A quiet hope returns to Uganda. After years of anarchy, new regime works to restore rule of law

It is a Sunday night at the home of an Anglican bishop in the Ugandan capital. Family, friends, and parishioners crowd around a small, 18-inch television set. On screen is the questioning of former Vice President Paulo Muwanga by the country's recently established Human Rights Commission. As the No. 2 man in the second government of Milton Obote (1980-85), Mr. Muwanga is said to have given several of the orders which led to the massacre of a half million people in this east African nation of no more than 15 million.

To an outsider, the details of the inquest may become a bit tedious, even boring. But to the little crowd in the bishop's drawing room, every moment is electric. There is a tense silence when Muwanga scores a point. And rounds of applause when the commission's leading counsel makes a comeback. No amount of this program is too much for the audience.

For - as officials of President Yoweri's Museveni's three-year-old government point out - restoring the rule of law, as well as respect for human rights, is an integral part of rehabilitating this nation, which has hardly know a day of peace since its independence nearly three decades ago.

``Uganda is different from countries which have gone to economic ruin in conditions of political stability,'' says Yoweri Kyesimira, minister of planning and economic development.

Few countries in modern history have descended into quite the same depths of moral, political, and economic decay as this breathtakingly beautiful country - once called the ``pearl of Africa'' by British colonizers.

Uganda's decline began in 1971 with the overthrow of Mr. Obote by Idi Amin - a fellow northerner and Africa's most notorious dictator. Asian businessmen were expelled from the country, their properties expropriated, and the economy run on the whims of the semi-literate soldier.

It is estimated that close to 300,000 civilians - one in every 40 Ugandans - were killed, and the country's finances nearly destroyed.

A decade later, the exiled Obote came back to power, only to disappoint his international supporters as the country plunged deeper into anarchy. Lt. Gen. Tito Okello overthrew Obote in 1985, but only added his share to the mayhem.

Throughout the post-Amin turmoil, Mr. Museveni, a young, intellectual southerner of Bantu extraction who served briefly under Obote, was organizing a highly disciplined guerrilla force, the National Resistance Army (NRA). It marched to power in early 1986.

Museveni inherited an economy in which gross domestic product had fallen by 11 percent, government corruption consumed an estimated two-thirds of the budget, and Uganda - which had once maintained some basic industries - had become an importer of every key commodity except staple foods.

First, discipline had to be restored. Museveni formed a broad-based government, rounded up the loose guns that littered the countryside, and appointed the Human Rights Commission to document past atrocities, and see how they might be avoided. Courts-martial were reintroduced.

Some problems have persisted. Former Amin and Obote soldiers - along with a bizarre group of rebels practicing a mixture of witchcraft and Christianity - have surfaced in the north and east, where they have launched attacks, trying to push south to the center of power.

Amnesty International, the London-based human rights monitoring group, has claimed that in trying to root out the rebels, the NRA has resorted to several of the same questionable tactics of Museveni's predecessors. Amnesty cites summary executions and holding suspected rebels in dismal conditions without trial, among others.

Museveni himself has worked to remain above tribalism and has deplored torture. Atrocities committed by government officials have been publicized in the government-owned daily, New Vision, and soldiers found guilty have been executed.

An independent group of Ugandan activists - one of the few of its kind on the continent - monitors the situation.

``No other African government has come to power on a platform of human rights in the same way as Museveni,'' a Western diplomat says.

This, plus the signing of an agreement with the International Monetary Fund in May 1987, has paved the way for increased Western donor support. Aid rose from $308 million last year to $550 million. The World Bank and IMF have put up close to $300 million and more is expected.

Highways are being renovated, hotels restored, and power lines repaired. Responding to increases in producer prices, coffee - Uganda's main export - is doing well. Once-neglected crops like tobacco and cotton are being grown, and basic industries are opening their doors again.

For the average Ugandan, life is still tough. The minimum wage of 1,500 shillings per month - less than $10 at the official rate, and $3 on the black market - is enough to buy just one-and-a-half bunches of bananas, the staple food.

But there is a keen sense here that money is not all that counts.

After office hours, civil servants who had imposed a dusk-to-dawn curfew on themselves in the violent past, now stop by the city golf club for a drink. They may be able to afford only one drink each, but the mood is easy and relaxed.

At the bishop's home, a woman, whose husband was marched off by Obote's soldiers and later reported dead, is optimistic about the future.

In the past, she says, it would have been impossible to conceive of soldiers keeping to their normal duties. ``Miracles,'' she says, ``are still possible.''

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