"DO YOU know Uganda?" asks a character in V. S. Naipaul's "A Bend in the River." "A lovely country," he says, and goes on to speak of the attractions of the place -- bright people, cool weather, wonderful roads.

Was Uganda ever like that? Never mind. It is a sad place now and has been at least since the rise to power of Idi Amin, a figure epitomizing African corruption more truly and tragically than the most perceptive writer could have imagined. This hateful man fled almost two years ago. His "achievement," it is now clear, was not merely to kill hundreds of thousands of Ugandans and to destory the institutions and economy of a fledgling nation. It was to annihilate the sense of common enterprise essential to build a nation.

The damage has been painfully evident in the last week during the elections meant to give Ugandans the boon of a government in whose success they have a stake. What seems to have happened is quite simple: the ruling military commission, finding the party it favored trailing as the count started coming in, intervened and stole the election. It did this before the eyes of a British Commonwealth observer group and the international press corps. The result is that the former president, Milton Obote, will be returning to power now without a demonstrable popular mandate. Whether he will feel confident enough to relax the rule of the gun is one question. Another is whether the sources of external funds and assistance will find his regime stable enough to be creditworthy on the large scale that Uganda's needs make compelling.

Well, you may say, that is the way it is in many places in Africa, and not only in Africa, and many of those places do not have the excuse of having to cope with the legacy of an Idi Amin. Certainly Uganda should not be singled out for difficulties it shares with many other countries. Mr. Obote is not without the capabilities required to control the violence and replace the chaos with order and growth. Part of the burden under which he assumes that task, however, is self-imposed.