By Jim Fisher-Thompson, Washington File Staff Writer
Washington - Visiting President Yoweri Museveni recently briefed Americans interested in Africa on political and economic advances in Uganda - the legacy of an almost 20-year rule that has made the leader and his east African nation the envy of the continent.
Museveni was in the United States to attend the annual United Nations General Assembly meeting September 13-17.
Among the achievements he cited at a September 21 Council on Foreign Relations meeting in Washington was opening the political system in Uganda to include opposition parties, while at the same time growing the economy past levels achieved in the early 1970s, when Uganda was considered one of the "pearls" of Africa.
The gathering of Africanists, diplomats and scholars was co-sponsored by The Africa Society and the Center for Global Development. The audience included Ugandan Ambassador Edith Ssempala; U.S. ambassadors Princeton Lyman (South Africa), Howard Jeter (Nigeria), Michael Southwick (Uganda), and Johnnie Carson (Kenya); and former Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Herman Cohen.
High on Museveni's list of achievements was the evolution of democracy in Uganda; he said the country now is moving from a system based on "individual merit" to one involving more organized political movements. "Even when we were still fighting in the bush" against the oppressive dictatorships of Idi Amin and Milton Obote, he said, "we introduced elections for the committees of the villages under our control."
After attaining power in January 1986, Museveni said, "we formalized the process of democracy, but initially introduced it on the basis of individual rather than group merit." This was done, he explained, because party politics after independence were too "sectarian" or tribally based. This allowed unscrupulous leaders like Amin and Obote to form tribal alliances and kill those with whom they disagreed.
Now, after more than a decade of relative stability, Museveni said, "we have opened up for group competition based on issues rather than identity." People can form political parties because "we don't think the opportunists will succeed in reviving the old sectarianism."
The second achievement Museveni cited was the attainment of "minimum economic recovery" or the "reformalization of the economy." Heretofore, he said, the Ugandan economy has been "one based on speculation, smuggling. [There was] a black market on foreign currency and revenues were not being collected. So we cured all that."
Now, he added, the Ugandan economy has grown at a rate of more than 6 percent and "we have now passed our 1971 GDP [gross domestic product] level." During the nine years that dictator Idi Amin was in power, GDP shrank almost 40 percent.
Museveni also mentioned "security of persons and property" as an important issue for Ugandans. The problem with the dictatorships that preceded his rule was that it was their "agents of the state who were killing people" and confiscating property in extrajudicial proceedings.
In 1972, he said, "Idi Amin expelled 80,000 [Ugandan] Indians and confiscated their 4,000 properties." Now, after returning those properties to their rightful owners, "we have ensured that security of persons and property are guaranteed under the constitution."
Challenges remain, Museveni told his audience, noting that a prime goal is to enlarge the human resource base - for example, "sending all our children to school" while expanding health care for all Ugandans.
He said another top hurdle to overcome is to diversify the economy from one based on the export of raw materials and commodities like coffee to a more value-added, industrialized economy. "Africa is wealthy in natural resources; the problem is they are not optimally utilized," he said.
"When we sell a kilo of bean coffee in Uganda, we get one dollar per kilo," Museveni explained. "The same kilo, when it is processed [and sold in Britain], goes for $10, $11 or even more a kilo. That is the same situation [price disparity] that goes for all raw materials."
This is "a big struggle," Museveni told his listeners, because "there are vested interests that do not want to see Africa industrialized. And the aid agencies are indifferent" to this need. In terms of many of the fiscal and accounting conditions aid agencies apply to recipients, Museveni said, "I've never heard an agency say, 'Unless you industrialize I will not support you.'"
On the bright side, Museveni said establishment of the U.S. African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), which extends favorable export benefits to reforming African economies, has helped to spur his country's manufacturing sector in the areas of fish, tea and dairy processing.
(The Washington File is a product of the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site: http://usinfo.state.gov)