An African Success Story?

Uganda, of all places, is enjoying a period of peace, but the priee of sta bility as been high

by Bill crkeley

YOWERI Museveni is a bear of a man with an avuncular style that has disarmed many a visitor. Politician, intellectual, former guerrilla leader, and, since 1986, the President of Uganda, Museveni is widely hailed as a new kind of African leader. The darling of Western donors, he minces no words about the “backwardness” of his country. He says things like “I have never blamed the whites for colonizing Africa; I have never blamed these whites for taking slaves. If you are stupid, you should be taken a slave.” Sitting in the shade of a huge flame tree on his cattle farm in southwest Uganda, sipping from a glass of piping-hot fresh cow’s milk, the President speaks ironically, Socratically, turning questions back on his questioner, chuckling at his own answers.

But his mission could not be more serious. He is trying to achieve what many feared no one could: to bring Uganda back from the dead. Uganda occupies a singular place among the horror-plagued countries of post-independence Africa. In the 1970s and early 1980s Idi Amin, and the less notorious but no less wanton Milton Obote, plunged Uganda into a nightmare as dark and sinister as the one that has unfolded just across its southern border in Rwanda. Perhaps a million Ugandans died in two decades of sheer terror.

The road from the capital, Kampala, to Museveni’s farm cuts through lush tropical mountains straddling the Equator along the edge of Lake Victoria. Banana palms, coffee plantations, and bougainvillea in perpetual bloom—this is the hauntingly beautiful landscape that moved Winston Churchill to call Uganda the “pearl” of East Africa. When I first traveled this road, a decade ago, teenage soldiers in baggy battle fatigues and rubber flip-flops, with bloodshot eyes and slurred speech, manned dozens of checkpoints, poking their AKs into taxis, shaking down travelers, often raping women and girls. My notebooks were filled with tales of torture and massacres.

Today the road is newly paved, and there are no roadblocks. The streets are safe at night, markets bustle, and nightclubs pulsate to the twangy rhythms of the latest hits from neighboring Zaire. At the time of my return, last spring, nearly all of Uganda’s immediate neighbors were in turmoil. To the south Rwanda and Burundi were convulsed by ethnic slaughter in which hundreds of thousands had been killed. Zaire, on Uganda’s western border, was in the throes of “ethnic cleansing” as Mobutu Sese Seko maneuvered to survive in power. To the north thousands of Sudanese were in flight from the Sudanese army’s latest offensive against southern rebels, as the latest phase of Sudan’s civil war entered its second decade. Even Kenyans, on Uganda’s eastern border, who for years had viewed Uganda’s agony with a mixture of horror and disdain, were beset by yet another round of state-inspired ethnic clashes, which have shaken Kenya’s reputation for stability. Uganda, of all places, looked like a model of tranquillity. A decade earlier 1 had felt a rush of relief when I exited Uganda for what was then pacific Rwanda; this year I experienced precisely the opposite sensation.

“Uganda is out of the woods,” Museveni told me. But the twinkle in his eye masks toughness, arrogance, even ruthlessness. He has not stayed on top of Uganda by being soft. Almost alone among African leaders, Museveni has managed to secure broad international support while defying Western pressure for multi-party democracy. He argues that multi-partyism aggravates tribal divisions. It is a familiar argument, made by many a cynical African leader as a means of rationalizing absolute power. But such is Uganda’s uniquely fractious past that his argument is rarely dismissed out of hand. Uganda is a place where a topranking Western diplomat, lamenting the arrests of three leading “multi-partyists” on sedition charges, could nonetheless suggest that “Museveni may have calculated that it is time to demonstrate power, and he may be right—safety first.”

At the time of my visit Ugandans were electing members of a constituent assembly that will ratify a new constitution. It was a dress rehearsal for parliamentary and presidential elections scheduled for next year. The central issue for voters was whether to elect candidates who favored “multi-partyism” or those who favored continuing for five more years with Museveni’s all-inclusive—some say too inclusive—“movement” system. Alas, most of the multi-partyists looked less like Jeffersonian democrats than like partisans of the old Obote regime, bent on reclaiming power by aggravating ethnic divisions. The campaign opened a window on a stubbornly polarized country at a crossroads—battling AIDS, still very poor, and still largely dependent on the personal authority of one man, Museveni. Most Ugandans were living in peace. The question was how long it might last.

