on ways to remove him from the [ICC] list". ICC investigators may be quietly grinding their teeth at the hijacking of their work, but it's hard to see prosecutions proceeding against a head of state's wishes.

If it all comes together, peace in the north will be arriving in the nick of time. In November 2007 Kampala will host the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting. It's clear Museveni wants no embarrassing conflict distracting delegates' attention from the glory of the event.

No longer a "donors' darling"

On the record, he is increasingly dismissive of western governments that once dubbed him the "donors' darling". "That was an insult in the first place," he told me. "I aspire to be the darling of Africa and of Uganda, not the donors." But the capital's transformation ahead of the Commonwealth meeting - with deluxe hotels springing up on its seven hills - tells a different story.

"If he can sort out the north, he will redeem his image. He could use that to go for a fourth term," a diplomat said.

To critics, however, success in the north cannot make up for his increasingly glaring failings. One journalist, who did not want to be named, spoke for many Ugandans when he acknowledged that his bitterness was a measure of the hopes Museveni first raised when he emerged from the bush and stunned the nation by preaching a message of personal humility, prudent management and the need for institutional checks and balances.

"His failures are bigger than those of other African presidents because of the expectations he created. In his prime, there was no one in his league except for Mandela. His failures set back the whole of Africa because he has denied the continent a role model."

Yet the road from Kampala to the airport in Entebbe illustrates why Ugandans are unlikely to do anything more than rail at M7's refusal to take his final bow. On one hillside sits the new Serena Hotel, replacing the Nile Hotel where Idi Amin tortured his opponents to death. Above the busy roundabouts, billboards advertise insurance, mobile phones, beer and other products, many produced by the Asian families Amin expelled and Museveni invited back. Along the roadside, where banana groves alternate with brightly painted bungalows, piles of red bricks attest to the building work taking place.

Ugandans in their forties and fifties, who lost family and friends under Amin and Obote, know what a rogue state is capable of. They are not about to put what still feels like a relatively short period of stability and prosperity at risk. "It'll take another ten or 20 years," the journalist said, "before anyone seriously challenges the state."

I asked Museveni, who once said that no leader should stay in power longer than ten years, whether he recognised how a country benefited from the injection of ideas that came with al ternation of power. "I totally believe in competition of ideas," he said. "What I don't believe is that competition of ideas is inseparable from a change in political actors."

A short history of Uganda

1894 Uganda becomes a British protectorate

1921 The first legislative council is installed

1962 Prime Minister Milton Obote secures independence

1963 Kabaka Mutesa II is elected president and the country becomes a republic

1971 A coup is launched by the military general Idi Amin, who establishes a dictatorship

1972 Sixty thousand Asians are expelled

1976 Amin declares himself president for life and lays claim to parts of Kenya

1978 Uganda invades Tanzania in an effort to annex the Kagera region

1979 Tanzania invades Uganda. Amin is forced to flee the country. After the short-lived presidency of Yusufu Lule, a new president, Godfrey Binaisa, is elected. The death toll of Amin's dictatorship was 300,000

1980 Amin's old enemy Obote is elected president. During his five-year tenure, 100,000 people die

1986 The National Resistance Army takes the capital, Kampala, and installs Yoweri Museveni as president

1995 A new constitution legalises the hitherto banned political parties

1996 Museveni retains his post in the country's first direct presidential elections

1999 At the International Court of Justice in The Hague, the Democratic Republic of Congo accuses Uganda of invasion and of killing its citizens. ICJ orders Uganda to pay reparations

2000 Multi-party politics rejected in a referendum; reinstated by another in 2005, but Presidential term limits also abolished.

2006 Museveni wins multi-party elections with 59 per cent of the vote. The government and Lord's Resistance Army rebels sign a truce

Research by Matt Kennard