Nairobi — By seizing northern towns held by troops of the former regime, Uganda's two-month-old government has virtually cleared its first major obstacles to gaining military control of the entire country. President Yoweri Museveni must now address himself to a more difficult task -- building a cohesive nation from the ashes of 15 years of violence.
On March 8 Gulu, the northern stronghold of troops loyal to the former Army Chief, Lt. Gen. Basilio Okello, fell to the National Resistance Army (NRA), the military wing of Mr. Museveni's National Resistance Movement (NRM). And yesterday NRA forces encountered no resistance as they took the town of Kitgum. Only Arua remains to be seized.
Despite some fears of renewed political oppression and signs of rebel activity, Museveni is still regarded as a messiah by his followers. He is also well supported by Western nations, who deplored the atrocities sanctioned by the former regimes of Idi Amin, 1970-71, and Milton Obote, 1980-85.
The NRA, unlike its predecessors, is neither brutal nor undisciplined. Since routing General Okello's forces from the capital, Kampala, in January, it has demonstrated commendable resolve to restore order in Uganda.
Museveni has vowed to bring past perpetrators of evil to justice. This, however, will be almost impossible to carry out. Uganda's judicial system functions, but has long been open to abuse and probably could not handle mass prosecution of Okello's soldiers.
Furthermore, most Ugandans are not accustomed to living within the limits of a legal system. An entire generation has grown up knowing only revenge.
Both Mr. Amin and Dr. Obote and the great majority of the soldiers who followed them are Nilotic northerners, largely of the Acholi and Langi tribes. They persecuted and oppressed the Bantu southerners, relentlessly killing hundreds of thousands of them. But it is unlikely that extradition of either of the former leaders, requested by the Museveni government, will be agreed to by their host governments.
Furthermore, calls for retribution by the predominantly southern Museveni administration could unleash another wave of the tribal hostility that has fractured Uganda throughout its history. Museveni would be more likely to achieve internal calm through a political consensus.
Museveni, avowedly socialist, has yet to make a definitive statement on his administration's political plan, but signs point to a one-party state. He has promised a new constitution and elections in four years' time. But he has banned activity on the part of Uganda's four political parties and only allows NRM rallies.
Support from fellow Ugandans may fade if he pursues such authoritarian lines in his transition from commander to politician.