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Edward Echwalu/Reuters/Newscom

A weight of hopelessness

Street-level discontent in 2012 may grow along with unchecked authoritarianism in Africa

Issue: "Tour d'America road rage," Feb. 11, 2012

KAMPALA, Uganda-The spectacle of former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak wheeled into a Cairo courtroom, prostrate and strapped to an oxygen tube, should be a warning sign to other heads of state who get used to a lifetime of being the boss.

Sadly, it isn't. Africa is plagued with "elected" heads of state who began as the people's advocates, usually by overthrowing some other dictator, but somewhere along the line decided that the statehouse mansion is too nice a place to give up. Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni is one of the latest-a longtime U.S. ally who has been in power since 1986. Like others in the 73-year-old's position, six years ago Museveni wheedled members of parliament into eliminating presidential term limits from Uganda's constitution.

As we saw in places like Egypt and Tunisia, with no legal requirement to transfer power plus the steady accumulation of cronies who control the bureaucracy and the military, "election" victories come easily while corruption and poverty grow. Resentment, meanwhile, may ultimately empower the most militant extremists. In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood is consolidating parliamentary victories at all levels.

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A woman in Kampala who is taking classes while awaiting her discharge from the army explained the significance to me this way: The loss of term limits makes people lose hope because they know political change is beyond them, and the lack of accountability makes a head of state insecure because he knows opponents are looking for ways other than elections to topple him.

A perfect illustration of that happened in Kampala on Jan. 19, when opposition lawmakers joined street activists to relaunch last year's "Walk to Work" demonstrations. Piggybacking on Arab Spring tactics, Ugandans in 2011 once a week refused transportation, an effective slowdown to capital city business and commerce as employees walked to work. The new campaign, dubbed "Walk to Work Reloaded," promises expanded demonstrations over growing grievances: Inflation in Uganda had held at 5 percent to 8 percent in recent years until in 2011 it soared to 31 percent. Lead economists and some public officials accuse Museveni of printing new bank notes without removing old ones from circulation. To cope, banks recently raised interest rates on commercial loans retroactively.

Museveni, with zero tolerance for street dissent this time around, had police shut down the rally before it began. They fired tear gas on the crowd and chased protesters from Katwe Freedom Square as they gathered. Police arrested four members of parliament who helped organize the event, and held them for six hours without charges "as a preventive measure to avoid crime."

The Middle East isn't the only region where average folks are seething from years of powerlessness, and extremists are ready to take advantage of it. Africa may be next. In 2012 rising fuel prices, inflation, and tightened credit markets-a weight of hopelessness-are likely to join forces with a new awareness that the streets are where change happens.

Look to recent weeks of violence in Nigeria-an explosive mix of Islamic jihadism layered upon strikes over fuel prices-that could turn another strategic region into a more hostile place. Yet the Obama administration persists in responding belatedly to growing upheaval rather than anticipating it.

"America's global adversaries aren't waiting around graciously for our economic recovery," points out former UN ambassador John Bolton (in a Wall Street Journal op-ed endorsing Mitt Romney). "Instead, they see Mr. Obama's weaknesses and are vigorously exploiting them."

U.S. foreign aid to Uganda has increased by more than 10 percent-from $430 million to $480 million-since 2008. And there's no sign the Obama administration otherwise has addressed the growing authoritarianism and militarization of the Museveni regime. In fact, the United States last year sent 100 military advisers to Uganda to engage a regional conflict against the Lord's Resistance Army. With both economic and political liberties at stake in growing parts of the world, that's just another example of responding to a crisis while ignoring the roots of conflict.

Email mbelz@worldmag.com

Mindy Belz
Mindy Belz

Mindy travels to the far corners of the globe as the editor of WORLD and lives with her family in the mountains of western North Carolina. Follow Mindy on Twitter @mcbelz.

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