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WORLD REPORT PROFILE : Yoweri Museveni : PRESIDENT OF UGANDA : The economy and foreign investment are surging. But can the president marry democracy to financial success?

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Serious conversations in Africa usually get down to this: Why so much pain here?

Well, goes the answer, the gaping wounds of slavery, colonialism and the Cold War are horribly slow to heal.

OK, what can be done?

The ways of others do not work here, we Africans must find our own way.

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And what might that be?

At this point, the answers become harder. Perhaps the person across from you will suggest a visit to Statehouse in Kampala to visit the balding, portly former guerrilla leader Yoweri Museveni, who is president of the Republic of Uganda.

Every few years, it seems, some African country changes leadership or direction and comes to represent new promise for the continent, perhaps becoming that elusive example of how to end Africa’s cycle of suffering.

For several years now, Uganda has held that place.

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Landlocked at the northern end of Lake Victoria in Central Africa, haunted by outrages of tyrants past, Uganda is in the 10th year of Museveni’s presidency.

His achievement can be measured in different ways: Though poor, Uganda’s 19 million people are gaining ground. Economic growth of 8% last year and 7% projected for this year contrasts sharply with some other African countries where economic growth lags behind population increases. Foreign investment in Uganda rose from $136 million in 1993 to $241 million last year, and the balance of payments was positive thanks to high returns in the coffee industry.

Tourism has grown faster than government projections for two straight years, and Uganda has actually added to its park system. The sullen, corrupt civil bureaucracy so typical of Africa, while not tamed, is at least discouraged here.

Propaganda broadcasts on government radio have yielded to music and lively deejays. The AIDS crisis is not hidden in shame. Women hold places of power, not just in the family but in the fabric of government.

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Or measure Uganda by this: All three larger neighbors--Kenya, Sudan and Zaire--have expressed their envy by stirring border tensions with Museveni.

In an interview in his garden gazebo at Statehouse, the 50-year-old president spoke about Uganda’s next, maybe decisive, challenge: Can Uganda match its economic growth with progressive political leadership?

The question causes unease, both at home and in the developed nations that have invested money and prestige in Museveni.

This summer, Uganda is expected to endorse a new constitution. In December, it is scheduled to hold its first free elections in 15 years, perhaps the first fair ones since independence in 1962.

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“Eighty-two percent of Ugandans are peasants, pre-capitalists, living a tribal form of life. When you in the West insist arrogantly that all societies in the world must be organized in exactly the same form, you are wrong. Multi-partyism is not a healthy basis for Uganda to build its democracy,” the president said.

“Political parties inevitably are based on tribe. And they intensify friction. In some cases, they result in disaster.”

Thus, Museveni says, individual candidates, but not political parties, can contest the upcoming elections. And for as many as five more years, Ugandan democracy will remain a “movement” and not a clash of organized interests. After that, perhaps Ugandans will be ready to disagree politically on something other than ethnicity and region.

“The power stays in the hands of the people. . . . I don’t see what opponents are so panicky about.”

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For critics, even those who have long supported Museveni, his formula for a new and vigorous Africa sounds too much like the old and familiar African power grab. The United States last month went so far as to publicly warn Museveni against writing “a constitution that preserves monopoly power indefinitely.”

Doubters could say this about Museveni: He is another rebel warrior who took power by the gun. He fixed himself in Statehouse as an authoritarian, and the whole country depends on him, for better or worse. The system is the system as he sees it; the daily life is as he decrees it; the mood on the streets is his mood.

But it so happens that Museveni is a gentler and more skillful leader than his two bloodthirsty predecessors--Idi Amin and Milton Obote. Hundreds of thousands of Ugandans were believed killed by Amin and Obote as the two men sought to retain power from the time Uganda gained independence from Britain in 1962 until Museveni’s rebel army took Kampala in 1986.

It is a history so traumatic that the president says incremental democracy is not only what he wants but what most Ugandans want.

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“Competition--let’s have it. But for these first elections, let’s make it between the merits of individuals. That will give us sufficient time to undergo the metamorphosis--like the butterfly--into something that is beautiful when mature,” he said.

Museveni argues that economic revitalization and competition will provide the basis for a more refined political debate in Uganda. In the 1960s, Uganda had the same per capita income as South Korea; today, per capita income is less than 1/20th that in Seoul. By establishing greater wealth in the country, he says, political differences will become economic rather than ethnic.

“We need to reach the point where there is competition between interests, not identities. Today you have [ethnic] Buganda against the Acholi. That is very unhealthy. But once you have employees struggling against employers, ah! There is no way an employer will want to massacre all his employees. There will be a struggle, yes, but neither side wants to get rid of the other.”

Museveni learned guerrilla fighting in Mozambique, at the southern end of the continent. The young law student traveled there to join the war for independence against the colonial Portuguese regime. In 1970-71, he worked in the office of Obote.

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In 1971, when Amin overthrew Obote, Museveni went into exile and waged war against Amin’s brutal government. When Amin was deposed in 1979, Obote maneuvered himself back into the presidency and Museveni became a leader of the opposing rebel army. It was one of the bloodiest periods in the nation’s history, and it subsided only when Obote went into exile in 1985 and Museveni came to power the following year.

Amin now lives in Saudi Arabia, and Obote is in exile in Zambia.

Today, a gentleman cattle rancher with four children, Museveni sits at a simple desk where a Father’s Day greeting card stands so that he can read it, “To the best dad ever. From your daughter.”

He wears sandals without socks and a simple gray safari suit. Outdoors, he prefers an oversized, floppy bush hat with a chin tie, which Ugandans say proves he has a sense of humor.

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He is warm and easy in a crowd, approachable and avuncular in private. And he has charmed the international diplomatic and business corps so thoroughly that, when matters go awry in Uganda, a misguided underling is usually blamed.

And he has encouraged one change here that may be irreversible.

Women play a greater role in his administration than ever in the nation’s history. The vice president is a woman, women run major ministries, and his inner circle is dubbed “all the president’s women” by one European diplomat.

Museveni says it’s a case of political imperatives overtaking tired African traditions.

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“Women form more than half of our society, so you’d be hurting yourself if you left behind six of every 10 people. And women hold the central position in family life here--they are the wife of someone, the mother of someone, the daughter of someone and the sister of someone, all of whom could be men. You influence this person, she influences four.”


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