Commonwealth meeting provides showcase for Uganda's revival

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The Independent Online

Twenty one years ago I sat in the bullet-spattered Fairway Hotel in Kampala imagining what Uganda could be like in years to come. At that time there were only two functioning institutions in Uganda: the Catholic Church and the Owen Falls dam. The rest of the country was wrecked by neglect and war.

Eight years of Idi Amin's rule followed by six years of political chaos and war had reduced a once prosperous country to ruin. The potholes in Kampala's streets were so bad that they used to say that if you saw someone driving in a straight line you knew he must be drunk. Many of its buildings were burnt out in the fighting and others had been abandoned. Water in the hotel came in buckets and electricity was sporadic. And – what we did not know – HIV was spreading. Uganda was about to be engulfed by the worst pandemic since the Black Death.

The transformation is miraculous. The city has been rebuilt. The streets have been resurfaced, and the skyline sprouts towers of glinting glass. With the holding of the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in Kampala this week, Uganda's recovery is confirmed. Were the Queen or visiting heads of government to talk to ordinary Kampala residents this week they would find themselves discussing house prices, traffic jams and schools – and the Commonwealth conference itself.

The conference brings together the heads of government of most of the Commonwealth's 53 members and all of their foreign ministers. The Queen will – as always – preside as symbolic head of the Commonwealth.

The hottest item on the agenda is Pakistan. Commonwealth rules demand some form of democracy and no unconstitutional acts or military rule. Like Nigeria and Zimbabwe before, Pakistan could face suspension. The African presidents – who took off their military uniforms in the 1990s – want Pakistan suspended. The British and others don't.

Zimbabwe which left the Commonwealth when its suspension was renewed, is not on the agenda but there the positions are reversed. Britain wants Zimbabwe punished while the Africans would like to see Zimbabwe readmitted. Morgan Tsvangirai, its opposition leader, will add fuel to the flames and is in Kampala to hold a fringe meeting.

Prince Charles is paying his first visit to a Commonwealth meeting. The position of Head of the Commonwealth is not hereditary and will be up for grabs when the Queen retires or dies. Charles is clearly putting in a bid.

But none of this means anything to the local people. Not a single Ugandan I have spoken to welcomes the summit, though many expressed a desire to see the Queen. Kampala has been swamped by some 25,000 visitors. Many of the planned hotels are not finished and those that have been are staffed by people doing their first jobs. Everyone wants to see the Queen but no one wants the disruption this conference has caused. It begins tomorrow evening but most of Kampala's roads were closed from yesterday. Businesses have shut down. Local airlines have been grounded for four days. Taxi drivers, replaced by special cars hired for the occasion have been pushed out of business. Many are staying at home to avoid the queues whenever another dignitary arrives in town. Shops have already noted a fall in sales as people avoid the jams in the centre of town. Only the big hotels – many owned by or linked to government ministers – are doing well. The rest cannot see how it brings any benefit to them.

President Yoweri Museveni fought his way to power as a Marxist-influenced revolutionary but was soon converted to free market capitalism. Boosted by aid which still provides about half of the government's budget, he encouraged businesses to invest, allowing 100 per cent foreign ownership. Uganda's growth rate has been around 6 per cent for the last few years but since the population is growing at more than 3 per cent a year, the highest in the world, the per-capita economic growth rate is also around 3 per cent. Kampala is in some ways an island in a stagnant pool and even within Kampala there are thousands of people in flip-flops and cast-offs amid the suits and Mercedes. President Museveni still believes that Uganda needs a much larger population.

And all the economic growth has only applied to the south of the country. The north has been embroiled since Museveni in one of Africa's nastiest wars. The government he overthrew was largely Acholi in ethnic make-up and in defeat, a strange rebellion began, led by illiterates who had military skills but little political sense. Hundreds of thousands have died in the war – a few from bullets but most from disease and hunger, driven from their homes and livelihoods. Year-long peace talks are close to agreement but there are many on both sides who either have an interest in keeping the war going or think they can still win it by military means.

Last year Museveni bribed MPs to change the constitution, allowing him to run for a third term. He won the election but split the country, the north voting solidly against him, the south divided but mainly supporting him. The leader of the opposition, Kissa Besigye, was charged with treason and other serious offences which hobbled his campaign. The charges still hang over him.

Beset by corruption, Museveni's government has no new ideas and frequently falls back on revolutionary rhetoric or resorts to blaming foreigners – particularly Britain – for any problems that arise. On the streets, however, people blame the government and Museveni especially for the power cuts, poor roads and expensive services. "He fixed the roads for your Queen," said one engineer, "why could he not do it for us? Why has it taken all this time?"

Hosting the Commonwealth has forced President Museveni to behave well. But the moment the conference is over we will see what his real intentions are.

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