When Yoweri Museveni's National Resistance Army (NRA) took power in Uganda two years ago, it pledged to end the war and anarchy that for 15 years had ravaged the country and left at least half a million people dead. Everything it inherited from the government of Gen. Tito Okello - roads, railways, farms, factories, hospitals, utilities - was in ruins. And from Day 1, $200 million of its precious hard currency was needed each year to service the nation's mounting debts.
In the two years since then, the NRA government has taken steps to restore order, revive the economy, and restore respect for human rights.
In its first year, 1986, Museveni's National Resistance Movement (the political arm of the NRA) set in motion a plan for grass-roots democracy based on a system of ``resistance'' councils and committees. And it took steps to restore respect for human rights - moves that have won it respect at home and abroad.
Critics, however, note that since that same year all political parties have been officially prohibited from public activity. And human rights monitors, including Amnesty International, have expressed concern at the hundreds of people arrested by the NRA and being held without trial.
Museveni still faces serious security problems in the north and east, despite assurance Museveni made in his anniversary speech in late January that the NRA had ``broken the back of the bandits [rebels].'' Both regions are peppered with insurgencies that claim allegiance to former rulers or ministers as well as roving groups of bandits and cattle rustlers.
Still, Museveni is heartened by the surrender of some 6,000 former rebels under a government amnesty offer.
In Kampala, and most of the south and west which were hardest hit by the war, security has been restored. It is common to meet people who spontaneously comment on how much safer they feel today. ``Five years ago I would never have dared to talk with you,'' said Alice Tushabe, a social worker active in women's development programs. ``Even coming to town, you would think twice about whether you'd go to work or not. You'd hear gun shots, you'd see people running.''
Today in Kampala, scores of women vendors crouch in the dusty roadside markets well after dark, silhouetted in the yellow glow of their small paraffin lanterns. Pedestrians walk casually to their neighborhoods, passing open-air restaurants packed with patrons.
Perhaps more important than this new freedom of movement, however, security implies the possibility of a future. People who three years ago would hesitate to put a new coat of paint on their house for fear of attracting looters, now think about investing in a small business.
According to Richard Podol, director of the United States Agency for International Development in Uganda, turnout has been enthusiastic for AID's $18 million loan program. Run through the Central Bank, it provides hard currency for importing commodities such as cement, roofing materiels, and farm machinery.
``What we have now is a government that's serious about development and working at it,'' he says. ``The response from Ugandan entrepreneurs has been so great that the bank of Uganda has more loan applications than it can process.''
Observations such as these are often heard throughout the Western diplomatic community in Kampala. Western institutions seem convinced that Mr. Museveni's ideas for a barter economy and socialist development are ``flexible'' and ``pragmatic''. Thus, they have pledged significant support, under the auspices of the World Bank, to an economic reform package launched last May.
According to Ugandan figures, about $700 million has been raised from bilateral and multilateral sources to aid Uganda's recovery effort. And a generous debt repayment schedule was offered to ease the drain on hard-currency reserves.
Despite these signs of progress, international observers privately predict economic recovery will be extremely slow. So far the Ugandans have weathered fuel and commodity shortages with relatively good cheer following Kenya's closure of their common border last December. (The border was closed after several clashes between Kenyan and Ugandan security forces.)
The border, which is vital to land-locked Uganda's trade, has since been reopened. But the local economy was battered by that crisis and is feeling the strain that of tightened monetary policies under the new economic program. Prices have doubled in the last two months, and the value of Uganda's currency on the runaway black market is only one-fifth its official value.
The government has given itself four years to restore order, revive the economy, and draft a constitution before handing over power to a civilian government after free and fair elections in 1990.
In some areas, people are `desperate'
Amid the disruption caused by almost two years of rebel fighting in northern areas, cattle rustlers from the remote and underdeveloped province of Karamoja have intensified their deadly raids, missionaries and aid agency officials say. Northern Uganda may be ``pacified'' as President Yoweri Museveni suggests, but residents say havoc still reigns in both the north and east.
Foreign observers here say the half-dozen rebel groups lack coordination and clear political programs. But, they note, the continued military operations are a serious drain on the economy. The rebels represent deep ethnic and religious gaps in Uganda that have made it the site of some of the worst modern-day atrocities.
The herdsmen's periodic raids into neighboring districts were once part of the ongoing balance of intertribal power. Now they sweep across the lands of rival tribes, stealing everything, beating local villagers, and kidnapping children, missionaries say.
``Never have I seen the people so desperate, so humiliated, because there is no hope,'' says a missionary with 20 years in the north. A Western official just back from the east, where Karamojong and other tribal raiders are active, says people have been ``stripped of everything they have.''
Reports indicate some 45,000 people have been uprooted in Soroti and are in search of food and shelter. About 20,000 fled across Lake Kyoga and are receiving foreign relief.
But conditions are desperate in the eastern countryside, where instability has prevented people from planting this year. ``We have figures of about 50 percent of the children and 25 percent of the adults who are malnourished,'' says Albertien Van Der Veen, Uganda director of a French-based aid agency.
In a document last December, that agency said 10 people died each day from starvation in the rural areas of Soroti. And, it will get worse, warns Ms. Van Der Veen. ``The only solution is starting a big relief program; and because of the insecurity at the moment, this is very difficult.''
Frustration is growing in the north. ``There is a rumor ... that the raiders work with the knowledge of the local Army,'' says the missionary.