ON THE whole, life in Uganda has been improving. In the past year, the Lord’s Resistance Army, a sadistic rebel militia which had made a hell out of the north of the country for two decades, retreated to Congo and has been drawn into peace negotiations, albeit fitfully, with the government. For the first time in a decade, 1m or so northerners may be able to leave the dismal camps where they had been forced to take shelter. The rains have been plentiful, alleviating a drought. And, perhaps best of all, the country came through an election unscathed, though President Yoweri Museveni arm-twisted his parliament into changing the constitution to let him have a third term in office.
Indeed, Mr Museveni bent just about every rule to stay in power. He meddled with the courts, muzzled the press and brought out his own presidential guard to stymie protests. There were fears that Uganda might slip back into the bloody ways of its past. But it has not happened. Despite a big ego, Mr Museveni is no megalomaniac. Nor has he resorted to the spying tactics and wholesale imprisonment of dissidents that his counterpart to the north-east, in Ethiopia, has done.
Instead, he has cannily sought to boost his reputation with America and the West by contributing 1,600 troops to the African Union peacekeeping force in Somalia. They were the first to land in the capital, Mogadishu, two weeks ago to support the Ethiopian-backed transitional federal government that recaptured the south of the country from Islamist militias last year. The Ugandan troops are now the targets of an Islamist insurgency there.
Mr Museveni has also made himself useful to America by standing up to Sudan over the conflict in Darfur. Some Pentagon observers think Mr Museveni’s opportunistic alliance with Ethiopia-whose troops the Ugandans are supposed to replace in Somalia-has the makings of a bulwark against Islamist expansion in the Horn of Africa.
But in return for the diplomatic and military help, Mr Museveni will expect all the Western aid and goodwill that he can get, for his legacy at home has begun to look threadbare. Yes, the government has improved primary education and health care and it has made headway against AIDS. But Uganda’s young people, in particular, are at a loss. Half of the 28m-strong population is under 15, and on some projections it could reach 100m by 2050. Mr Museveni thinks this is good. With proper investment it might be, but too much of Uganda is disintegrating or chaotic.
An upturn in Uganda’s economic fortunes serves only to highlight how far the country has yet to go. Its economy is set to grow by more than 5% next year, but that is short of the 7-8% needed to reduce poverty noticeably. Many parts of the country have no electricity and even in Kampala, the capital, it is rationed. Mr Museveni says he will not tolerate “even a single day’s delay” in bringing new power stations on stream. Don’t bank on it.
The greed of Uganda’s well-equipped armed forces has made a big hole in the national budget. And Mr Museveni’s habit of giving plum jobs to chums and relatives is costly too. But the main problem, these days, is a failure of vision. Neither the government nor foreign donors seem to know how to bring about the massive infrastructure improvements the country needs if it is to progress. The government shows no urgency in building new transport links with Kenya or Congo. Nor does it make the most out the resources it does have, such as Lake Victoria. As elsewhere in Africa, Mr Museveni has done well at playing off sweet but dithering Western donors against sour but relentless Chinese entrepreneurs. Yet farming, forestry and new-found oil have the potential to fuel faster economic growth.
Instead, Mr Museveni’s focus now is dynastic; he wants to preside over some kind of East African federation, comprising Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania, perhaps with a family member succeeding him in Kampala’s State House. With little threat now to his authority from a divided opposition, he is relaxing his grip. Radio talk-shows are vibrant and sometimes critical of government. That should help to burnish his image as a regional statesman at this year’s Commonwealth summit in Kampala, as will his troops in Somalia.