Uganda moves from the Dark Ages to our age

February 05, 1996|By Jonathan Power

LONDON -- Which African country is growing faster than an Asian tiger and has a low inflation rate to boot? Uganda. I didn't get it right first guess either.

After the perverse brutality of Idi Amin, war with Tanzania, the amoral megalomania of Milton Obote and then the revelation that the country was the world's epicenter of AIDS, who would have supposed such triumph could emerge? This was a country so looted and disarranged that it returned to the Dark Ages. But, apparently, there is life after death; Uganda proves it.

If Uganda can achieve economic growth of 10 percent last year with inflation of only 3.4 percent, then why not the rest of black Africa?

Africa as a continent is dying. People are poorer than they were 35 to 40 years ago when most countries won their independence. The roads are cracked, the schools and hospitals dilapidated, the ports rusted, the airlines unsafe and the people sick with AIDS and sleeping sickness. The rest of the Third World is no longer like this. Most of it has transformed itself in a generation.

Uganda shows that Africa does not have to be different. For 10 years, since Yoweri Museveni seized power, Uganda has been recuperating. Now recovered, it is advancing at a rate the cognoscenti said was impossible in Africa.

Already six years ago, progress had begun. Military indiscipline, brutality and corruption were bygones. It was safe to walk the streets at night. The random machine-gun fire of soldiers and thugs that kept everyone at home behind locked doors was seldom heard. The roads were being relaid, power lines restored, the overgrown bush cleared, drugs shipped to village health clinics. Sleeping sickness, after a war-induced epidemic, had been brought under control and the hotels renovated to exacting standards.

Not least, the battle against AIDS had been joined. In the office of the minister of health I saw this poster: ''Beware of the sweetness and splendor of sex. It could prove hazardous to your health and life.'' I smiled too, but, bully for them, the Ugandans have made significant inroads on the rate of infection.

Now comes the payoff

A new report, ''Uganda -- Adjustment and Growth,'' published by the International Monetary Fund, shows that the hard work has borne fruit. Instead of inflation in three digits, plummeting national income and minimal international trade, the economy over the last three years has averaged 8 percent growth. Foreign-exchange reserves have recovered and the government's budgetary position has improved.

Eight to 10 percent growth is not sustainable. The world coffee boom that has boosted Uganda is now waning. But the IMF predicts 6.5 percent growth, and that is enough to keep it in the Asian tiger league.

Uganda has moved into a virtuous cycle: People begin to believe in the government, so they work harder and pay their taxes. The budget deficit drops and investor confidence rises. Asian entrepreneurs who were driven out by Idi Amin's racial purge are returning, bringing the capital with which they fled. Returning flight capital is now averaging $300 million a year, up from zero.

Uganda is not alone in its success. While too many African countries contract by 10 percent a year, Togo, Ghana and Botswana thrive. Nothing about Africa -- neither geography or intellectual potential -- foreordains failure. It is a question of uncorrupted, just and intelligent leadership -- with or without democracy.

Uganda is not a democracy; one bullet and its success could fall apart. But Prime Minister Museveni is sternly just and as competent a national housekeeper as Betty Crocker.

Compare it with its would-be socialist neighbor. Tanzania ignored growth rates and tried to divide a stagnant pie ever more equally until the slices shriveled practically to nothing. At the other extreme, compare Uganda with Kenya, where a thriving capitalist economy has been undermined by corruption and a kleptocratic dictatorship heedless of the need for social redistribution.

Uganda is the first nation to emerge from Africa's lean years of civil war and economic breakdown. From Dark Age to our age. The rest of Africa, if it chose wisely, could follow.

Jonathan Power writes a column on the Third World.

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