The establishment of a new military government in Uganda tests the nation's two-year-old friendship agreement with neighboring Kenya and Tanzania. The visit to Tanzania yesterday of Uganda's new leader, Lt. Gen. Tito Okello, for talks with President Julius Nyerere shows how important regional harmony is to the leaders.
President Nyerere was the principal foreign backer of Ugandan President Milton Obote, who was ousted in the Saturday coup.
General Okello, who lived in exile in Tanzania when Idi Amin ruled Uganda from 1971 to 1979, is calling on his old friend President Nyerere to help his new regime gain regional acceptance.
Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania are closely intertwined by road, rail, and lake routes, trade, and a common colonial past under the tutelage of the British. They were once formally recognized as partner states under the auspices of the East African Community, which in its heyday flourished with joint transport, customs, and communications services.
Ideological and financial differences, particularly between socialist Tanzania and capitalist Kenya, triggered the dissolution of the community in 1977.
But in 1983 the three heads of state -- President Obote, Nyerere, and President Daniel arap Moi of Kenya -- formally agreed to bury the hatchet.
Kenyan and Tanzanian officials have so far declined to comment on the latest direction of the political wanderings of Uganda.
``In terms of the quality of government they've had next door to them for the past fifteen years, it's been pretty much the same,'' said a diplomat based in Nairobi.
``I think it's a little premature to see what the implications are.''
Kenya provides landlocked Uganda with access to the sea.
Also, Kenya's well-established manufacturing sector provides Uganda with a considerable portion of what Uganda imports. These sources of income are not to be shunned by a country that, like most of the African continent, is struggling to pay off a large official debt.
Nonetheless, Obote's flight to safety in Kenya, informed sources say, was abetted by Kenyan military and civilian officials. Kenyan immigration officers at the border were warned by telephone of his imminent arrival and in the early hours of last Saturday allowed his entourage of about 20 people through with a minimum of fuss and maximum of secrecy.
Since then, unconfirmed reports say, Obote has been traveling in Kenya with a military escort provided by his hosts. There is also good reason to believe that he has been in consultation with President Moi.
This is the second time Obote has been toppled from power, unusual even for Africa where coups are common. And it is the second time he has sought help from his neighbor in his hour of need.
Fourteen years ago, word reached Obote at a commonwealth summit meeting in Singapore that the commander of his Army and trusted aide, Maj. Gen. Idi Amin, had overthrown his government in his absence. Obote wisely opted to fly directly to Nairobi and subsequently to the Tanzanian capital of Dar es Salaam. Even though Amin placed a sizable bounty on Obote's head, neither the Kenyans nor the Tanzanians responded. Obote then spent nine years in exile in Dar es Salaam before Tanzanian forces ousted Amin i n 1979 and paved the way for Obote's election as head of state in 1980.
The overthrow of Amin cost Nyerere untold millions of dollars, a gesture he can ill afford to repeat, whatever sympathy he may hold for Obote's quasi-socialist leanings.
In Kenya there is another incentive for some diplomatic fence-sitting: the presence of a sizable population of Ugandan refugees. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, nearly half of Kenya's 8,500-odd officially registered refugees are from Uganda. Faced with the problem of how to find gainful employment for its own burgeoning population, Kenya would no doubt be pleased to see the refugees go home.
There is now speculation where the merry-go-round of African politics will take Obote next. At a personal level, he shares with Moi and Nyerere the deep-seated and sentimental bond of being instrumental in bringing his country to independence. Nevertheless, it is likely that Obote's reception by his neighbors will be less cordial this time round.