THE VIP lounge at The Nile Hotel, in Kampala, is directly below room 311. In the years of Amin and Obote room 311 was a torture chamber. Beatings, whippings, electric shocks, bums on the chest and testicles—the cries emanating from room 311 may have been audible down on the second floor, where Amin and Obote occupied rooms during some of their years in power. Nile Mansions, as it was then called, provided the only decent accommodation in town, and thus housed much of the Cabinet, army, and secret police. Today the Nile is a metaphor for Uganda, a functioning entity with a fresh coat of paint. Room 311 is a plush suite with crimson carpeting, glass tabletops, and a superchic bathroom; a Gideon’s Bible rests on the bedside table. “It’s a different story altogether,” the receptionist said when I was there. “It has shed a bad name.”

Sitting on a sofa m the VIP lounge, sipping from a glass of passion-fruit juice, was the man who had ousted Obote in a coup in July of 1985, Major General Tito Okello Lutwa. Tito Okello commanded the force of Ugandan exiles who, along with the Tanzanian army, invaded Uganda in 1979 and drove Amin from power. Okelio’s forces then helped Milton Obote, whom Amin had displaced in a 1971 coup, to steal the 1980 election. From 1980 to 1985 Okello was the commander of Obote’s army, the Uganda National Liberation Army. Under Okelio’s command UNLA soldiers slaughtered thousands of civilians in Amin’s old stronghold, a region known as West Nile. They killed tens of thousands, possibly hundreds of thousands, more in the region north of Kampala known as the Luwero Triangle, where Museveni’s insurgency was based. Ultimately Okello turned on Obote. The six months of Okelio’s tenure as head of state were the most chaotic in Uganda’s history; Kampala disintegrated into Beirut-like fiefs controlled by warlords and murderous gangs. Museveni’s forces seized the capital in January of 1986, and Okello fled into exile. He was invited back in November of last year with the promise of amnesty—and armed protection.

Now eighty years old, carrying a cane of gold and carved ebony, dressed in a dark-brown suit and a blue necktie with a pattern of crossed Winchester rifles, Okello seemed fit, good-natured, wily. He told me that love of his country and the lure of “fifteen to twenty grandchildren” had brought him back. He spoke in Acholt, his native tongue, which was translated for me by his aide-de-camp.

Okelio’s career tracked the history of Uganda in microcosm. Like many young Acholis before and after, Okello sought his fortune as a soldier, joining the old British colonial army, the King’s African Rifles, at the start of the Second World War. He fought against the Italians in Eritrea and against the Japanese in Burma. After the war he was an instructor in the colonial force that crushed the nationalist Mau Mau rebellion in Kenya. It was in the King’s African Rifles that Okello met Idi Amin, who reminded him then of a hyena, he told me—“always looking to steal, wary of others, not a stable man.”

At independence from Britain, in 1962, Uganda, an example of colonial mapmaking at its most arbitrary, was already vulnerable even by the standards of postcolonial Africa to the destructive forces of sectarianism and ethnicity. Its borders had been drawn up by the European colonial powers at the oft-lamented Berlin conference of 1884, with little regard to the interests of the indigenous peoples. Some forty distinct ethnic groups were roped together.

As elsewhere in the British Empire, from Nigeria to South Africa to India, the system of “indirect rule” accentuated ethnic differences by vesting unaccountable power in tribal chiefs and by divvying up schooling and jobs according to (he timehonored method of divide and rule. The Baganda, whose kingdom was the most advanced and whose lands in the fertile mountainous region around their capital, Kampala, were the best suited to export crops, were favored for posts in the colonial service—and thus for the schooling needed to fill them. Stereotyped as warlike, the Nilotics of the north—the Acholi and Langi, and also the Kakwa, Idi Amin’s tribe—filled out the ranks of the colonial army, along with Nubians from Sudan who were brought in as mercenaries.

Comparable conditions existed in nearly all the countries of postcolonial Africa, yet not all degenerated to the depths that Uganda did. It is not true that Africa’s many tribes are inevitably prone to conflict and bloodshed; most, even among Uganda’s forty-odd tribes, live side by side in relative harmony. In Uganda as elsewhere, though, inherent divisions were compounded by feeble institutions of law and civil society, which left the country especially vulnerable to the idiosyncratic personalities of its leaders. “What happened here was not inevitable,” Grace Ibingira told me. Ibingira, a veteran Ugandan politician, was Justice Minister in Obote’s first Cabinet before he was jailed for five years, and served as ambassador to the United Nations under Amin until he went into exile. “It all had to do with the personalities of the people involved at critical periods in our history.”

