The recent mini-summit meeting of four East African presidents in Kampala, Uganda, is regarded as a breakthrough for future cooperation in the area, even though little of substance was agreed upon.
It was an important achievement for Uganda President Milton Obote, only a few weeks in office, to get the widely respected presidents of Kenya, Tanzania, and Zambia to meet in his capital city, which is only just emerging from insecurity and chaos.
Troops were on hand in large numbers for the Jan. 17 gathering, just to make sure. A large crowd of cheering, flag-waving Ugandans welcomed the presidents of the neighboring countries at Entebbe airport and lined the route to the conference center in Kampala, miles away.
Kenya's President Daniel arap Moi and Zambia's President Kenneth Kaunda were cheered, but there was particularly loud acclaim for Tanzania's President Julius Nyerere, who played a major part in liberating Uganda from the tyranny of former dictator Idi Amin and who still has 10,000 troops in the country.
Diplomatic onlookers credited President Obote with a major political success in bringing the heads of state together, a meeting that can only be of benefit in his enormous task of rebuilding a shattered and troubled Uganda.
That task clearly was one of the basic aims of the summit. The presidents went to Kampala with the knowledge that they were showing faith in President Obote's ability to rehabilitate Uganda. They pledged him their full cooperation in aid and trade.
For President Nyerere, the get-together was especially significant. His aim from the beginning of the struggle against Idi Amin had been to help his friend Milton Obote, back to the presidency, which was torn from him in the Amin Coup of 1971. Now Mr. Obote, it seemed, was securely back in power, with the troublesome Amin in exile somewhere in Saudi Arabia.
The summit, moreover, may prove to be the first step to greater East African regional cooperation, long lacking since the collapse of the East African Community in 1977 and the dislocations caused by erratic Idi Amin.
The leaders agreed that the presidents of Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda should form an "authority" to study anew the vexing question of the assets and liabilities of the old East African Community. They further agreed to build their respective nations in the spirit of mutual understanding, cooperation, and partnership for the benefit of their people.
An interstate security committee, part of the old East African Community, was revived to ensure peace and security within and between their respective states. This appeared to give a strong political endorsement for Mr. Obote's regime.
Although the reopening of the border between Kenya and Tanzania was not specifically mentioned in the final communique, it is believed this came up privately. The border was closed at the collapse of the community on the orders of President Nyerere, and that closure obviously remains one of the main obstacles to full cooperation in the region.
Reopening of the border remains a sensitive issue between Kenya and Tanzania, with the next move apparently up to Mr. Nyerere. The Kenya side of the frontier has never been closed.
The summit, meanwhile, should go a long way toward stabilizing Uganda and ge tting the process of reconstruction started.