AT a time when Western donors have linked aid to democratic and economic reforms in other East African countries, they have made a tacit exemption for Uganda.
President Yoweri Museveni has effectively put off multiparty democracy in Uganda until the year 2000, but Western donors say he is "on the right track."
Despite the hard line the government has taken recently against opposition parties, Mr. Museveni - during an official visit to the United States and Britain at the end of May - convinced donors that Uganda could be an African success story if it received more aid. Donors in Paris agreed May 28 to give the country $825 million in 1993-94 - more than four times Uganda's revenues from foreign trade.
The aid is meant to bolster economic reforms. But it may also send the unwanted signal that democratization in Uganda need progress no further, according to some diplomats and Ugandan opposition leaders.
When Museveni came to power in a military coup in 1986, he suspended all political party activities until a new constitution was adopted. Uganda is not ready for the same multiparty politics that led to 24 years of civil war in the past, he says.
Instead, local one-party elections in October are expected to form a constituent assembly that will debate and approve a new draft constitution. The draft allows Ugandans at any time to decide by referendum whether to accept a multiparty system, but "envisages" that the current "no-party" system will be in effect until the year 2000.
Museveni says his ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM) is democratic enough to keep Ugandans from demanding change until then. But opposition parties - eager to have a stronger voice in government but so far offering no alternative policies - have accused the NRM of dictatorial rule.
"I don't prefer parties," Museveni said while visiting London in May. "But my business is to give the people the chance to speak."
Critics say the draft constitution - written after extensive grass-roots opinion gathering - is a cynical ploy by the president to hang on to power. Allies and many diplomats, however, say that, in a country that has known only war and tribal politics for decades, the move is wise: Museveni should stay in power until the new constitution is proven.
By all accounts, Museveni's personal stature, now unparalleled in Uganda, is critical to the process.
But many Ugandans, remembering the authoritarian path taken by previous Ugandan leaders, express concern over the regime's increasingly hard line.
An opposition rally called by the young "Mobilizers Group" of the proscribed Democratic Party on May 8 was declared illegal by the government, and a helicopter mounted with a machine gun roared over the meeting site. Armed police kept hundreds of rally goers away.
Just days before, in a closed session of the National Ruling Council, Museveni warned Ugandans that if they attended the rally "they could bury their dead" and that opposition parties would "disappear like fog."
Such threats are taken seriously by opponents who remember the presidencies of Milton Obote and Idi Amin Dada in the 1960s and 1970s, during which dissenters were killed by government security forces.
Museveni's regime has not been known for such brutality, but Amnesty International has accused his security forces and the large Army of human rights violations.
Still, Museveni has done well both to impress donors and avoid multiparty politics.
The Ugandan president has presided over a strict International Monetary Fund program that has spurred the economy to a 6 percent annual growth rate since 1988 and brought inflation down from 240 percent to 3 percent.
Uganda's Army, which once swallowed half the annual budget, has also been trimmed. So far 20,000 soldiers have been demobilized. Another 20,000 are set to go, cutting the military by half.
The new aid pledges seem to contradict donor policies in such African states as Kenya, where aid has been linked to democratic and economic reform. The difference between Kenya and Uganda, diplomats say, is the constant reluctance of Kenya's ruling party to permit dissent.
Western diplomats hope that as Uganda moves toward the election, Museveni will rein in hard-liners who are eager to stamp out the opposition.
The other variable is the opposition. "I don't know how the opposition parties will react," says one senior Western official, "if the doors of multiparty [politics] are firmly closed to them for five more years."
And Ugandans may not want political parties after all.
"There is a good deal of sympathy for the NRM," says another Western diplomat. "But to half the population, parties are poison. They are associated with nepotism and human rights abuses. No one trusts them anymore."