Uganda’s Idi Amin the name was synonymous with murderous rule. And his successor Milton Obote was, if anything, more destructive. Between them, they are held responsible for the deaths of more than 800,000 Ugandans. One purge followed another as the two despots eliminated enemies, real and imaginary, to stay in power.
Then in 1986, yet another military commander, Yoweri Museveni ejected President Obote in a coup. What could be expected? The new self-appointed president had been a rebel in the bush for five years, inclined to Marxism, insofar as he thought at all about economics.
He was quite a surprise, says Doctor Munini Mulera, a former Ugandan newspaper columnist now practicing medicine in Canada.
“At the time that he took over in 1986, Uganda had reached the point of total collapse,” Dr. Mulera says. “The state as one knows it had ceased to exist. And so he brought about a semblance of stability in most parts of the country. He invigorated and restored the confidence of both citizens and foreigners in Uganda. It is to his credit that Uganda is still talked about as worth salvaging, because if things had gone the way they were in 1985-86, Uganda would most probably have gone the way of Somalia and all those other failed states.”
Converted to a free market outlook and sparing of his enemies, President Museveni encouraged private enterprise and lured back Asian businesses his predecessors had expelled. They even recovered property that had been expropriated.
International donors have also returned to dispense aid and expertise. The Ugandan government handles its finances effectively, though corruption remains a serious problem. The Financial Times newspaper reports that Uganda has expanded education, reduced poverty and stopped the spread of AIDS.
Politics is another matter. President Museveni’s rule rests on what he calls a “no-party” system. Or rather, there is one party – his, the National Resistance Movement. Other parties exist, but they are barred from active recruitment or offering candidates for parliament. President Museveni explains that a multi-party system would soon revert to the tribalism just under the surface of Ugandan life. He fears a resumption of tribal clashes, as other African countries have demonstrated, could tear Uganda apart. He cites former President Obote’s Langi tribe that ran amok and slaughtered thousands of people in other tribes.
But to Ugandan’s surprise, President Museveni recently said he would allow other parties to operate more freely. That does not mean they can hold rallies or do anything too overt. But some kind of pluralism may be on the way.
The President is reportedly under international pressure to liberalize, but Doctor Mulera thinks continuing armed conflicts in outlying parts of the country are forcing him to seek more political support from other groups. “No party” is not enough.
“He reportedly said that donors were the ones asking for a change; otherwise, Uganda would lose investment. But in fact, there is very little evidence that suggests the United States, Britain and the Nordic states; that is, the traditional financial supporters, had upped their expectations for multi-party politics,” Dr. Mulera says. “On the other hand, we know that he is under tremendous pressure from a growing rebellion that might very well plunge the country into yet another civil war. And it seems to me and many others that he is trying to pull the rug from under their feet so that he denies them a justification for a rebellion.”
Uganda awaits the practical moves toward political change since President Museveni has made no formal announcement. He has confided so far only to insiders. But talk of change is rampant around the country. There is a feeling that political reform will prevent social and economic stagnation, an ever-present threat.
Edith Ssempala, Ugandan ambassador to the United States since 1996, says political change has to come one step at a time.
“It is not really a change. It’s an evolution,” she says. “You see the problem with Africa, or with us, the latecomers, is that we have not had an opportunity to evolve. If you look in the west, economic transformation has led to social and then to political transformation. But in our case, we are basically a pre-industrial society. And so to transform or to govern a pre-industrial society the way an information-age society is governed is simply not possible.”
Others say change can come much faster. They note the fears of disorder that preceded neighboring Kenya’s transition to democracy that was accomplished with minimal bloodshed.
Anne Mugisha is a member of the Reform Agenda party that for safety reasons stays outside Uganda. Now living in the United States, she is skeptical of President Museveni’s moves toward democracy.
“He might have been a savior in 1986 when he came in,” she says. “He said that he would save the country from dictatorship. He said that he would introduce democracy. He said this was a transitory system after which he expected the country to go back to multi parties. But since then he has continued to extend this transition. He has been in power for 17 years and has come more and more dictatorial as time passes. He has failed to consolidate his achievements by building institutions that will outlive him.”
How long does President Museveni want to remain in power? In this respect, critics are comparing him to his bloodthirsty predecessors, Amin and Obote. At 57, the president has productive years ahead if he chose to stay on, but rising opposition could erode his power.
Anne Mugisha says President Museveni will have to amend the Ugandan constitution if he wants to run again.
“President Museveni would actually be running for his fifth term. He has of course, said that he would follow the constitution, which would mean that his term runs until 2006,” Ms. Mugisha says.
But, she says, nobody believes that President Museveni will step down in 2006.
President Museveni told The Financial Times newspaper he has a vision of Uganda transformed into an industrial society with a propertied middle class and a skilled, educated working class that would resemble Europe a century ago. That is a long way off, he concedes. But he believes we are on the right track at last.
It is the “we” that Ugandans question. For them, it is mostly a matter of “I.” As the President notes, he calls the shots. They say genuine progress depends on far more involvement of Ugandans.
Ambassador Ssempala says President Museveni has taken Uganda a long way.
“We have registered significant progress in the area of economic development, in social development, in education, in housing and in poverty reduction. We have made significant progress, which is enabling us to move on to the next level,” Ambassador Ssempala says.
For most Ugandans, that next level is the sharing of presidential power with other political parties in a pluralist system that all can support.