Rebel leader Museveni angles for power in post-coup Uganda

The spotlight in Uganda has turned onto Yoweri Museveni, a one-time defense minister turned guerrilla leader. Until the July 27 coup that deposed President Milton Obote, few people had heard of Mr. Museveni; now he is one of the chief contenders for power.

The new head of state, Lt. Gen. Tito Okello, is trying to establish a workable caretaker regime that will prepare Uganda for the elections he has promised and for a return to civilian rule.

General Okello heads a nine-man military council that is trying to knit together a national reconciliation of all political parties and guerrilla groups. He has offered Museveni, leader of the guerrilla National Resistance Army (NRA), four posts in a proposed 28-man cabinet.

Museveni is holding out for enough seats to give him majority control in the ruling council instead, but he is unlikely to succeed. He is also calling for a civilian government, which would neatly do away with Okello.

Okello has declared a cease-fire and called for talks Tuesday with the guerrilla groups. (There are at least three guerrilla organizations in addition to the NRA in Uganda, but they are ineffectual.) Museveni may or may not be a participant. It is more probable he will meet with Okello separately in neighboring Kenya.

Two weeks ago Okello's men marched through the streets of Kampala to the cheers of jubilant residents. His Acholi troops had routed Langi Army units along the way. The Acholi and Langi tribes form the backbone of Uganda's Army.

Since early in the year, the followers of Dr. Obote, himself a Langi, had been pitted in an intramural struggle against Acholi military leaders like Okello. While ethnic differences fanned the animosity, the policy issue at stake was whether to initiate a cease-fire with Museveni. Obote opposed the idea. Okello advocated it.

Yoweri Museveni was defense minister and a member of the three-man military council that ruled Uganda briefly in the months preceding the December 1980 elections that returned Obote to power for the second time. Museveni's chances of gaining a foothold in the national power structure were dashed when he lost badly at the polls. He says he was the victim of gerrymandering.

In the months that followed, Museveni took to the bush along with 26 other disillusioned members of the opposition Democratic Party to form the kernel of a guerrilla movement.

That movement, the NRA, now has a considerable following. Outsiders estimate its numbers at 5,000. Officers boast privately of a larger force, claiming to command as many as 40,000.

The NRA stronghold has traditionally been the Luwero triangle, several hundred square miles of forest and savannah abutting Kampala. The NRA's campaign of hit-and-run raids was a thorn in the side of Obote's government; but not any more. Villagers who gave the NRA food and other forms of support were the target of regular and usually brutal reprisals by Okello's army.

Unlike most of Africa's many dissident groups, the NRA is without external backing. It finances its activities by robbing banks and is fed by loyal villagers. The group is poorly armed and has little ammunition. It is certainly not in a position to mount an offensive.

For its part, Okello's army, too, has been weakened by the arrest of 250 North Korean military advisers brought to Uganda by Obote. The North Koreans fought in the front lines and were adept at operating the heavy artillery that inflicted severe casualties on the NRA guerrillas. Despite its loss of the North Koreans, however, the army -- which underpins the authority of the ruling Military Council -- does remain the superior force.

There are fears that talks between Okello and Museveni will collapse. Despite their bold talk, the NRA officers at Fort Portal acknowledge that if this happens, there is only one option. They will take up their arms and disappear back into the bush.

But the more interesting question is why Uganda's new leaders are playing along with Museveni's game of hard-to-get.

Five days before the coup, the NRA overran Fort Portal, a regional administrative seat a few miles from the Ruwenzori Mountains, which straddle the Zaire border. The town's capitulation was not a result of tactical supremacy but of mounting strife within the regular Army.

The Acholi officer commanding the barracks defected after learning Obote had named a Langi hit squad to assassinate him. He contacted the guerrillas at their mountain base and then fled.

Last week this reporter and one other drove the 200 miles from Kampala, the only Westerners to do so since the town fell. They were able to confirm that the NRA now operates freely in a large part of western Uganda.

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