There is a saying about Uganda: Drop anything in the soil and it will grow. It looks as though someone has dropped a few more seeds of struggle - and it is hard to keep them from growing.
Four years after the violent rule of Idi Amin was terminated by an invasion of Tanzanian troops, Ugandans still face political repression, tribal hostilities, and human-rights violations. Most Uganda-watchers say the situation has improved - but that it has a very long way still to go.
The most striking evidence of the country's troubles in this sphere is the forced removal of tens of thousands of people from Mbarara District in southwestern Uganda.
Jason Clay and Roger Winter, two human-rights analysts who returned recently from a fact-finding trip to the region, say that up to 80,000 people of the Banyuaranda ethnic group were driven from their homes last October and November by members of President Milton Obote's Uganda People's Congress. At least eight people were killed, many were beaten, houses were looted and burned.
President Obote has disclaimed the actions of his supporters (he was in Italy at the time). And last week his government worked out a program for voluntary repatriation of the Banyuaranda and other refugees who are legitimate Ugandan citizens, according to the UNHCR.
But diplomats in Uganda, Kenya, and Rwanda say the Banyuaranda case is ''part of a pattern of political repression'' that is growing in Uganda, Mr. Clay says. He says three other groups are also encountering persecution:
* The Baganda. About 300,000 members of this, the largest tribe in Uganda, have been displaced due to harassment by soldiers and police, house burnings, and murders. Clay spoke with officials of the Roman Catholic Church who told him that seven of 90 parishes in Buganda, where the Baganda live, have been closed down because no one was living there.
* West Nile peoples. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reports that 160,000 of this group are now in Sudan. Some are former Amin troops but, according to Clay, many civilians have gone into voluntary exile, fearing persecution because they are of the same group as the former dictator's supporters.
* The Bahima. Part of this group, which lives and grazes cattle in the Lake Mburo Game Reserve, has been given 90 days to quit the area. No new homeland has been given these people. Although the government's stated purpose was to upgrade the reserve to a national park, diplomatic sources say it was ''a purely political move.'' The Bahima, says Clay, voted for the opposition Democratic Party in the last election.
Tribal animosities left over from the Amin era are part of continuing unrest in Uganda. ''The lines of division in Uganda have tended to be between the Nilotic peoples of the north - Obote's home - and the Bantu tribes of the south and southwest, with whom Amin allied himself,'' Clay says. Much of the current repression, he says, could be judged as reprisals against Amin supporters.
One bright spot is the economy. Although precise figures are difficult to obtain, inflation has fallen sharply. The World Bank reports that inflation was about 50 percent last year, compared with more than 100 percent in previous years. Purchases of coffee, cotton, and other commodities have improved dramatically, and industrial production is rising.
Beyond economics, opinions vary on the extent of progess in Uganda. Don Booth , Uganda desk officer at the United States State Department, says: ''The Obote government has fantastic problems to overcome: rehabilitating the entire political, economic, and moral structure. They have made considerable progress, but there is still a long way to go.''
On the other hand, Tom Getman, an aide to Sen. Mark Hatfield (D) of Oregon and a Uganda-watcher, says Obote's government is worse than Amin's. ''There are more killings,'' says Getman, who visited Uganda last November, ''more indiscriminate violence, and the infrastructure is in shreds.''
Last fall Amnesty International issued a report on human-rights violations in Uganda. Among the document's charges: illegal detention of thousands of unarmed civilians by army and police units, various forms of torture in prisons and police stations, and inadequate food and water for prisoners.
''Although Uganda has made some steps toward improvement,'' says Helen Scoble , one the report's co-authors, ''violations are continuing and the situation is still extremely serious.''
Uganda's human-rights situation is drawing the attention of a number of US congressmen. One congressional subcommittee briefing has been held and hearings may be on the way. Fariborz Fatemi, staff director for the House Subcommittee on Human Rights and International Organizations, says there is ''a potential cutoff of US aid (although that is a small amount) to the Obote government unless there is significant improvement in human rights.'' But he adds it is ''far-fetched'' to say Obote is responsible for every killing.
The case of the Banyuaranda refugees is complex and illustrates persistent ethnic and political problems.
Clay and Winter say that about 45,000 Banyuaranda are living in two camps in Rwanda. Another 35,000 are spread through seven refugee settlements in Uganda.
The stated purpose of the forced exodus was to clear the economically depressed Mbarara district of the Banyuaranda peoples and return them to their ''rightful'' home, Rwanda. A portion of the Banyuaranda are of the Tutsi tribe, which fled Rwanda for Uganda in the '50s and early '60s. It is unclear how many refugees will be allowed back under the new repatriation agreement worked out between Rwanda, Uganda, and UN representatives.
There is controversy over whether many of the Banyuaranda are Uganda citizens. According to estimates by Rwanda and relief agencies working in the camps, at least half of those expelled were born in Uganda and another 25 or 30 percent have legitimate claims to Uganda citizenship.