Uganda's Violent Past Hangs Over Key Election

President has brought economic revival, but little political freedom

A troubled past lingers over the vote being held in Uganda today, the East African country's first presidential election in 16 years.

Pickup trucks, horns blaring, ferry cheering campaign supporters through the bustling streets of the capital, Kampala, where commerce hums again after decades of stagnation. But beneath the hoopla, the election has stirred deeper worries of instability.

"We always fear the violence might come again," says Wafula Oguttu, editor of the Ugandan newspaper The Monitor, a frequent critic of the government. "[President Yoweri] Museveni is the cement. If he wasn't there, I don't know what would happen."

Memories of the political and ethnic slaughter in the 1970s and '80s under now-exiled dictators Idi Amin and Milton Obote haven't faded. Uganda's ruling regime is cashing in on the anxiety. President Museveni's election advertisements feature rows of skulls and warn that a vote for change could bring back the chaos that took the lives of more than a half-a-million people during two decades of terror.

The message is likely to be heeded. Some Ugandans say their violent past makes them more interested in stability than in experimenting with democratic change.

Uganda's Museveni is following the lead of many rulers across the continent by finally bowing to international pressure to put his government up for a vote.

The playing field for the election is far from level. Voters are choosing among three candidates. But Museveni is widely expected to remain in office, in part because the government is strictly curtailing the activities of opposition parties.

Still, Museveni depicts himself as an African strongman in a new mold. Supporters call the former economics professor and rebel leader "an enlightened despot," a fresh thinker, and an intellectual.

But like many rulers across Africa, Museveni argues that opening up his country to a multiparty system would only aggravate its tribal divisions.

Political parties in Uganda have a tainted past. Dictators like Mssrs. Amin and Obote used parties to pit regional and ethnic groups against one another. They plunged the country into chaos, encouraging Ugandans to murder hundreds of thousands of civilians over two decades.

"These [people] who are coming up to talk about democracy, never talked about democracy in the dark days of Uganda," Museveni told a throng of some 40,000 at his closing campaign rally in Kampala this week. "They are talking about democracy when the sun is shining."

Uganda stands out as an example of a country rebuilt without the aid of Western-style democracy. Just a decade ago Uganda was one of the most unstable countries in Africa, ruled at the whim of a brutal dictator. Museveni launched a five-year guerrilla war and marched his rebel army into Kampala in 1986, ending the reign of terror.

The rebel chief became president and has proved to be an adept administrator. In the past decade, he has restored security and revived Uganda's economy through a radical program of privatization and liberalization.

Museveni's economic policies have won him favor with Western powers and made him the darling of international-aid donors. The World Bank estimates Uganda's growth last year at 10 percent, the second-highest rate in Africa, a figure in line with Asia's fast-growing economies.

"They're doing all the right things. But it's a fragile economy, and it wouldn't take much to knock it off track," says Brian Falconer, the World Bank representative in Uganda.

Museveni hasn't made corresponding political reforms to match his economic program. Political parties are officially banned from campaigning, raising money, and holding meetings. Candidates can compete for office as individuals, but not as party members.

While the United States has spoken out about this lack of political freedom, US aid continues to flow to Uganda at the rate of about $50 million per year. Washington sees Museveni as a steady ally in a shaky region and praises Uganda as an example for other African countries.

"It might not be the best model, but it's relevant to a whole host of African countries which have gone through a great deal of chaos," US Ambassador to Uganda Michael Southwick says. "If a country can go from chaos to stability and progress on political and economic reform, that's a very big step forward. Uganda shows you can go to rock bottom and come back."

But opposition activists say the economic benefits aren't trickling down. The strongest challenger to Museveni in the presidential race, Paul Ssemogerere, leader of the Democratic Party and a former deputy prime minister, appeals to the disenfranchised.

"Uganda is claiming to be the fastest-growing economy in Africa," Mr. Ssemogerere told a boisterous rally of about 10,000 supporters as he closed his campaign on a grassy Kampala parade ground earlier this week. "But there is no evidence of that when you go to the households of our people, when you go to schools and count the number of dropouts due to lack of money."

Uganda's rapid economic growth is hard to spot in its impoverished countryside. And with the country's stability riding on the personal leadership of one man, it's difficult to see how the security Museveni has nurtured will outlive his tenure in office.

"The international community, which has been active elsewhere, has been silent in the Uganda case," Ssemogerere says.

"I know too well what lies ahead if democracy is postponed in Uganda," he says.


AREA: 94,155 square miles (slightly smaller than Oregon).

CAPITAL: Kampala

POPULATION:17.2 million

ECONOMY: Uganda is one of Africa's richest countries in agricultural resources, with fertile soil and good rainfall. War and mismanagement beginning in the late 1960s virtually destroyed the country's infrastructure. Farmers reverted to subsistence agriculture, growing plantains, maize, and beans. The government of President Yoweri Museveni, in power since 1986, implemented an economic-recovery strategy based on privatization, rehabilitation of key industries, and improving the country's infrastructure.

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