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WORLD REPORT PROFILE : Yoweri Museveni : PRESIDENT OF UGANDA : The economy and foreign investment are surging. But can the president marry democracy to financial success?

June 27, 1995|JOHN BALZAR | TIMES STAFF WRITER

KAMPALA, Uganda — Serious conversations in Africa usually get down to this: Why so much pain here?

Well, goes the answer, the gaping wounds of slavery, colonialism and the Cold War are horribly slow to heal.

OK, what can be done?

The ways of others do not work here, we Africans must find our own way.

And what might that be?

At this point, the answers become harder. Perhaps the person across from you will suggest a visit to Statehouse in Kampala to visit the balding, portly former guerrilla leader Yoweri Museveni, who is president of the Republic of Uganda.

Every few years, it seems, some African country changes leadership or direction and comes to represent new promise for the continent, perhaps becoming that elusive example of how to end Africa's cycle of suffering.

For several years now, Uganda has held that place.

Landlocked at the northern end of Lake Victoria in Central Africa, haunted by outrages of tyrants past, Uganda is in the 10th year of Museveni's presidency.

His achievement can be measured in different ways: Though poor, Uganda's 19 million people are gaining ground. Economic growth of 8% last year and 7% projected for this year contrasts sharply with some other African countries where economic growth lags behind population increases. Foreign investment in Uganda rose from $136 million in 1993 to $241 million last year, and the balance of payments was positive thanks to high returns in the coffee industry.

Tourism has grown faster than government projections for two straight years, and Uganda has actually added to its park system. The sullen, corrupt civil bureaucracy so typical of Africa, while not tamed, is at least discouraged here.

Propaganda broadcasts on government radio have yielded to music and lively deejays. The AIDS crisis is not hidden in shame. Women hold places of power, not just in the family but in the fabric of government.

Or measure Uganda by this: All three larger neighbors--Kenya, Sudan and Zaire--have expressed their envy by stirring border tensions with Museveni.

In an interview in his garden gazebo at Statehouse, the 50-year-old president spoke about Uganda's next, maybe decisive, challenge: Can Uganda match its economic growth with progressive political leadership?

The question causes unease, both at home and in the developed nations that have invested money and prestige in Museveni.

This summer, Uganda is expected to endorse a new constitution. In December, it is scheduled to hold its first free elections in 15 years, perhaps the first fair ones since independence in 1962.

"Eighty-two percent of Ugandans are peasants, pre-capitalists, living a tribal form of life. When you in the West insist arrogantly that all societies in the world must be organized in exactly the same form, you are wrong. Multi-partyism is not a healthy basis for Uganda to build its democracy," the president said.

"Political parties inevitably are based on tribe. And they intensify friction. In some cases, they result in disaster."

Thus, Museveni says, individual candidates, but not political parties, can contest the upcoming elections. And for as many as five more years, Ugandan democracy will remain a "movement" and not a clash of organized interests. After that, perhaps Ugandans will be ready to disagree politically on something other than ethnicity and region.

"The power stays in the hands of the people. . . . I don't see what opponents are so panicky about."

For critics, even those who have long supported Museveni, his formula for a new and vigorous Africa sounds too much like the old and familiar African power grab. The United States last month went so far as to publicly warn Museveni against writing "a constitution that preserves monopoly power indefinitely."

Doubters could say this about Museveni: He is another rebel warrior who took power by the gun. He fixed himself in Statehouse as an authoritarian, and the whole country depends on him, for better or worse. The system is the system as he sees it; the daily life is as he decrees it; the mood on the streets is his mood.

But it so happens that Museveni is a gentler and more skillful leader than his two bloodthirsty predecessors--Idi Amin and Milton Obote. Hundreds of thousands of Ugandans were believed killed by Amin and Obote as the two men sought to retain power from the time Uganda gained independence from Britain in 1962 until Museveni's rebel army took Kampala in 1986.

It is a history so traumatic that the president says incremental democracy is not only what he wants but what most Ugandans want.

"Competition--let's have it. But for these first elections, let's make it between the merits of individuals. That will give us sufficient time to undergo the metamorphosis--like the butterfly--into something that is beautiful when mature," he said.

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