Uganda has become a metaphor for everything that has gone wrong in Africa: violence, suffering, poverty, misgovernment. Need it have been this way? From the British, Ugandans took over a country better suited than most others in Africa to making it on its own. Tribal antagonisms, however, posed what so far have been insuperable hurdles to coexistence, let alone amity. A whole nation's prospects have been ravaged. In the years of independence, hundreds of thousands of Ugandans, most of them civilians, have been killed -- by soldiers, rebels and brigands, by guns and starvation. Continuing unrest ensures that the toll will mount higher still.

Uganda has been cursed by the quality of its leadership. A civilian, Milton Obote, ruled arbitrarily in the 1960s. A general thought by many to be a likely savior, Idi Amin, seized power in 1971. Gen. Amin turned out to be a murderous monster. Mr. Obote returned to power at the end of the 1970s with the help of rebel forces and an invading Tanzanian army. The Tanzanian intervention broke the African norm of respect for national borders, but seemed to be accepted in Uganda and by most African governments as the lesser evil compared to Gen. Amin.

In his second go, Mr. Obote was sadly unable to heal tribal wounds or to contain the brutality of his undisciplined army. He has now been ousted by another general, Basilio Olaro Okello. Although his particular place in the new political order is not yet confirmed, confidence in the new leadership is not heightened by the fact that, from exile in Saudi Arabia, Idi Amin has hailed the coup and pronounced himself "ready to rescue Uganda."

It would not be surprising to find that many Ugandans believe their country needs a strong ruler to restore a semblance of order. This is the ratonale for a new coup -- and the basis for the certain nostalgia for Idi Amin that is reported to exist in some sectors of Ugandan society. But can a new leadership find the touch for tribal politics that has been lacking for so many years? Therein lies what hope exists for Uganda to turn away from its self- destructive course and to start taking real advantage of its substantial economic potential.