Milton Obote now lives in Zambia in what is by all accounts a mostly drunken exile; Ugandans say that he was often publicly drunk while in power. Obote never achieved the worldwide infamy of Idi Amin, but his impact on Uganda was just as destructive. Unlike Amin. Obote was a weak and paranoid leader who handled the army with kid gloves. He created the opening for the rule of the gun. Idi Amin was Obote’s hatchet man. “Amin had two qualifications,” Ibingira recalled. “The first was that he was ruthless, so Obote could unleash him. The second was that Amin was illiterate. Obote believed that Amin would not aspire to overthrow him. There he was wrong.”

THH descent into chaos began in earnest with the so-called Buganda crisis, in 1966, when Obote, the country’s first Prime Minister, suspended the constitution and ordered army units under Amin’s command to attack the palace of the Kabaka, the popular hereditary king of the Baganda, who were Uganda’s largest and most prosperous tribe. Over the next five years Obote oversaw the cumulative militarization of power, which became blatant when Amin led a successful coup in January of 1971. The militarization of politics fragmented the army and security forces, largely along ethnic lines. As first Amin’s faction and later Obote’s assumed power, they set about liquidating their predecessors and the predecessors’ families and presumed civilian supporters—along with the supporters of new insurgencies, which inevitably arose in response.

“It was just open, straightforward, the fighting that took place in Uganda,” Tito Okello told me. “It was a big war.” I asked him about the Luwero Triangle. “The allegations were one-sided,” Okello replied. “The deaths should not be attributed to one side only.”

Okello would appear to be a war criminal. That he is back in Uganda is a testament to Museveni’s policy of cooptation rather than confrontation. Civilian officials from previous regimes and hundreds of members of the myriad erstwhile fighting forces, police and intelligence units, private militias, and bandit gangs have been lured out of the bush or exile and integrated into Museveni’s umbrella-like National Resistance Movement and its National Resistance Army. The goal is reconciliation. Thus very few people have been held accountable for past crimes; a great many Ugandans have quite literally gotten away with murder. I asked Okello if he has any crimes to answer for. “Even up until now people still like me,” he replied. “I am a man of peace.”

“DEMBE kintu kikulu, eeh, eeh, dembe kintu kikulu, eeh ”— “Peace is very important, yes, yes, peace is very important, yes.” The singers were lined up twelve in a row before President Museveni, with the drummers in front, in a clearing on the edge of Wobulenzi, a rural trading center in the Luwero Triangle. In the early 1980s Luwero came to be known as the killing fields of Uganda. Luwero is where Museveni waged his five-year guerrilla struggle against Obote —and where Obote’s marauding gang of an army waged its wanton, largely indiscriminate, ultimately futile counterinsurgency campaign. Perhaps 300,000 civilians were killed. A quarter of Luwero’s children were orphaned.

Peace is very important, yes, and most Ugandans are living in peace. The economy is picking up. Schools and hospitals have reopened. Refugees have returned. Ugandans are living with hope. “Let’s agree on the essential points,” Museveni told me. “Regular elections, universal franchise. free press, separation of powers.”

But peace can also be relative. If Museveni has friends in Luwero and throughout the south of Uganda, he also has enemies, mainly in the north and east. After NRA forces took power in 1986, in a continuation of the familiar cycle remnants of Obote’s UNLA army went back into the bush in the north to wage yet another guerrilla campaign. The NRA has been battling a succession of insurgencies in the north ever since, by turns crushing and coopting the insurgents and their supporters. Not a few civilians have been killed.

When I met Museveni at his farm, I asked him what it would take to arrest so entrenched a cycle of ethnic violence. “What Europeans and Americans call ethnicity in this context is actually backwardness—social and economic backwardness,”Museveni said. “Africa is preindustrial. It does not have a middle class. Its dominant opinions are held by peasants. Their attitudes are often parochial. They do not have a vested interest in cosmopolitanism or in nationalism.”

The President was, obliquely, making the case for his economic program as a key to stability. It is a virtual textbook adaptation of the International Monetary Fund’s structural adjustment program: free markets, a convertible currency, an independent central bank, selling off state-owned companies, tight budgets, and downsizing the civil service and the army. Museveni has invited back Uganda’s Asians, whom Amin expelled in the early 1970s, and has returned their property. His aim is to attract investors and build a middle class. “If there is a middle class, it will cut across ethnic groups,” Museveni said. Not surprisingly, some of Museveni’s most fervent support comes from the growing number of Ugandans who have come to be known as “my cars”—members of a modernized elite who can’t stop talking about their cars.

