Can we talk? Ugandans try to coax longtime leader to leave

Can one of Africa's longest-serving leaders be talked into giving up power?

A new movement in Uganda wants to find out, encouraged by the president's tentative embrace of a so-called "national dialogue" as the government is in a showdown with an opposition pop star whose popularity with disaffected young people is unsettling the ruling party.

The talks, set to be launched on December 18, are being pushed by religious and civic leaders and some retired public officials who envisage a peaceful end to the presidency of Yoweri Museveni. He has held power for over 30 years and could extend his rule until the 2030s after lawmakers last year removed age restrictions on the presidency.

That decision, opposed by many Ugandans, left the door open for the 74-year-old Museveni to seek another term in 2021 and deepened concerns over the risk of a violent succession struggle the longer he stays in power.

On a continent where many leaders have been violently overthrown over the decades, it's rare for one to simply give up office without being forced or voted out. The trend in parts of Africa has been tweaking constitutions to get around or erase term limits, while elections often are marred by alleged fraud.

Uganda's new dialogue, if successful, will aim at a national "consensus on transformation and transition," said Crispy Kaheru, a civic leader who is involved in drafting the agenda.

Museveni, he said, "would be at the centre" of the public discussions focusing in part on achieving a smooth transfer of power that would ease him from office.

Uganda's main opposition party, the Forum for Democratic Change, has long been interested in unseating Museveni but dismissed the upcoming talks as a waste of time in a country where the president monopolises political power.

The FDC notably skipped a rare meeting last week between Museveni and some opposition parties, the first such closed-door talks in a decade. Dialogue "is the beginning of democracy," the president told reporters afterward. "Dialogue is a command from God."

Museveni's opponents often describe him as a dictator, citing his grip on the security forces and ruling party. To his supporters, he is a democrat who has presided over relative economic and political stability.

The president also has turned his back on past pledges to step aside. Asked by local broadcaster NTV six years ago whether he would still be leading Uganda past his 75th birthday, he replied: "Not at all. Certainly not." He added that "if you want very active leaders it's good to have the ones below 75 years."

Some critics say Museveni cannot be trusted to leave power voluntarily.

Ceding power "is an area where he has very little interest," said lawmaker and main opposition spokesperson Ssemujju Nganda.

Uganda needs a credible mediator as well as "guarantees that the outcomes of the dialogue will be implemented," Nganda said.

This East African nation has never seen a peaceful transfer of power since independence from the British in 1962, and Museveni took power in 1986 as the head of rebels who overran the capital, Kampala. At the start of his presidency he said he was likely to spend only a few years in office. He has since been elected five times in polls marred by rigging and violence.

Now the rise of the pop star and lawmaker known as Bobi Wine, who has a huge following among the urban poor, is forcing Uganda's ruling party to seek new ways of reconnecting with voters.

The singer's arrest and alleged torture at the hands of state agents in August drew widespread condemnation abroad and at home, provoking street protests in Kampala. Since then he has vowed to join up with other youthful opposition leaders across Africa to oust aging leaders like Museveni, who refers to Uganda's young people as "my grandchildren."

The singer did not respond to questions about whether he will be involved in the new national dialogue.

After the showdown with the pop star put an unflattering spotlight on Museveni, the president has said he is open to talks with the opposition. But he has warned that those efforts should not be guided by calls to share power.

In that, there's trouble. For the national dialogue to be taken seriously, the president "must accept to be equal to the others," said Mwambutsya Ndebesa, an analyst who teaches political history at Uganda's Makerere University.

The talks are not backed by any legal framework and the organisers appear too deferential to Museveni, said Ndebesa who believes the ambitious dialogue will fail.

"What if somebody reneges on what was agreed upon?" he said.

Even the United States has been watching Museveni's long rule and wondering when it might come to a close.

"Unfortunately, President Museveni shows no signs of thinking about a transition," Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Tibor Nagy told a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing last week. 

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