On the wall of a deserted hotel in the area of central Uganda known as the Luwero Triangle, the graffiti scrawled by soldiers of deposed president Milton Abote are still legible: “A good Muganda is a dead Muganda.” The Mugandas are part of the Baganda tribe, whose land the Luwero Triangle is. The soldiers were mostly members of the Langi, Acholi and Iteso tribes from the country’s north. Their reign of terror in the early 1980s—only one wave of the tribal violence that has claimed more than a million lives since Uganda’s independence from Britain in 1962—resulted in the death or exile of two-thirds of the Luwero Triangle’s 750,000 residents. Along the roadsides are reminders of the horror: piles of human skulls found in the tall grass by returning villagers. “There are too many,” said 30-year-old Apollo Nsaale. “We are exhausted from gathering.”
But despite the grim legacy of past atrocities, the central African country of 15 million people has clearly changed since President Yoweri Museveni and
his National Resistance Army took power in a military coup in January, 1986. The new president has called on Ugandans to renounce the violent tribalism that has scarred the country. And despite a moribund economy and continuing violence by rebel groups in the north, many of the more than 500,000 Ugandans who fled to refugee camps in neighboring Zaire and Sudan are returning because word has spread that it is now safe to do so. Said William Young, who runs the United Nations refugee program in Uganda: “We have registered more than 130,000 Ugandans who want to come home. It is very satisfying.”
Still, the tradition of tribal conflict will be difficult to overcome. Said Tiberio Okeny, an elder of the Acholi tribe and Museveni’s negotiator with the northern rebels: “People have gotten it into their minds that they are only happy if the government is led by their own tribe and that other tribes are to be treated with suspicion.” Indeed, Obote, the country’s first postindependence leader, relied on his own Langi tribesmen and members of the closely related Acholi and Iteso for his power base. He was overthrown in 1971 by Idi Amin Dada, a Kakwa tribesman who unleashed a wave of bloodshed against other Ugandans. Shortly after Amin was overthrown in 1979, Obote returned
to power and continued the violence. But Museveni says that the devastation has made Ugandans receptive to his message. “People have seen the consequences,” he told Maclean’s, “and are more willing to listen.”
In fact, Museveni has brought a member of each of the country’s 25 tribes into his 39-member cabinet. Critics charge that key ministries are held by Museveni’s Banyankole tribesmen and the Baganda who supported his army. But most observers agree that Museveni has made Uganda safer.
One story that is popular in the capital concerns a soldier reprimanded by his superiors for abusing a civilian. Clearly shocked by the criticism, he replied: “But soldiers have always beaten civilians.” Now, the government’s soldiers are polite and often friendly— unlike the troops of previous regimes,who robbed, raped and shot civilians.
Indeed, the new president’s most pressing problem may be the country’s economy, destroyed by years of fighting and corruption.
Said Rajnikant Tailor, a tire merchant in the capital, Kampala:
“Uganda is safer now, but poorer.” Last May inflation topped 300 per cent; a chicken cost $28.
Half of the country’s $520 million in annual export earnings goes to servicing the $2-billion foreign debt. There are no factories working at more than 20 per cent capacity. And the roads are so bad that drivers regularly weave back and forth to avoid potholes. “If you see someone driving in a straight line,” a Ugandan said, “you know he is drunk.”
Some observers say that Museveni initially made matters worse. For one thing, he increased the value of the Ugandan shilling to 1,400 to one U.S. dollar—from about 5,000—to make imports cheaper. But, said Mohammed Faisal, a World Bank economist based in Nairobi, Kenya: “The country doesn’t have any money to buy such things in the first place.” And the high shilling made coffee, Uganda’s main export, too expensive to compete on world markets.
Last May, however, Museveni agreed to accept economic proposals from the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Among them: a deval-
uation of the shilling and, in an effort to boost agricultural production, higher price incentives for farmers, who make up more than 90 per cent of the population. Those moves made the country eligible for $208 million in new loans from the World Bank and the IMF. Said Faisal: “This is a very pragmatic government.” For his part, Museveni, who has been variously labelled as a socialist and a Marxist, says that the changes are necessary. “Our program is to overcome
backwardness,” he said. “In principle we are not against working with anybody: the World Bank, the IMF, capitalist countries, Communist countries. What concerns us are the terms they offer us.” Museveni has also dropped his rhetoric of “annihilation” of the rebels in northern Uganda and recently sent a goodwill mission to talk to them. That mission was led by Okeny, who says that many of the rebels want a national election. Museveni says that the rebels are nothing more than supporters of the previous regime, angry over their loss of privilege. Said the president: “They were part of nonelected governments for 24 years. Only in defeat do they remember elections.” But as for holding elections, he said: “I do not know when they will be. I have been busy with other things.”
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