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KAMPALA, UGANDA – In the mysterious game of African poker politics, you have to wonder if even a seasoned fox like Yoweri Museveni is not overplaying his hand.

This is what we know.

Museveni has led Uganda for 20 years. They have been decent times, relatively speaking, considering that one predecessor was the murderous Idi Amin and another Milton Obote, overthrown in a coup by Museveni, was as delusional as Amin.

We know Museveni just changed Uganda’s constitution, one of his own formation, to extend presidential limits indefinitely. Now he’ll run — oh so grudgingly, he says — in the March 2006 election for a third and, he says, final term.

And we know that, next to Obote’s recent death in exile, Museveni’s refusal to step aside has been Uganda’s biggest story of this year.

On that, two views have dominated.

One, as a Ugandan told me, is that “Museveni is ruining everything that he has built.”

It’s a long view, considering that tomorrow some future despot could run amok with fewer constitutional checks to stop him. The other take, more often described to me, is the moderate evil that’s known is better than the unknown. So while Uganda’s upcoming elections mark a return to a multi-party system and possibly real choice, better to keep Museveni’s old guard.

Apparently that’s the prudent approach, considering Uganda hasn’t seen a peaceful transfer of power since the Brits left over 50 years ago. Then November’s killer political storm hit. And, if they ever were in the right place, Ugandans’ political bearings got knocked over.

It happened when Museveni’s opponent, Kizza Besigye, a colonel formerly in Museveni’s cabinet but now leading the Forum for Democratic Change, returned from exile to huge crowds, extended hands, smiles, cheers and flags. That got him arrested for treason. And rape for good measure.

So all hell broke loose. By the time it ended, Kampala’s downtown, about 40 minutes from where I live, looked like Baghdad central. Military police on deserted streets. Cars overturned and burning. Smoke mingled with tear gas. Dozens hurt. Scores arrested. One Ugandan shot dead.

Now Besigye rallies, speeches and posters are banned. Maybe mere mention of his name will soon earn a good beating. And other things are getting weird.

In an eerie shadow of Amin’s era, 32 military commandos known as the Black Mambas Urban Hit Squad stormed Kampala’s high court, fingers on triggers, demanding to rearrest, i.e. kidnap, Besigye treason suspects who had just received bail.

The men chose to stay in the safety of jail. The judge resigned over the desecration of his court and some 15 European envoys who witnessed the drama joined the chorus of foreigners wondering about Museveni’s government.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair has told Museveni he’s not impressed. Uganda is still a Commonwealth member and scheduled to host the Commonwealth meetings of 2007.

British intelligence reportedly doesn’t even believe in the existence of the People’s Redemption Army, the mysterious group to which Besigye is accused of having his treasonous links.

Since Museveni took power in 1986, America has given Uganda $11 billion US in aid for things like democracy development. So Washington has a few questions, too.

Museveni has reminded nosey outsiders of their sinful colonial past and told them to get lost. Besigye faces court martial as a terrorist. The latest debate concerns whether he’ll be able to run for office from his prison cell.

Of course, playing the treason card to silence the opposition is an old trick around here. In South Africa, Nelson Mandela’s ANC was paralyzed for years by fighting false charges. So-called treason is also being thrown against opponents by governments in Zambia, Nigeria, Kenya and Ethiopia.

Too bad it can backfire so easily. It can lead to desperate violence and heroes can be made in prison.If nothing else, it makes governments look like they’re running scared.

As cool as Museveni has always been, it’s all a gamble. Because if he’s not really an evil that’s knowable, maybe Ugandans won’t be so afraid to try something else after all.

And the outside world just may not say much about that.