Yoweri Museveni likes to draw an image comparing his rise to power in Uganda and a bunch of people stuck in a room without ventilation. "Imagine this room," he says, tugging at his shirt to convey a sense of deep discomfort. "It's hot, and the temperature is rising. People agree it has become unbearable. Then someone notices a fan. The question is: Who will cross the room and press the switch?"
The point being that when Mr. Museveni crossed that room - leading a 20,000-strong rebel army to Uganda's capital, Kampala - it was on behalf of its vexed occupants. That was 12 years ago, and there hasn't been a temperature check since. There have been elections, mildly symbolic ones in which the president and his National Resistance Movement have run for office virtually unopposed. In Uganda's "no-party" system - at least for now - Museveni is the only choice.
But many in Africa would stomp and cheer at that prospect. The Ugandan president inherited a wasteland, a "ground zero" of human devastation, and turned it into an economic powerhouse that sustained 6.3 percent growth over a decade. Between 1985 and 1995, Uganda's growth rate ranked 15th in the world.
During that time, Museveni set out to fashion a middle class out of a people prostrated by two decades of chronic warfare. On her last trip to the region, US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright called him "a beacon of hope." President Clinton plans to visit Uganda on his trip to Africa later this month.
"There is a 'before Museveni' and an 'after Museveni,' and the difference between the two is at the root of his prestige," says a Western observer who asked not to be named.
The "before Museveni" featured one of Africa's bleakest implosions. By the time he took over in 1986, 16 million Ugandans had been collectively scarred by the rule of Idi Amin, a general who staged a coup in 1971, overthrowing another dictator, Milton Obote. During Mr. Amin's rule, more than half a million people were killed over the course of eight years.
Museveni took over a country pockmarked with mass graves. The state was bankrupt, revenue from taxation was virtually nonexistent, and Uganda's economy was stagnant.
Today, downtown Kampala is a vibrant place. Like New York, this city never sleeps. Market vendors peddle their merchandise well past midnight in a swirl of smoke from nearby bonfires.
All around them, people with pocket calculators settle deals, exchange wads of bank notes, and negotiate partnerships by the quivering light of candles.
"You don't know what Uganda was like [before Museveni]," says a doctor who spent several months working for the Red Cross during Amin's reign. "It was madness. This is good, this is very good."
It took vision for such a transformation to take place. It took suspending protective tariffs, abolishing price controls, lifting restrictions on capital flows, and privatizing state-controlled businesses.
Argument for democracy
Western donors, who rank among Museveni's biggest fans, have long argued that for Uganda's economy to really take off, democracy must come, and come in the form of a multiparty system. Museveni has responded with references to the "irritating paternalism" of "racist" foreigners unashamed of their "mediocre understanding" of Uganda's delicate mechanisms.
"People are superficial in their analysis," he said during a recent interview. "Democracy cannot grow on feudal soil. You cannot have a preindustrial society practicing democracy."
Man of contradictions
It can be disorienting, then, to pick up a copy of Museveni's autobiography, "Sowing the Mustard Seed." The subtitle reads: "The Struggle for Freedom and Democracy in Uganda."
But many things about Museveni are disorienting. He will not allow a legal opposition in his own country, yet is hailed as the forerunner of a new, enlightened type of leader that could turn Africa - with its 800 million people - into a force to be reckoned with. With half of his government's budget provided by foreign donors, he trots around the continent telling Africans they must shake the last residues of foreign influence and take their destiny into their own hands.
Unlike his predecessors, Museveni is not a mass murderer or a thief. He is also a charmer.
Those who have encountered Museveni's gravitational field can explain why his fan club spans the continent. "The one time I met him, I came out reeling," says a London-based analyst. "He can talk circles around any IMF [International Monetary Fund] guy and he has people in Washington wrapped around his little finger."
For a leader of such stature, Museveni is remarkably informal. He greets visitors wearing a plain shirt and pants. He ushers them to a seat with an alternating current of amused curiosity and indifference.
On a bad day, his use of metaphor, his search for obscure words in English can be endearing. On a good day, his delivery is dazzling. "He can address a crowd and tell a joke so that you'll think it's a private joke just between you and him," says Matthew Mpoke Bigg, a Nairobi-based journalist.
The adjectives most commonly used to describe Museveni's physical appearance are "jovial" and "rotund." Little about him betrays his past in military fatigues. But a lot about Uganda's no-party system does. Museveni spent 15 years organizing rebels into regiments and batallions. For 15 years, he expected and obtained unconditional obedience: Dissent was punished, insubordination court-martialed.
"Museveni is blind to his own failings. He is unable to analyze the system he has set up critically. He thinks it's perfect," says a professor at Makerere University in Kampala who asked that his name not be used.
Others disagree. "It isn't that the system is not perfect. It's just that he doesn't care," says Nelson Kasfir, a professor at Dartmouth University in Hanover, N.H., and an expert on Uganda. "He's a tactician, so he'll allow the system to change as long as he keeps winning."
One of the peculiar aspects of the Museveni system is the degree to which Ugandans actually participate in it. At the grassroots level, people are asked to elect their own local councils. On a national level, they are technically free to vote for any candidate running on a nonparty ticket. Museveni himself has faced challenges for the presidency - and won hands down. Next year, Ugandans will decide in a referendum whether they wish to move to a multiparty system or stick with Museveni's approach.
"He sets up the rules so that he cannot lose," says Professor Kasfir. The first rule - no political parties - has never changed. The result, the Makerere professor says, is a system that has perpetuated Museveni's "fundamental unaccountability." "The checks and balances that come with an opposition are not in place," he says. "Don't tell me democracy is a Western concept. It's a market concept. Don't tax me and say I should not question you."
Which raises the question of why the West is so keen on Uganda. "The West looks for very simple indicators," says the professor, "What do white people look for? Stability, that's all.... Uganda has all the trappings of stability."
Across a sharp divide, people who think Museveni can do no wrong and people who believe he has conned the world seem to have one point in common: the belief that when he goes, Uganda will go too.
"The way I see it, Uganda has another 15 to 20 years. Then Museveni goes, and we kiss all those millions [of dollars] goodbye," says the London analyst.
Museveni argues that anyone with a shred of intelligence could take his place. "I have 4.8 million successors," he said, a reference to the number of Ugandans who voted for him in the 1996 elections, "You cannot say: Museveni is a political force. You can say: Museveni is the most consistent and articulate representative of a political force."
By the night fires of Kampala, people push their goods with a sense of optimism that one doesn't find anywhere else in the region. For them, the future is now.
"In the end, this is Museveni's greatest failing: He cannot bring himself to care about Uganda without him," the Western observer says.