What a difference a decade makes. When Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni and his guerrilla National Resistance Army grabbed power in 1986, the economy was a shambles after years of mismanagement under dictators Idi Amin and Milton Obote. But since Museveni adopted a World Bank-sponsored austerity plan in 1987, Uganda has slowly risen from the ashes. In the last fiscal year, it posted 10% growth, and over the last five years it has averaged 6%. Yearly inflation is averaging a respectable 10%, slashed from 300% in 1987. A new middle class has sprouted. Foreign exchange reserves have soared to $444 million from $151 million in 1993. Many inefficient state-owned companies and sectors have been privatized.
That's why the former British colony is being hailed as a potential African lion--and as a showcase of economic stability. "It's a success compared to other African countries in that its [reform] effort was consistent and sustained," says International Monetary Fund representative Ulrike Wilson in Kampala.
ABYSMAL. This doesn't mean, of course, that Uganda is about to become the next South Korea. Much of the recent growth has failed to trickle down to the person on the street. Average per capita income for Uganda's 18 million population still languishes at $120, and economic austerity measures have sparked 200,000 civil-sector layoffs. Government spending on education and health remains abysmal.
Politically, too, all is not well. On May 9, Ugandans went to the polls for the first time in 16 years and by a wide margin elected Museveni as their President. But observers complain there wasn't a level playing field. While political parties are banned, Museveni's National Resistance Movement has all the trappings of a ruling party and limits opponents' campaigning. "We're still in a kind of dictatorship," said a member of the opposition before the vote.
There's also concern that Uganda's foreign debt of $3.4 billion--66% of gross domestic product--could hobble its progress. Most African nations have astronomical debt-to-export ratios and earn low credit ratings that scare away investment. Aid organizations such as Britain-based Oxfam are calling for creditor nations and multilateral agencies to forgive sub-Saharan Africa's debts.
Still, there's strong confidence in Uganda's economic future. And nowhere is this more striking than within the Asian community, which mostly hails from the Indian subcontinent. In 1972, Idi Amin gave Asians 90 days to flee Uganda and grabbed their properties and businesses. In the past two years, thousands have returned to invest millions in Uganda and provide much-needed jobs. A growing number of small American companies are landing, too, winning licenses to build power stations and provide telecommunications services. But direct investment in Uganda remains scarce. "The U.S. business community has long regarded Africa as a preserve of the former colonial powers," said U.S. Commerce Secretary Ron Brown in Kampala last February, weeks before his death in Croatia. "I would like to see that self-fulfilling prophecy put to rest once and for all."
From an airplane, Gulu's lush fields seem peaceful. But up close they're of the killing kind. In this region of northern Uganda, a dreadlocked former altar boy is waging one of Africa's longest and strangest civil wars with the help of holy spirits and herbal oils to make bullets "bounce off" bodies. For 10 years, Joseph Kony and his Lord's Resistance Army have sporadically invaded from bases in the Sudan. The reason: They want to impose the Ten Commandments on Uganda. On each raid, his 800 or so ragtag rebels hack ears and noses off villagers, raze earthen-walled huts, and abduct women and children.
The violence, of course, has made Kony hated. But it has made Museveni, a Bantu southerner, unpopular as well among northerners who already feel economically neglected. Some accuse Museveni of allowing the conflict to drag on to weaken the northern tribes. "Not everything is being done. These people could have been chased away earlier," fumes 18-year-old Margaret Aloyo. In March, an LRA mine blew her leg off.
A referendum is due to take place in 2000 on the future of political parties in Uganda. By then, the nation will have had time to see if Museveni really has its concerns at heart or is just the latest version of the African Big Man.