'Sick Man of Africa' is very much on the mend

David Orr in Kasese meets the former guerrilla credited with the remarkable turnaround in Uganda's fortunes
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The Independent Online
President Yoweri Museveni's brown shoes precede him by a good hour and a half. They exit by another door, accompanied in a young woman's hands by a neatly folded striped shirt. They reappear gracing the portly figure of the Ugandan president whose sartorial motif is a lichen green suit.

His Excellency President Yoweri Museveni has come to the lush, mountainous region of western Uganda to discuss with local leaders how agricultural production might be improved and diversified. Though a country of enormous potential, Uganda is poor and severely underdeveloped.

There are signs, however, that the "Sick Man of Africa", as Uganda was dubbed after a 20-year reign of terror by Milton Obote and Idi Amin, is well on the way to recovery. The economy's consistent growth rate of nearly 6 per cent per annum over the past nine years has secured Uganda the continuing approval of the donor community and the support of the International Monetary Fund whose recommendations it has faithfully followed.

Yesterday the man credited with the remarkable turnaround in his country's fortunes met Britain's Minister for Overseas Development, Baroness Chalker, in the capital, Kampala. She had earlier told President Daniel arap Moi in neighbouring Kenya that his country would receive no new aid from Britain until it made progress on economic and political reforms, and on human rights. But no such harsh words were delivered to President Museveni.

With the exception of the United States, Uganda continues to enjoy the almost unreserved approbation of the West, despite its rejection of multi- party politics.

Talking to the Independent before meeting Baroness Chalker, President Museveni reaffirmed his commitment to economic development and to his party-less governance. "Governments in other African countries have given into external pressures to introduce multi-party democracy," he said. "But there's no social basis for parties here because there's really no middle class. Middle class, liberal ideas are the product of Western, industrialised nations but we are living in a backward, pre-industrial society. The peasant is more parochial, more traditional. What is supposed to be liberalism and tolerance actually becomes fragmentation and intolerance when applied to most of Africa."

In June, Uganda's Constituent Assembly (CA) voted overwhelmingly to enshrine this system of government in the country's new constitution. The ban on party politics, introduced by the president when he came to power after a guerrilla war in 1986, is to continue for another five years when a referendum will be held.

Mr Museveni, who describes his National Resistance Movement government as a popular front embracing various shades of political opinion, insists multi-party politics would divide the country along religious and tribal lines.

President Museveni believes the government's priority must be the empowerment of the people through the vote. Uganda is to hold presidential and parliamentary elections early next year. The results of the last general election, held 15 years ago, was disputed and led to the five-year guerrilla war won by Mr Museveni's National Resistance Army.

"We are only now beginning to teach people that they hold the key to power," says the President. "Power does not come through a tribal chief from God or from the white race. The people must first get used to power through voting. We must deal with one thing at a time.

"It would be very confusing to tell people there must be parties when the majority of the CA says it doesn't want parties. The minority must submit to the majority for the time being. We must remember the people of Uganda are beginners, they're beginning something new."

A graduate in politics and economics at Dar es Salaam University in Tanzania, Mr Museveni went on to develop his radical beliefs fighting for Mozambique's one-time Marxist Frelimo movement in the early 1970s. He was a prominent guerrilla leader of the opposition forces which fought alongside the Tanzanian army to overthrow Idi Amin in 1979. With 27 men he subsequently launched an insurgency movement to oust Milton Obote who returned for a second despotic term as Ugandan president in 1980.

At 51, President Museveni is both an elder statesman and a influential member of Africa's new generation of leadership. He rejects the half dozen insurgency groups fighting against him as belonging to the old forces of colonialism and intellectual backwardness.

He models himself as an exponent of the new forces in Uganda's political life: change, modernisation and democratisation.

It is for these reasons that he can also dismiss Uganda's monarchies, which two years ago he reinstated, as "symbolic remnants of the past" and the country's tribal structures as "temporary aberrations". Tribalism "does not represent the real interests of the people. As the economy develops, Ugandans will change from tribespeople to producers. The monarchies will be overtaken in the same way. The British Queen is no longer the same queen she was in the past".

President Museveni's desire for dynamic growth might be outstripping the pace of change in Uganda, still one of the world's poorest nations. But there is little doubt that, as far as foreign donors are concerned, he is making all the right moves.