WHEN delegates stormed out of Uganda's Constituent Assembly recently demanding more freedom for opposition parties, they highlighted a key debate facing some of Africa's most ethnically divided countries: When do competing political parties help forge a nation, and when do they rip fragile unity apart?
The Ugandans who supported a proposed ''pro-multiparty'' article in the Constitution and stalked out of the Assembly were protesting their colleagues' decision to enshrine in the Constitution the current system of government, which is in essence a one-party state.
The debate about the role of parties is decisive for the country, which only in the last decade has emerged from a nightmare of political and ethnic strife that took the lives of hundreds of thousands of civilians.
Uganda does have competing parties. But authorities have severely limited the parties' freedom of association.
Opposition parties cannot host such activities as rallies or national conventions. Nor can they organize in the countryside.
Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni says those restraints should continue for at least the next five years because the country ''isn't ready'' for competing parties.
''The problem with pushing multipartyism in this preindustrial society is it may be putting a square peg in a round hole. You may be misapplying a model,'' President Museveni told the Monitor recently.
''What one first needs is cohesion and participation,'' he added.
Museveni argues that in developing countries like Uganda, parties don't tend to offer competing ideologies or different political platforms, but instead foment ethnic and religious cleavages.
But Museveni's critics say the Ugandan leader is simply trying to hang on to power and prevent rivals from challenging him.
Cecelia Ogwal, assistant secretary-general of the Ugandan People's Congress, is one of the delegates who led the walkout in the Assembly last month. She says democracy in Uganda is a charade.
''We can talk in a Constituent Assembly, but what is the use of talking in a cage when you cannot talk freely in the countryside? President Museveni is systematically suppressing and uprooting opposition from the system,'' Ms. Ogwal says.
POLITICAL parties have a tainted history in Uganda. In the 1970s and early 1980s, dictators Idi Amin and Milton Obote used parties to help pit ethnic groups against one another.
The two leaders plunged the country into chaos, encouraging Ugandans to murder hundreds of thousands of civilians over two decades.
In 1986, the reign of terror ended when a rebel Ugandan army, led by Museveni, emerged victorious from the bush after waging a five-year guerrilla war.
Museveni, who some diplomats call ''the most capable leader on the continent,'' is credited with almost single-handedly resuscitating the country's economy from post-war shambles. It now has one of the 10 highest growth rates in Africa.
Many of Uganda's international lenders quietly admit they think maintaining economic stability is as important, if not more pressing, than creating political pluralism. Most are enthralled with Museveni's free-market policies and remain silent on his lack of political reform.
But in recent months, United States Ambassador to Uganda Michael Southwick has publicly criticized Museveni, calling for ''an unambiguous transition within five years to a fully democratic government.''
''What you've seen in Africa all too often is governments that deny competition,'' Mr. Southwick says.
''That leads to a downward spiral - violence, civil war, devastation - but it starts with this assumption that one group has power and won't allow the possibility [of sharing that power]. We're concerned that perhaps some forces in the political culture here are trying to stop the clock,'' he says.
The debate isn't over. Representatives in the Constituent Assembly are still hammering out Uganda's new Constitution that will define the separation of political power and lay the groundwork for presidential and parliamentary elections scheduled for next year.
The delegates could still try to reinterpret the role of competing parties. Observers say compromise seems unlikely.
''We know about parties, that's why people fear the consequences of their unprincipled competition for power,'' says Museveni.