Uganda makes a refreshing change from the tale of woes of third-world countries in these hard times of world economic recession. This attractive East African equatorial country could hardly have sunk lower than the point it reached after nine years of Idi Amin's tyranny. But it did not remain trapped in the malaise, poverty, corruption, and disregard for human life that have disfigured many societies passing through experiences similar to Uganda's.
The outlook has shifted in the two years since Dr. Milton Obote, the leader ousted by Amin, has been back in the presidency.
The country still has a long way to go before it regains its former distinction of being one of the best-run and best-off countries in the continent , with an academic tradition and with other hallmarks of a vigorous open society. Yet none of this seems beyond President Obote's reach - provided he ends political terrorism and establishes a more broadly based national government.
When Dr. Obote won the national elections in 1981, an independent Commonwealth team of observers reported that they were as fair as could be expected under prevailing conditions. But two sections of the defeated opposition - one led by Baganda traditionalists, who never reconciled to the loss of the hegemonic role their kingdom played before independence, and the other by radicals - took up arms rather than accept defeat. This perpetuated the state of violence and killing of the Amin years.
Obote faced this armed political challenge (along with that offered by the remnants of Amin's army) with an army that was hastily assembled, had few trained officers, was poorly paid and ill-disciplined.
But the army is now whipped into shape. The villagers - especially in Buganda - have begun to turn against the political gunmen they had previously sheltered. The results are that violence has decreased, and the armed resistance is on the defensive. Resistance appears to be confined to only three of the 52 districts, and more than 95 percent of the country seems once again to be enjoying tranquil conditions such as it has not known for a decade.
The only armed opposition that still gives cause for serious concern is that led by the self-professed radical Yoweri Museveni, whose force of about 1,000 men is confined to a remote wooded area of Buganda.
Notwithstanding the initial period of insecurity that followed Obote's return to power, the President's policies have gone far toward restoring the country's economy. These policies are quite different from the socialism Obote espoused when he was previously in office. He has become a disciple of free market forces , avoiding controls where possible, and paying farmers relatively high prices for their produce.
Unlike many other third-world leaders, he has established a harmonious relationship with the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, which, along with the European Economic Community and the British government, are strongly backing him.
Uganda - a food-deficient country two years ago - will this year actually export grains to its neighbors. It has increased its sales of coffee, all of which is now handled through legal channels. Earlier, 95 percent of Ugandan coffee was sold on the black market.
Tea exports have resumed; tobacco is being grown; cotton sales have risen fourfold since 1981; and the once-flourishing sugar industry is well on its way to being rehabilitated. Only the mining of copper and cobalt has been delayed because of Obote's concern to get the right partners and advantageous terms for the country.
Another innovation is a financial system through which foreign exchange is allocated through two so-called ''windows.''
Every month a line forms outside ''window one,'' where funds are allocated only for national priority needs such as oil, machinery, and educational materials.
At the same time, a second line forms outside ''window two,'' where approximately one-fifth of the available foreign exchange is auctioned to the private sector and to citizens wishing to travel overseas. These funds are allocated to the highest bidder - and therefore are sold at a profit. Businessmen limit their bids to what they think will enable them to import goods and services at commercially viable prices.
When this reporter asked Obote about his sharp shift in economic policies, he replied that his policies in the 1960s and 1980s reflected the changed conditions in the country. In the earlier period, he said, Uganda was producing wealth and the question was how to share it. Now the question is how to create wealth. Therefore, he said, the emphasis must be on productivity and on incentives to achieve it.
Obote's comments reflect his pragmatism. He is not an opportunist but a realist who, largely free of ideological hang-ups, is capable of deciding what policies are appropriate to particular situations.
Obote remains convinced of the value of maintaining a multiparty parliamentary system - an attitude increasingly rare among modern African nationalists. Even when faced with political violence, President Obote has allowed parliamentary opposition.
Contrary to much that has been written about him, Obote genuinely believes human rights must be observed. He cooperates with organizations like Amnesty International, even though he believes some of the group's reports have lacked impartiality.
Recently, when this reporter asked about conditions in Uganda's maximum-security prison, Obote allowed me to go where I pleased. On balance, I was impressed, although I did not visit any military interrogation centers.
Obote admits there are instances of human-rights abuses in Uganda - for example, the recent pogrom against Rwandan refugees, which was sparked off by local rivalries. What upsets him is what he regards as exaggerated reports about the extent of these abuses and, especially, the failure to pin the blame on political gunmen for creating the state of violence that leads to breaches of human rights.
In a part of the continent where the treatment of Asians is a touchstone of the treatment of minorities, Obote's leadership seems creditable. It would have been easy for him to accept as a fait accompli the expulsion of the 100,000 Asians by Amin and the expropriation of their property.
Yet, at a time when anti-Asian feeling is running particularly high in neighboring Kenya, he convinced Parliament to invite Asians entitled to Ugandan citizenship to return home, and to restore to them their former property and assets.
The numbers of Asians who are likely to return is not large - perhaps a few thousand. But the several hundred who have already come back speak warmly about their reception.
There is much about Uganda that remains disturbing. But it is making progress.
Among the positive signs in Uganda is a fairly free press. There is no real shortage of published information about injustices and inequities - some of it accurate, some of it exaggerated or invented.
Munnansi, a weekly political broadsheet that shows little restraint in its criticism, is eagerly read each week. There are few countries in Africa where a publication like Munnansi would be allowed to survive.