The President emerged through the sunroof with two raised thumbs and a smile of content.

He was gazing out at thousands of his supporters crammed on the football field. His image was printed on their shirts, caps and umbrellas. On one poster held aloft, Yoweri Museveni's head had been pasted on to the naked torso of a gun-toting Rambo, which might have pleased the President, given his ascent to power in Uganda as a guerilla fighter 25 years ago. The mood was boisterous — there had been squabbles over freebie T-shirts and water — but when he reached the rostrum, the President adopted a serious tone.

“Don't think elections are a mere joke,” he told the crowd, on the outskirts of Kampala. “Politics is linked to your life and your future.” Replace “politics” with “Museveni” and the statement might have been more apposite. In Friday's presidential and parliamentary elections (February 18), the only leader many Ugandans have ever known is standing for a fourth term. And that is by no means the limit of his ambition, as his campaign slogan “pakalast” — “until the end” — suggests.

As in 2001 and 2006, Museveni's main challenge will come from the opposition candidate he despises most: Kizza Besigye, his former personal physician during the guerilla war. Despite widespread intimidation and ballot rigging, Besigye helped cut Museveni's share of the vote from 75 per cent in 1996 to 59 per cent last time round, a trend that could point to an even closer race this time. Besigye, who heads the Inter-Party Coalition, comprising four opposition groups, has warned that if the election is fraudulent his supporters could mount street protests.

The large police presence around the country suggests Museveni, 66, and his ruling National Resistance Movement, are taking that threat seriously. But he is banking that his strategy of spending mind-boggling sums of money — tens of millions of dollars in State funds, according to critics — on advertising, posters, T-shirts, bussing people to rallies and giving them cash payments, will ensure the opposition does not close in enough to be able to claim victory was stolen.

Indeed, so great is the mismatch of resources — one former newspaper editor said the Besigye faced “a vertical cliff rather than an level playing field” — that few people believe Museveni will lose the vote. Or, in the unlikely event that he did, that he would step aside.

President for life?

Having declared shortly after taking power that African leaders who refused to leave office represented one of the continent's greatest problems, Museveni increasingly looks like Uganda's President for life. No successor has been groomed, no leaving date discussed.

To some analysts, such as Andrew Mwenda, a prominent media commentator in Uganda, Museveni now has a sense of his own indispensability. “He has a messianic vision of himself, someone sent from providence to save Uganda from tyranny and poverty and lead it towards development,” Mwenda said. “He won't leave power — he can't be a nobody.” Museveni constantly reminds people of his biggest achievement: the peace and stability that Uganda has enjoyed — the now-dormant war with the Lord's Resistance Army in the north aside — since he assumed power in 1986. Such was the turmoil before, particularly under Idi Amin, that this remains a powerful selling point, especially in rural areas, where most Ugandans still live, and among older voters.

“Since this man took the seat we have had no problems,” said Jacob Waibi, a 67-year-old truck driver, at the President's rally. “But if somebody else comes in tomorrow he could punch us.” But Museveni is also a consummate politician, adept at deflecting criticism and relying on the “bad people around me” defence.

Addressing his supporters, Museveni blamed the scarcity of jobs and electricity on the opposition, which he said had been blocking his ambitious development plans. Poor service delivery was the fault of local officials, a few of whom he called on to a stage and lambasted, to the delight of the crowd. He then promised to give away 20,000 day-old chickens to local people after the election.

Increasing levels of patronage have become a hallmark in recent years, with Museveni handing out cash to everyone from MPs — who each recently received 20m shillings to “monitor government programmes”, or to spend on their campaigns, depending on who you believe — to villagers who clamour for the President's famous “brown envelopes”. It is a situation that infuriates critics such as Amanya Mushega, who fought alongside Museveni in the bush war and served in his government before joining the opposition.

“It's not a sign of dignity that the first thing people ask you for in Uganda is money,” he said. You have ministers begging, bishops begging. We have become a nation of beggars, and have lost our dignity.” Discontent with Museveni is certainly significant. At the President's rally Kenneth Muwooya, 23, said he was only there to “waste time, because I'm idle”. “We don't have jobs. We need change.” But the extent of opposition support is hard to assess. Apathy among opposition voters may count against Besigye, 54, whose arrest on trumped-up rape charges before the 2006 election won him a lot of sympathy votes. One recent poll suggested Museveni's support could reach around 65 per cent, but since many Ugandans fear talking openly about politics with strangers, this may not be accurate.

What is certain is that public services, especially health and education, are in a very poor state, while high-level corruption is a big problem. Addressing large crowds while campaigning in the rolling hills of Ntungamo district, in south-western Uganda, Besigye claimed that “Museveni and Family Limited” were bleeding the country dry — a reference to the President's relatives who enjoy senior State positions, including his wife, brother and a son and daughter.

“If you want no jobs — pakalast. Bad roads — pakalast. To die giving birth — pakalast,” Besigye said.

His supporters roared with laughter.

The President may well laugh last.— © Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2011

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