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Keeping it in the family, Uganda-style

To nobody's surprise Yoweri Museveni — Uganda's rebel-commander-turned-president-for-life — reshuffled his cabinet this week and promoted his wife, the formidable first lady and renowned God-botherer, Janet.

It was she who spearheaded the George W. Bush-backed anti-condom and pro-abstinence campaign that, secular sexual health activists complain, retarded Uganda's previously stellar progress in fighting HIV/AIDS.

After the rebel war that brought Museveni to power in 1986, the new president evicted his "bush girlfriend" and invited Janet back from exile. Since then she has steadily built a reputation as a children's activist and women's representative. Probably the country's most influential born again Christian, she can also deliver the large "balokole," or born again, vote.

Janet made her first step into the political arena in the 2006 national elections when she won a parliamentary seat in her hometown. Now she has been appointed state minister for Karamoja, an arid region in the far east of the country sparsely populated by pastoralists and riddled with security problems. Up to now, the government's policy on Karamoja — and the Karamojong people who live there — has been neglect interspersed with bouts of ruthless suppression.

But the big question that Janet's ascension raises is whether she is being groomed for the Big Man role itself? Certainly Museveni — or M7, as the local papers call him — is showing no signs of relinquishing his grip on the country ahead of elections in 2011, but until now most pundits assumed he would eventually bequeath the job to his son Muhoozi, currently a rising young star in the army.