Road to Riches or Ruin: One Nation Taps Africa's Potential, Another Squanders It

People in Nairobi, Kenya, talk about their neighbors in Kampala, Uganda, with undisguised envy.

They say that the "Museveni miracle" - the "enlightened" one-party rule by Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni - has placed this small central African economy in a different league, raising living standards dramatically while maintaining the peace needed to pursue foreign investments.

People in Kampala couldn't agree more. To them, Nairobi is a pit, hardened by crime, plagued by poverty, and stifled by a one-party dictatorship disguised as a multiparty system.

In Kampala, shops are bustling, brand-new Toyotas cruise the streets, and there is a sense of purpose among the emerging middle class.

Uganda has poverty, of course, but it is not as extreme as in the Kenyan capital, where predatory packs of children roam. While darkness in Nairobi sends people scurrying off the streets, Kampala turns gentler at night, with flickering candles lighting entrances to shops and restaurants and music spilling out into the sidewalks.

The difference between the two cities, observers say, is that unlike Nairobi (described by one Western observer as a "desperate, seething place"), Kampala enjoys most, if not all, the freedoms of a multiparty democracy.

Keeping Up With the Ugandans: Neighbors Envy 'Economic Miracle'

This, even as Uganda begins its 11th year of one-party rule by the National Resistance Council, originally an offshoot of the National Resistance Army.

Uganda is still a place where giant birds hover over enormous piles of waste left to rot ("We have not yet fully developed our disposal system," a hotel clerk explains), and where a sign posted by the house of parliament pleads with elected officials to "please deposit firearms at the entrance."

Foreigners are sometimes asked if they are interested in illegally exporting diamonds from the region around Karamoje in eastern Uganda. "Everybody there is free to dig their diamonds, their gold, no problem," Abe Seruwo, a Karamoje resident, says. "One thousand dollars for three to five karats."

"Things [in Uganda] are not perfect," says Ronald Kassimir, program director of the New York-based Social Science Research Council. "But some of the fundamentals are definitively in place."

It was on this premise that the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund agreed in April to write off Uganda's debt to foreign donors. Foreign aid accounted for 51 percent of government spending in 1996.

Signs of growth

But signs of growth abound. In the green hills around the city, hundreds of small white villas are under construction. In town, scooters are overtaking bicycles, discos are making a forceful entrance, and retail is booming.

Newspapers in Uganda now run columns on how to start a business, with advice on how to "Get Rich on Granite" and "Make Lead Acid Batteries."

"Even if Kenya's growth rate is higher, the concentration of wealth there is such that your ordinary citizen - perhaps I should say the starving multitude - stands absolutely zero chance of making something with their life," Mr. Kassimir says. "In Uganda, wealth is distributed much more evenly. Someone can actually set up a business and hope to see it flourish."

Uganda's newspapers also inform citizens of their constitutional rights in a section called "You and the Law." Ugandans in general take great pride in their Constitution, which was put into law in October 1995 by a 288-member assembly. Elections that followed in May 1996 emphatically legitimized Mr. Museveni's presidency, with 74.2 percent of the votes going to his ruling party.

Led by Museveni, the NRA swept across Uganda and took over Kampala in 1986, ousting the military leader who replaced dictator Milton Obote.

Economic freedom = success

Since then, Museveni has granted full freedom of speech and the press and introduced radical economic reforms, opening up Uganda's markets to almost anyone with a project. Protective tariffs have been eased, and restrictions on prices and capital flows were removed with the goal of making Uganda the dominant banking center in East Africa.

Kenya's President Daniel arap Moi - one of Africa's longest-ruling leaders - has introduced similar economic reforms. Under pressure from the United States, he dissolved the one-party system ahead of 1992 elections, allowing other political groups to run for office.

Yet until this week, opposition parties were not allowed to gather, hold rallies, or even organize a dinner party without a government license. On Wednesday, Mr. Moi said that, in future, all public rallies will be automatically licensed. The announcement came a week after riot police broke up protests, killing at least nine activists.

There are no independent television or radio stations, and only two overtly opposition publications in Kenya. Government press conferences are never to be interrupted by reporters, not even for the purpose of asking questions.

Uganda's one-party system, on the other hand, is not likely to be reformed any time soon. Strengthened by 1996 election results, Museveni prohibited party political activity for five more years. He argued that Uganda would react to full-fledged democracy by fracturing along ethnic lines, as has been the case in Kenya, and spiraling into chaos.

The elections for the constituent assembly in 1994, however, provided a good example of Museveni's approach. Although candidates officially were required to run on a nonparty basis, the leaders of the three main parties were given unrestricted access to national radio and television in the weeks prior to the elections.

Radio broadcasts give a measure of the political freedom Ugandans enjoy. Talk-shows hosts are ruthless and completely unguarded in their criticism of Museveni. Caustic political jokes are as common here as in the US or any European democracy.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
QR Code to Road to Riches or Ruin: One Nation Taps Africa's Potential, Another Squanders It
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today