Uganda Struggles Out From its Past

Decades of neglect and economic hardship hamper President's bid to rebuild nation. TRANSITION IN AFRICA

NEAR the center of this capital city, not far from where a previous government used to torture political prisoners, stands a tall statue entitled ``Independence'' - a sculpture of a woman holding up her newborn child, whose hands reach for the sky. It's a symbol of hope. But three and a half years after President Yoweri Museveni led his guerrilla army to power and pledged to restore respect for human life, hope is turning to discouragement.

Ugandans are suffering from an economy still devastated after years of neglect by earlier governments. And some Ugandans question what they say is the concentration of political and military power among people from the President's own region and tribe.

There is widespread acknowledgment that the mass killings of civilians that took place under two earlier regimes have mostly ended. But some Ugandans and Amnesty International, the London-based human rights group, allege that torture and occasional slaughter of civilians by the military still continue in parts of the north and east where the Army is fighting rebels and ``bandits.'' Mr. Museveni has executed more than 20 of his soldiers to try to curb lawlessness in the military.

But elsewhere, people feel safe - for the first time in years.

``You can walk around freely, even at night,'' says a woman who works in Kampala.

Safety, however, is no longer enough to satisfy the people.

In interviews, both rural and urban Ugandans of various ethnic backgrounds expressed deep and growing frustration. Their main concern: making a living.

``My monthly salary lasts two days,'' says a civil servant in Kampala. ``If I'm not here at my desk, I'm out looking for food,'' he says.

Paid the equivalent of $20 a month - more than many workers or lower-level civil servants - his family gets by, he says, because his wife works, and they get some food from his parents' farm. Transportation alone, to and from work on crowded mini-buses, costs about $15 a month.

So why work? He gets free government housing, he says.

But many private sector workers are not provided with housing by their employers. In such cases, the income from a second job or from other family members, and family vegetable gardens, marks the difference between eating and not eating.

The economy is slowly improving, says a Western diplomat in Kampala. But the economic strength of Uganda today is about 40 percent of what it was in the early 1970s, he says.

Uganda has begun a controversial set of World Bank-endorsed economic reforms and recently obtained a loan in return. The reforms include devaluation of local currency, trimming government spending, and selling government-run industries.

But some African and US economists questions whether the people of such poor countries can survive - or will tolerate - austerity measures that may hurt them in the short run. Devalued currency, for example, means less buying power. Trimmer government budgets often mean less spending on health and education.

Numerous Ugandans say they are being forced to pull their children out of school because they are unable to pay school fees. A civil servant says he has not purchased new clothes for three years. ``The priority is food,'' he says.

Uganda is ``a country that's lost 20 years,'' says a Western diplomat, referring to the the decades of brutality and inefficiency that followed the 1971 military coup in which Maj. Gen. Idi Amin overthrew President Milton Obote.

To get back on its feet, Uganda needs ``a massive infusion of capital, but no one is ready to do it,'' this diplomat says. Uganda is seen as having little ``strategic'' value to either East or West, he says.

But the country's rich soil and abundant rain offer agricultural potential that may yet pull Uganda out of its economic crisis. One factor stifling progress, however, is the shortage of proper tools, seed, fertilizers, and credit.

Uganda gets most of its development aid from the West, but not anything near the amount needed to rebuild the economy. Most of its weapons and military training come from the Soviet Union, Cuba, East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Libya, and North Korea. But Kampala usually has to buy or barter for such military assistance.

The other major challenge facing the Museveni government besides the economy and the rebel insurgency in the north, is political. Is the President building a national government, one capable of uniting the country? Or will the Museveni government commit what one Ugandan journalist calls ``the classic mistake'' of past governments and try to rule the majority through a minority-dominated government?

Through the British colonial period before independence in 1962, and until 1986, when Museveni took power, the Army and political leaders came mostly from the north. Now, for the first time, the south is providing the bulk of the military and political leadership.

Museveni is from the southwest. Most of his key military and Cabinet posts are filled by people from the same region.

Unless Museveni broadens the regional and tribal basis of his top leadership, he may be following what one European diplomat calls ``a recipe for disaster.''

``We are at a crossroads,'' says Mahmood Mamdani, associate professor of political science at Makerere University in Kampala.

If the south tries to impose its will on the north, Uganda could face a ``tremendous crisis,'' he says. If the government includes other regional representatives in key government posts it could build national unity, he says.

Professor Mamdani sees signs already of this broadening.

`THE government's outlook is not very southern, it's more national,'' he says. ``I'd say for the first time in the post-independence history of this country the political processes are beginning to open up rather than to close.''

Mamdani, who is critical of some of Museveni's policies, says the military, for the first time, is recruiting soldiers nation-wide on the basis of equal quotas from the various regions. But his will take years to translate into a wider geographical representation among senior officers, he says.

The government has set up a structure of popularly elected citizen committees, including one at the national level which functions as a parliament. Diplomats and a senior Ugandan official say political decisions once made by a handful at the top are being made by a larger number of people, including elected and appointed members of parliament and it's National Executive Committee.

But, as the Ugandan official explains, Museveni controls the legislative process through his appointments to the committee.

Political party activity has been suspended by Museveni. A new constitution is being drawn up. So far, the issue of presidential elections has not been decided.

``I think the President wants to stay President,'' says a diplomat.

``People think [Museveni] has come to stay,'' agrees a Ugandan, adding that this is causing some resentment.

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