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LOS ANGELES TIMES INTERVIEW

Yoweri Museveni

In Uganda, Change for the Better, or Rule by the Gun?

March 12, 2000|Ann M. Simmons | Ann M. Simmons is The Times' Nairobi bureau chief

KAMPALA, UGANDA — His supporters consider him a messiah, his critics a dictator. But Ugandan President Yoweri Kaguta Museveni wants to be remembered as a freedom fighter who liberated and empowered an oppressed nation. In office for 13 years, the longest successive tenure of any Ugandan president, the 55-year-old leader has boosted the profile of this landlocked East African nation of about 22 million people.

Peace and stability top his list of achievements in a country plagued by war and tyranny for much of its 37 years since gaining independence from Britain.

A former Marxist who once was marketed by the West as a "new breed of African leader," Museveni introduced economic-liberalization policies--including privatization, currency reform and a revamped marketing system in agriculture--that made him a favorite of Western donors. Though still among the 10 poorest countries in the world, Uganda has annually grown, on average, at a rate of more than 6.7% during the past 10 years. Annual inflation has gone from an all-time high of 240% to single digits.

Other notable achievements of Museveni's rule include the introduction of universal primary education, which guarantees elementary schooling for children in each household, at least two of whom must be girls; success at fostering AIDS awareness; and the promotion of affirmative-action policies that have politically empowered women (the country's vice president is a woman).

However, Museveni's failure to adopt a traditional democracy, in which political parties are allowed to function freely, has drawn fire. Critics call the former rebel an authoritarian who took power by the gun and doesn't want to let it go. Museveni has countered that political parties invariably become vehicles for tribal leaders who want to grab power for their ethnic group, a recipe for racial antagonism and bloodshed. Ugandans will vote on whether they want a party system for their country in a referendum next year. Museveni has had to contend with insurgents who seek to overthrow him and corruption that has smeared his administration.

Museveni is also viewed by many political observers as a regional power broker who dares to interfere in the affairs of his neighbors. He supported an invasion of Rwanda by ethnic Tutsi exiles seeking to take back their country; gave aid to the Sudan People's Liberation Army in its fight against that nation's Islamic government; and, together with Rwanda, helped Congolese President Laurent Kabila in 1997 topple longtime dictator Mobutu Sese Seko of Congo, then called Zaire.

But as the new century dawns, Museveni, a father of four and a keen cattle rancher, says he plans to continue seeking investment to his country, develop the infrastructure and boost the financial prosperity of Ugandans. He recently sat down to talk in Kampala, the Ugandan capital.

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Question: What has been the greatest challenge of governing Uganda, and what would you do differently if you had the opportunity to start over again?

Answer: I don't think there's anything I would do differently. But the main challenge was to stop extrajudicial killings by the state, to stop government-inspired violence against the population. . . . The second achievement has been to give political power to the population, so they can [determine] their future through local and national elections. The third has been to liberalize the economy so that producers are not constrained by the state. . . . Maybe the next most important is universal education, [which] we have introduced in the primary schools.

Q: Your critics say you may be benevolent, but you're still a despot because you have rejected pluralism in Uganda. They claim you stifle the opposition. How do you respond to these charges?

A: We are very pluralistic. We have got a multiplicity of radios, newspapers. Maybe what they're talking about is that the constitution does not yet allow partisan political activities. This is due to the history of Africa, in general, but specifically the history of Uganda. The political parties in Europe and America evolved in tandem with the evolution of their societies. In Europe, a feudal, peasant society evolved into a middle-class, industrial one. Then social differentiation started emerging: the middle class, on the one side, and the industrial working class, on the other. They had contradictory interests. The middle class wanted to pay as little wages as possible to the workers, give them as little benefits as possible; the industrial workers wanted more and more pay and more benefits. To express their group interests in politics, they formed parties so that they could use the parties to bargain for group interests.

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