Museveni takes measured route to democracy: Uganda President explains why he resists West's pressure for change

YOWERI MUSEVENI, President of Uganda since 1986, is a one-off, an eccentric. Sometimes he sounds like a Marxist, sometimes like a monetarist. He is an eclectic, an intellectual who took to guerrilla war in the name of democracy and inherited a country that had become synonymous with murder and mayhem.

His analysis of Africa's past owes a lot to Marx but he sees the future in terms of market forces and free enterprise. In conversation he makes astonishing assertions: Europe's drive to expand and dominate world trade and land grew out of its shortage of raw materials. 'But Africa was always self-sufficient, so why bother to go out and conquer? The big kingdoms in Africa came about because people gathered round a wise ruler or a powerful kingdom.'

Mr Museveni came to power in 1986 when his youthful peasant force overthrew the Uganda army after five years of bush warfare. Now he is followed everywhere by nervous and numerous courtiers, like any other African president.

But Mr Museveni's significance is not just that he has restored a measure of peace and order to Uganda. He is the only African leader who is defying Western pressure for multi-party democracy - and winning. However imperfectly or cynically they have implemented democratic processes, all Africa's presidents have been forced to bow to the wind of multi- party democracy and allow opposition political parties to operate. The United States, with Britain and France, is using the international financial institutions and bilateral aid to force political change.

But Mr Museveni has pursued a different path. His argument is simple: multi-party democracy works in Europe where social divisions are horizontal, based on class. In Africa the divisions are vertical, based on tribe. Multi- party democracy in Africa leads to tribalism and division.

Instead of a multi-party election, Ugandans are to elect a constituent assembly later this year. Candidates must stand as individuals, parties remain banned. The assembly will debate a draft constitution already drawn up by an appointed commission and vote on it within a year. Its most difficult task will be to decide whether to continue with the 'no-party' state or opt, against Mr Museveni's wishes, for multi-party democracy. ('But if that is what they decide I will support them,' he says.)

The following year there will be elections - under whatever system the assembly decides - and a presidential election. He irritably dismisses the suggestion that a no-party democracy serves his own interest and rejects the analysis that if multi- party democracy became tribally based, he would lose out as he comes from a small tribe.

Western pressure is politely deflected. 'They used to say 'he's a dictator but he's all right'. Now they have swung from supporting dictatorships to another mistake - multi-party democracy . . . We will try to persuade the Americans but if we don't we shall go our own way.'

Mr Museveni says the West does not understand Africa: 'You don't understand subtlety . . . My advice to the West is not to interfere too much in Africa. If interference could bring development then Africa would be the most developed continent in the world.'

He argues that the West misunderstands the pressure for political change in Africa. He says it is for participation, not necessarily for multi-party democracy. 'Pressure for change is coming from exclusion. So many people have been excluded from the political process. It is a struggle for participation.'

After three years of rapid political change in Africa, the results have not been encouraging. Too many countries have rushed into elections under Western pressure only to find they have exacerbated division rather than engendered unity and stability.

Only South Africa and Uganda are taking the time to reflect on what sort of politics suits their society. In the long term, that exercise might be their salvation.

(Photograph omitted)