“Backwardness” is also Museveni’s explanation for the dangers of multi-partyism. His argument is simple: multi-party democracy works where social divisions are horizontal, based on class. In Africa the divisions are vertical, based on tribe, and political parties inevitably reflect that vertical division. In Uganda this is not just an academic point. The existing parties are in fact closely identified with ethnic and sectarian interests—and with the regimes that represented those interests to the detriment of others. Milton Obote’s old Uganda Peoples Congress remains a force in Ugandan politics, and is identified with northerners, mostly Acholis and Langis. Although the UPC and other parties were barred from publicly backing candidates during the campaign, the party allegiances of most candidates were well known, and “pro-multi-party” or “multi-partyist” was in many cases code for pro-UPC.

Three weeks before election day, in a widely criticized move, three top UPC leaders were arrested and charged with sedition. The charges stemmed from a manifesto published by the UPC which alleged that Museveni’s government was dominated by “foreigners”—specifically, Banyarwandans, people of Rwandan origin. Many top officials in Museveni’s NRA were, in fact, Rwandan refugees, primarily Tutsis, who had settled in Uganda after fleeing ethnic violence in Rwanda decades earlier; others were Ugandans of Rwandan descent. In 1982 President Obote expelled more than 80,000 Banyarwandans from southwest Uganda. Many returned to the country as NRA guerrillas, and when Museveni took power, they took power with him. Now Obote’s old UPC allies, campaigning as “multi-partyists,” were raising doubts about Museveni’s ethnicity as a means of discrediting his government. Museveni ordered them arrested.

“They are criminals,” Museveni told me with evident bitterness. “These multi-partyists are not committed to multi-party politics. It is a means of dividing the people. We look at them as traitors. They are opportunists manipulating ethnic divisions.”

Clearly Museveni has an authoritarian streak, but his comments underscore the complexity of Uganda’s predicament. What he says about the multi-partyists undoubtedly is true: many are, in fact, cynical partisans of a discredited regime that murdered thousands. Not a few Ugandans who are otherwise critical of the “movement” system nevertheless defended the sedition arrests as a necessary evil.

Meanwhile, at the height of the election campaign. Museveni’s army was battling in the north with yet another remnant of the old insurgent forces, a ragtag collection of bandits who call themselves the Lord’s Resistance Army. The sometimes heavy-handed counterinsurgency campaign was reviving old enmities. “This fear is coming up again,” I was told wdien I visited the northern provincial capital of Gulu, where some said Museveni was scarcely belter than Idi Amin. “Museveni is more educated,” I was told. “Museveni is a learned killer.”

An extreme view, perhaps, but reports of army abuses, though not generally considered on a scale comparable with those from past regimes, were consistent with the record of abuses the army committed during previous NRA campaigns against northern insurgents. Amnesty International has documented beatings, torture, and massacres of unarmed civilians, including children and whole families. When I asked Museveni about these allegations, he said, “I don’t dispute them. What I don’t agree with is the charge that we condone abuses, that we know about but ignore abuses, that we cover up abuses. In fact we have executed soldiers who committed abuses.” Indeed. Amnesty International, which opposes the death penalty, protested in 1992 that more than forty soldiers had been executed since 1987. “Amnesty says executions are too harsh,” Museveni continued. “We still apply the law of Moses, We still say an eye for an eye. If you kill someone, you must die.”

The constituent-assembly elections were Uganda’s first legitimate balloting since independence from Britain, in 1962, and foreign election observers judged them generally free and fair. Museveni’s “pro-movement” candidates won two thirds of the seats, but multi-partyists won nearly all the seats in the north, underlining the degree to which the country remains polarized along ethnic lines.

UGANDA’S continued polarization is worrisome not just because of the legacy of past ethnic conflict but because of the continued absence or weakness of the mediating institutions of civil society. Amin and Obote destroyed the rule of law in Uganda. Museveni, to his credit, has sought to re-establish it. He virtually scrapped the discredited police force he inherited in 1986 and has hired and trained a new one. With Western aid he is rebuilding a cowed and withered judiciary—he told me there were only “three or four” high-court justices left in the entire country when he came to power. He has also worked to diversify and professionalize the army. By all accounts (except in the north), the progress on these fronts has been remarkable. But there is still a long way to go, and abuses still occur.

