"We shall work for reconciliation. We shall insist on no revenge," President Milton Obote said in 1980 in his second inaugural speech.
However generous were his intentions when he took over this deeply divided country just then emerging from Idi Amin's eight-year reign of terror, it was not long after Obote's speech that Uganda's pent-up anguish exploded into antigovernment guerrilla warfare and concommitant political fratricide.
Almost three years later, Obote's government is winning the war against the guerrillas, but the intolerance toward legitimate political competition that characterized Uganda in the past continues.
It is a deep irony of present-day Uganda that the political conflicts, some of them linked to the guerrilla war, have Obote, 58, face-to-face with some of the identical grievances against his administration that undermined his first government and initially made Amin's 1971 military coup popular.
Soon after Obote's inauguration speech, civil war erupted when two groups of his political competitors, both of whom charged Obote with fraudulently winning the December 1980 election, retired to the countryside surrounding this capital of Kampala and began waging a guerrilla war. The Army has recently managed to put the insurgents on the run, but political assassinations and the detention without trial of nonviolent politicial critics of the government have escalated as the war has died down.
On Oct. 25 unknown gunmen abducted Mary Luswata, the chairman of Obote's Uganda People's Congress party in a district 80 miles from here, plus three members of the party's youth wing and three party supporters. They were found shot to death two days later nearby.
On the other side, members of the opposition Democratic Party are killed in the same fashion, tortured, arbitrarily arrested, attacked at their public rallies and detained by, among others, the Uganda People's Congress armed "youth wingers." Members of the youth wing also have the power to arrest anyone.
The youth wingers, who often wear Army uniforms, have been reported to use such tactics as tying one of Obote's political opponents into a sack, dousing it with gasoline and then setting it ablaze.
There are hundreds of political detainees held in Kampala's Luzira Prison and living in varying degrading conditions in rural police posts throughout the country, according to Democratic Party leader Paul Ssemogerere, 51.
Three Democratic Party politicians and a member of Obote's People's Congress, all members of Parliament, have been assassinated since the 1980 elections. Three Democratic Party Parliament members and the only elected Uganda Patriotic Movement member of Parliament have fled into exile after death threats.
Ssemogerere refused to let his Democratic Party members enter the Nov. 16 by-elections to fill the vacant seats. They would have only been "slaughtered," he said in an interview.
"That statement has no basis whatsoever," Obote angrily responded. "It is convenient for them to make allegations in order to hide the effect of losing support and the lack of policies to put to the electorate."
A recent human rights report of the United States State Department, however, concurs with Ssemogerere's assessment of the dangers to Democratic Party members.
"Problems of insecurity have acted in general to limit assembly," the report reads. "The ruling Uganda People's Congress party has held numerous political rallies. The opposition Democratic Party has not felt it safe under existing security conditions to do so."
Uganda's cycle of disorder can be traced back to the time of independence in 1962.
In a series of strong-arm measures following independence, Obote was able to suspend the constitution, use deputy Army commander Amin to chase the king of the largest ethnic group into exile, abolish the kingdom and ram through Parliament in 1967 a constitution granting Obote broad presidential powers. At the same time, hundreds of political critics were locked up.
After Amin overthrew Obote in January 1971 the mercurial dictator unleashed a reign of mass executions and torture on Uganda's 40 ethnic groups.
Despite Amin's fall, Uganda has not been able to set itself right.
With Obote's heavy reliance on the Army to keep him in power, his party's steady increase in its already secure majority in the 156-seat Parliament and hundreds of people in detention, Uganda's political evolution has come full circle. Even the constitution, with minor changes, is the 1967 Obote version.
In response to questions, Obote first said that there were 7,000 people in detention when he took office and all but 50 of them have been released.
About the "hundreds" of people the recent State Department human rights report said are being held in Uganda's civil prisons, Obote added, "I can say quite clearly that I've not detained anybody because of his political belief or because of his political activity." The people in detention without rights to trial, court appeal or bond release are held "because of some evidence about criminal activities, but not enough evidence, some evidence, but not enough of it, to take the person to courts," he said.
Asked if he can foresee when Uganda will return to normal, Obote wistfully added, "I wish I knew. But a country that has been in a chaotic situation for nearly 12 years, one cannot say for certain that one particular day nothing will happen."