- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 29, 2005

KAMPALA, Uganda - Flying into this land- locked East African country from Nairobi, Kenya, one can be forgiven for wonder- ing “Why on Earth am I coming here?” Below, Lake Victoria spreads out like a vast and beautiful mirage, but in fact, it harbors crocodiles and parasitic worms called schistosomes that hatch in freshwater snails. The little worms can enter the bodies of swimmers through the skin and cause bilharzia, also called shistosomiasis, a disfiguring disease that can be fatal.

The land is so sensually green and fertile that Winston Churchill once said he could stick his walking stick into the earth and it would grow. But more than 20 years of rule by two terrible dictators nearly destroyed the country.

Driving the 60 or so chaotic miles into Kampala from the lakeside airport at Entebbe, nearly overcome by the choking exhaust and the distemper of the traffic, one is still wondering, “Why?” But then, little by little, indicators become visible of a strange but real renaissance occurring in this most unlikely country in all of Africa.

Amid the miles of shacks and tumult on this single highway appear exquisitely tended boarding schools for foreign students, who are again flocking here. Uganda, with its historic Makerere University, was once the educational center of East Africa.

Along the road, everyone is working feverishly at something. Reaching the center of the capital, one sees beautiful modern buildings — banks, businesses, shopping malls — amid the city’s hills, ready to handle the development that is rapidly approaching.

Murderous dictators

Soon you are told how, after the murderous dictatorships of Idi Amin and Milton Obote ended in 1986, then new leader and for 10 years ago now President Yoweri Museveni replaced the old parties with his National Resistance Movement. The idea was to find leadership based on individual merit rather than party ideologies.

Soon one also hears about how Mr. Museveni, a Christian who had fought as a guerrilla leader against both dictators, once victorious, embraced free enterprise when the leaders of neighboring lands espoused Marxism and the “redistribution” of what little wealth there was.

In Washington, Ugandan Ambassador Edith Grace Ssempala explained: “Our president’s primary goal was to build a nation, and he needed everyone to be part of it. At one time, he had 72 government ministers. People asked him how he could afford this, and he said: ‘It’s cheaper than fighting a war.’

“You see,” said Mrs. Ssempala, “all the countries that came out of colonialism were distorted. People in our part of the world did not think about solving problems until now. Yoweri Museveni was the first leader who had the capacity and the will to change.”

My formal meeting with Mr. Museveni came at 1 a.m. on a warm June night as he sat behind a long, shiny, 20-foot-long wooden table. He was as brightly alert as if it were noon.

A good-looking man, slightly balding, with an athlete’s solid, square body, the president had the commanding manner of an African chieftain, somehow modernized and democratized, and the curious, darting eyes of the intellectual who needed to know everything.

Freedom fighter’

“I am an African freedom fighter,” he began, his quick eyes shining, “fighting both external and internal negative factors. That is my base.”

But freedom fighters rarely know much about economics, and he had put Uganda on the map by overseeing an average 6.5 percent growth rate during the 10 years that he has officially been president. Fifty-two percent of his budget — $823 million in 2003-04 — comes from Western donor countries and institutions in a “development partnership” with the West to finance education, infrastructure, and the reduction of HIV/AIDS from afflicting 30 percent of the population to 6 percent.

“In economics,” he said, “our philosophy is based upon the answer to the question: ‘What motivates people to work?’ There are few Mother Teresas in the world. Therefore, it is our view that when you design policy, you should design it for the majority. … We use self-motivation as a major factor. We use communal as well as individual methods.”

Unlike most other African leaders, Mr. Museveni blames economic difficulties on internal as well as external factors — Africans not working hard enough, lack of discipline and poor planning on one hand, and protectionism of Western markets and other foreign policies.

As to “donor nations and institutions” like the United States, former colonial master Britain, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, the Ugandan president said: “We think we are the donors, because when I produce a kilo of coffee and sell it raw in the West, I get $1 per kilogram. When someone takes it to England, he gets $10. Not only do I donate money, I donate jobs. Those who roast the coffee get the jobs.”

In a provocative paper he wrote and presented in 2003 titled, “Movement, Principles, Vision,” he said:

“African countries have been independent for the last 40 years. None of the Black African countries has transitioned from the Third World to the First World, like Singapore, for example, has done. Yet, in 1965, Uganda was more advanced than Singapore. One of the reasons for this stagnation was interfering with the private sector by the African regimes in the 1960s and 1970s. … Our leaders failed to correctly answer the question: What stimulus can make people produce wealth?

“Who, indeed, can produce wealth? Can state agencies reliably produce wealth? The answer to these questions has got two parts: the state cannot produce wealth because bureaucrats have no vested interest in the success of the enterprises; and it is only the private sector, because of their vested interests, that can reliably and, sustainably, produce wealth.”

For the 10 years that he has been president, Mr. Museveni has unquestionably been the darling of Western donor nations. President Clinton called an entire East African meeting in 1998 to praise him as Africa’s hope, and Salim Ahmed Salim, former secretary-general of the Organization of African Unity, recently praised Uganda and Botswana as the “two successes” in Africa. But now, too, there are problems.

The United States and Britain are pushing Mr. Museveni to turn “the movement” into a multiparty system. The donors are also suspicious that he might want to change the constitution to run for a third turn in 2006 elections.

In response to a direct question, he said: “It is being discussed. The time will come. …” Before the interview ended around 2:30 a.m., the Ugandan president paused and did something I have never seen any leader do in an interview.

“Now, you tell me about yourself,” he insisted. ” … What do you know of Africa?”

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