One of Museveni’s first acts when he came to power, in 1986, was to establish a human-rights commission to document the country’s history of abuses and, many Ugandans hoped, identify and prosecute the culprits. The results have been disappointing. Inevitably, past regimes were closely identified with particular regions and tribes; going after accused humanrights abusers was perceived in those regions as persecuting their tribes. In some instances communities refused to cooperate with investigators, shielding criminals in their midst on grounds of ethnic solidarity. And there was concern that because so many people had blood on their hands, settling accounts would be impossible.

The recurring insurgencies in the north also created problems. Many northern insurgents, who had fought for Obote, were motivated by fear that they would be brought to account by a government dominated by southerners. In 1987 a broad amnesty was declared, in hopes of luring northern rebels out of the bush. This was Museveni’s strategy of “buying peace.” He offered rebels a chance to be integrated into the national army. Many of them took it. “We thought that trying to punish everybody would be an endless process,” Museveni told me.

The downside, of course, is that a great many murderers are at large. “A government has given an amnesty, but the people against whom these crimes have been committed didn’t give that amnesty—the people have not forgiven them,” Joan Kakwenziri, a historian who serves on the Human Rights Commission, says. “Amnesty is really just a cover-up of the problem. It’s like pushing dirt and dust under the rug. Eventually it begins to smell. It doesn’t work.” Of course, the NRM now has its own crimes to answer for in the north. “I think they feel quite inadequate to be the judges,” Kakwenziri said.

OTHERS, too. worry about the country’s future. Ugandans need only look across their borders to know how fleeting peace can be. Rwanda had three decades of peace. Sudan has had seventeen years of war, eleven years of peace, and then, since 1983, a decade more of ruinous war, with no end in sight. Yet Sudan also teaches that multi-party democracy is no panacea: it had such a democracy for three years, until in 1989 it was swept away by a military coup led by Islamic fundamentalists.

Uganda and its army still revolve around the personal leadership of Museveni, who has shown, for better or worse, that he can be as authoritarian as he is visionary. Museveni has said that he will step down after five more years. “My cows are crying for me,” he told me with a chuckle. “My mission is now almost accomplished, which is to orient my people toward modernization. We shall complete this process of democratization.”

Not many Ugandans I spoke with were so confident. “The stability of Uganda hinges on one man,” said Billy O’Kadimiri, an Acholi journalist in Gulu whose support for the movement has put him at odds with many of his neighbors. “National sanity and international respect revolve around one man. In a situation of vacuum of leadership there will be a direct slide to anarchy. People are still not sure that if Museveni is not there, would the army behave as it is behaving now? These are their fears.”

They are fears I heard over and over again. At Makerere University, in Kampala, a group of law students I met with, all born in Amin’s time, some of them orphans of the Luwero war, others ex-combatants, agreed that Uganda remains a “powder keg.” Their Harvard-trained lecturer, Joe Oloka-Onyango, told me, “Museveni has been a boon and a bane, larger than life. No other person could have done what he has done. My problem is sustainability. The institutional basis for stability has not been created. If Museveni were to disappear, a lot that is positive would collapse. It’s too close to a one-party system. It’s a slippery slope. At some point diminishing returns are going to set in. Museveni must recognize the point at which it’s time to let go.”

Museveni scarcely blinked when I mentioned these doubts. “When we defeated the dictatorship,” he said, “our first task was to put these pillars in place: to restore the police, to restore the rule of law, to restore the civil service, to restore the army, and to restore the judiciary.” One can only hope that he succeeds in this task above all others. In my conversations with Museveni he repeatedly stressed what he called the “ignorance” of Uganda’s “bad elements.” This was part of his rationale for a broad amnesty. Speaking of Amin, Okello, and those under them, he said, “They were doing what they were doing because of ignorance. People cannot be punished for what they don’t know very well. There are two priorities: The first is to remove the criminals from power. That one we have done. The second is to educate people about a modem ethos.”

But there are “bad elements" everywhere; what’s to stop them from taking over again? Uganda will have real peace only when its stability depends not on the character of its leaders but on the quality of the institutions those leaders are a part of. History will judge Yoweri Museveni not according to the measure of peace he has achieved while in power but on whether it survives after he steps down— assuming he keeps his word.