Mounting frustration and anger in Uganda. Government leaders, rebels, can't get together

John Serwadda drives a battered, 15-year-old taxi around the streets of Uganda's capital, Kampala. The cab is well ventilated with unplanned gaps in the bodywork. He apologizes to passengers for the absence of windows, saying that they were shot out by men in military uniform.

Mr. Serwadda quietly explains that, after dusk, the men abducted him and his car at a roadblock in the city. They said they were members of the Federal Democratic Movement of Uganda (Fedemu), a former dissident group that has joined forces with the military regime that overthrew Milton Obote July 27.

Incidents such as these are an everyday occurence for Ugandans, who are voicing mounting anger and frustration. The recent coup, they say, has done nothing to eradicate the country's reputation for terror and lawlessness.

The men who vandalized Serwadda's taxi were drunk, he says. They drove him to a clearing in the forest took off his shoes and told him to run for his life. He was lucky. He escaped with only a bullet graze on his arm.

Several days later his taxi was returned to him by members of the Uganda Freedom Movement, another guerrilla movement that has agreed to cooperate with Uganda's ruling military council. Both guerrilla groups had been waging desultory bush campaigns against Dr. Obote's regime.

On Oct. 9 Uganda marked its 23rd year of independence, but there was little cause for celebration. The fledgling government of former Army chief Gen. Tito Okello, has run into trouble in its bid to reconcile the political, religious, and tribal factions that have destabilized this East African state for the past 15 years.

Fighting is escalating between the Uganda National Liberation Army (UNLA) and the largest rebel force, the National Resistance Army (NRA), one of five rebel groups in the country. Hostilities broke out in mid-September, shortly after the two sides had agreed to peace talks in the Kenyan capital of Nairobi.

The negotiations may have taken a step forward with the government's agreement yesterday to give the NRA equal representation on the military council -- a key NRA demand.

The talks were designed to bring the NRA into the new regime as a step toward implementing Uganda's badly needed economic reconstruction.

But, observers here say, the intransigence of NRA leader, Yoweri Museveni, has doomed the ongoing discussions to stalemate. The third round ended inconclusively last month and the fourth round, originaly scheduled for mid-October, has yet to begin. Museveni has refused to go along with the government's proposal to demobilize both his own and the government's military forces and recruit a fresh Army.

Instead he has stepped up his campaign in the field and is gradually closing in on Kampala in a pincer advance from his strongholds in the northwest and west. The NRA captured Uganda's third largest town of Masaka, 80 miles from the capital, Sept. 26, and are now holding down 3,000 UNLA troops at a swampy river-crossing 30 miles from Masaka.

Thus the 12-man military council faces the prospect of a protracted, low-key civil war as it struggles to maintain its credibility as reports of Army atrocities flood in from around the countryside.

The most fertile third of the country is now in rebel hands. They have effectively cut off food supplies to the capital where shortages have pushed commodity prices beyond the reach of the common man. A staple like matoke (a savory banana sold in bunches), that would feed a small family for four days, costs $20. Before the coup it cost $3.50. A bottle of shampoo, when it can be found, costs over $14.

The NRA is also pushing into the area to the east of the capital and plan to advance to the town of Jinja on the banks of the Nile where a hydroelectric dam generates the nation's electricity. Jinja controls the route to Kenya from where landlocked Uganda draws vital supplies such as fuel.

All these areas produce coffee, the core of Uganda's foreign-exchange earnings. Coffee accounts for 95 percent of its exports. Uganda met its global quota this year but last year fell short because fighting hampered transport to marketing centers. Coffee is likely to remain unpicked on the bushes this coming year as well.

However, Ugandans are thirsting for reform not in the economy but in the political sphere. Under Obote the ill-disciplined Army of about 35,000 underpinned a ruthless but operable administrative apparatus. Now, it seems, the country is plunging rapidly toward chaos.

UNLA troops have taken advantage of the power vacuum created by Obote's overthrow to terrorize the citizens they are meant to protect. Ill-kempt soldiers, shod in footwear ranging from looted golf shoes to sandals carved from car tires, strut the streets demanding money from passersby. In one instance, soldiers shot two women dead -- one because she refused to follow them, the other because her husband ran away in fright.

The rattle of automatic gunfire echoes from Kampala's hills every night as the soldiers, who are underfed and poorly paid, rob private homes under cover of darkness. ``Our consolation is to pray to God. It is the only thing left to do,'' lamented one resident.

Last September, Army troops sent to fight the NRA are alleged to have abducted schoolgirls and women, keeping them in forced concubinage. Interior Minister Paul Semogerere flew to the camp a few weeks later and ordered that they be released. Reportedly, the women and girls refused. They said it was safer where they were.

Some schools in areas where there is fighting have closed: the teachers fear similar outrages. Recently national examinations were canceled without explanation by the government.

Popular support, some analysts say, is now shifting toward the NRA, which has a Robin Hood reputation for protecting the people. ``We are not fighting the government but the Army, who loot our villages, rape our women, and kill our people,'' a rebel carrying a Soviet AK-47 automatic rifle told me.

Analysts feel the NRA should eventually succeed in capturing Kampala, but that it is unlikely they would be able to bring the north of the country under their sway. Uganda faces the options of reconciliation at the peace talks or of being a nation divided in two.

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