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Peace and Security Breed Prosperity: A Lesson from Uganda

by Austin Bay
December 3, 2002in the United States and, for that matter, in rural Africa.

May 1979, West Nile Province, northern Uganda. If you don't know the geography of this African corner wedged between the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and the White Nile, and you don't remember that month and year, perhaps you remember a vicious name: Idi Amin.

When Amin's military junta ran Uganda, his troops and thugs murdered at least 200,000 Ugandan Christians. Amin -- a Ugandan Muslim -- is still alive, under "hotel arrest" in the Saudi Arabian port of Jiddah. Every so often, Western journalists spot him rambling the streets, where the Saudi police collar him and escort him back to his plush prison.

Some day, one hopes, Amin will join Serbia's Slobodan Milosevic in the war crimes dock.

That, however, is another column. This column, despite the unfamiliar terrain and obscure events, bears witness to the economic gift of peace earned by sacrifice.

As Amin's dictatorship collapsed in the spring of 1979, a gang of his thugs left the north Ugandan town of Arua and marched for the town of Nebbi, 60 kilometers south.

The Nebbi area had escaped the worst of Amin's depredations, in part because it is relatively isolated and off the usual track. Though bitterly poor by Western standards, in the thugs' eyes Nebbi was rich, with plenty of food, women and plunder. Besides, their rogue force was predominantly Muslim, and Nebbi is a Christian area.

The 200 or so thugs, armed with automatic rifles and grenade launchers, didn't expect resistance. However, just north of Nebbi, in the savannah bush, a hastily organized local force ambushed the gang. Several Nebbi men had acquired weapons. They fought a steady delaying action, sniping at the gang, then withdrawing along the rutted, red dirt road that links Arua and Nebbi.

"Quite simply," a Nebbi leader told me, "Amin's men quit. They would shoot the unarmed, steal and burn, but not if it cost their lives. We resisted. That's as close as the chaos came. Around us, for 40 years there has been war. But not here. That was when it brushed us."

It: The evil of murder and anarchy afflicts much of sub-Saharan Africa. Across the border from Nebbi, in the DRC, war has raged for nearly five years, with 2 million dead, most of them dying from the slow bullets of starvation, exposure and disease. Two weeks before I arrived in Uganda, a battle erupted in the DRC town of Bunia (about 70 kilometers from Nebbi), creating 10,000 new refugees. Two Congolese tribes had squared off in Bunia, their war based on centuries of local distrust. Now, they feud with mortars and machine guns. The utter decay of civil society and lack of legitimate authority in the DRC guarantees years of similar anarchic clashes, and assures poverty.

North of Uganda, in Sudan, a major war has raged since 1983, pitting Muslim northern Sudan against the Christian and animist tribes of the south. Within Uganda, on the east side of the White Nile, the Lord's Resistance Army has fought the Ugandan Army for 16 years.

Yet amidst this anarchy, the Nebbi region enjoys comparative peace. I met with six women's economic cooperatives in the area. "These organizations take time to build. We cannot build them with war," the local leader observed. "We feel blessed."

In May 1979, Nebbi resisted, and deflected the sword. Peace was bought with courage.

The most crucial issue suggested but never fully engaged in the recent U.S. election is the relationship between physical security and economic security. Perhaps that's because, for the sensible, the connection is obvious. Blast the World Trade Center, demonstrate the ability to strike America's financial nexus, and Al Qaeda hammers American economic power.

Peace and security breed prosperity. Who are the real peacemakers, who frame the conditions for prosperity? For America, they aren't protestors and professors with signs condemning the Pentagon, they're B-52 pilots and Green Berets. For Nebbi, they are the hundred men who whipped Amin's thugs one hot day in May.

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