Leader in tight control, and Ugandans weary of atrocities are grateful

January 04, 1995|By Alan Zarembo | Alan Zarembo,Special to The Sun

LUWERO, Uganda -- In a storage room of a government building, ballot boxes used in elections this year surround a heap of human bones -- skulls, arms, legs. Uganda's present and past thus mingle.

People find other reminders of the past in overgrown fields -- more skulls. About 500,000 Ugandans were killed under Presidents Idi Amin and Milton Obote. But the executions, most of them the work of unpaid soldiers, have stopped.

"The rope has been removed from our necks," said Maria Nantuma, a 60-year-old farmer who remembers soldiers raiding her stick-and-mud home and murdering two of her sons.

The way President Yoweri Museveni untied the noose could be a lesson for a continent in turmoil.

Mr. Museveni won power in 1986 through a guerrilla war. Instead of punishing war criminals, he banned political party activity and offered amnesty to defeated soldiers and Cabinet posts to rivals. His umbrella organization, the National Resistance Movement, stretches into every village through a network of "resistance councils."

The peace has made Mr. Museveni a hero for Ugandans and an appealing figure to potential aid donors, despite his defiance of Western-style politics. He broke the winner-take-all tradition among African coup leaders. But like other African leaders whose framed portraits, by law, hang in every shop, Mr. Museveni is unmistakably in charge.

Ugandans lived in fear for two decades. Ugandans now watch their neighbors crumble: genocide in Rwanda, to the south; civil war in Sudan, to the north; lawlessness in Zaire, to the west; and ethnic violence in Kenya, to the east.

"Suddenly Uganda looks like the great exception," says a Ugandan political scientist, Mahmood Mamdani.

Before independence swept Africa, colonizers deepened and even created divisions. Later, the United States and the Soviet ,, Union proppedup dictators. But now many African governments are moving -- albeit slowly -- toward political reform.

President Museveni has resisted pressure to allow more than one political party, arguing that multiple parties would only reflect the country's ethnic and religious differences. His own party, the NRM, forces old political enemies together in the capital, Kampala. Elected councils settle most disputes in the villages.

"What more democracy do people need?" says Jotham Tumwesigye, a member of the NRM secretariat.

Mr. Museveni's detractors call the NRM a dictatorship in disguise, led by a man who keeps careful watch over the enemies he lets into his government and firm control of the army he grew from his small guerrilla force.

Foster Byarugaba, head of political science at Kampala's Makerere University, explains Mr. Museveni's policy: "If I am the driver and you are the passenger, even if we disagree, how much choice do you really have? You are in my vehicle."

And critics say Mr. Museveni has brought peace without building the institutions to maintain it.

"We have a military government trying to indoctrinate the population," says Cecilia Ogwal, de facto head of an opposition party, the Uganda People's Congress.

"If Museveni disappears tomorrow, people will slaughter themselves. We will see a worse situation than we have seen in Rwanda. Thatis what we fear."

Mr. Museveni is attempting to bring legitimacy to his government. An election last March for delegates to draft a new constitution was considered the fairest in Uganda's history. The constitution is likely to allow for a referendum on political parties in five years. Mr. Museveni has said he will put himself to a vote early next year. Even his opponents predict that he will win.

Not that the president is without rivals. Leaders of Uganda's most powerful ethnic group, the Baganda, want political power for their monarch, banished in 1966 and brought back in a ceremonial role last year. In the North, where former President Obote is still popular, terrorism by a cult-like rebel group has more influence than does the NRM.

But Mr. Museveni has won the support of aid donors. Uganda requested $515 million in assistance this year; it received $820 million. Mr. Museveni has embraced World Bank and IMF economic policies -- including large cutbacks in the civil service and the military.

"Given Uganda's history of chaos and violence, whatever one thinks of the movement system philosophically, it has brought stability and it is bringing peace," said Norman Olsen, a program officer for the United States Agency for International Development in Kampala.

But he forecast that the United States would reduce its aid if the ban on political parties wasn't lifted within five years.

In Luwero, where the worst atrocities occurred, villagers revere Mr. Museveni simply for the freedom to plant crops.

Theresa Wanyana, now 42, remembers soldiers confronting her husband, and accusing him of sympathizing with rebels. When she heard shots, she knew he was dead.

Abraham Katendo, 45, shows the holes made by the bullets that soldiers fired into his house before they broke down the door, in order to steal his mattresses and cooking pots. The bullets killed his 4-year-old daughter and 8-year-old son, who were sleeping in the front room.

Bbosa Desiderio, a 33-year-old civil servant, tells how soldiers raped and killed his sister. He points out the roadside ditch where he found his brother's body.

"If parties come back here it will cause divisions," he says. "People will take anything that gives them peace."

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