Victoria Brittain

Victoria Brittain works on the Guardian, and was for four years its East African correspondent.

Uganda’s New Men

Victoria Brittain, 13 September 1990

‘Mustafa Adrissi, Idi Amin’s Vice-President, recently appeared before the Human Rights Commission in Kampala. In response to a question about the constitutional violations over which he had presided in Amin’s violent years, he asked: ‘What is this constitution? We never heard of such a thing before.’ This is the man who, told that foreign exchange was a serious problem, said: ‘Just shoot the fellow.’

Kenya’s Dissident

Victoria Brittain, 3 June 1982

On 14 December 1978 small groups of people loomed out of the Kenya highland mist, as they headed down the narrow path churned into mud by the police truck which had brought Ngugi wa Thiongo home from the year in detention where he produced these books. Finding his house among the muddy maize plots north of Limuru, 20 miles from Nairobi, was easy: a single telephone-wire crossed the small-holdings and ended at his house. It is a symbol of Ngugi’s unique position in his peasant community. He is the man who speaks to the outside world of Nairobi, Mombasa, Kisumu, and beyond to the rest of Africa and to Europe. That day Ngugi sat quietly outside his house, returning to life from silence. His children shouted, and cajoled the loaded donkey-cart through the slippery gateway of the compound. Half Limuru seemed to have made the pilgrimage, bringing him a live sheep and other presents. Chickens and goats were shooed away from the plates of stew his wife produced for the visitors. But Nairobi’s élite was not there. Just two friends from the university and one newspaper reporter. The day illustrated the strengths and the weakness of Ngugi’s position as East Africa’s greatest novelist. His strength is his empathy with the peasants who are the people of his art. His weakness is his increasing intellectual isolation, evident in these books, which is likely to become permanent now that it seems the regime will not allow him to return to his job as chairman of the Literature Department at Nairobi University.

After Amin

Victoria Brittain, 17 September 1981

Two years after the overthrow of Idi Amin in Uganda three governments have come and gone, and the fourth presides over a country whose British-created institutions are empty shells and where the only authority is violence. President Milton Obote returned to power after nine years in exile by means of an election so flawed by violence under the veneer of respectability provided by Britain and the Commonwealth that thousands of Ugandans have died, fled abroad, been detained without trial or gone underground in the wake of what should have been the country’s rebirth. Pockets of the country have reverted to local control wielded by tribal warlords. The members of the educated élite have mostly decided there is no place for them in a context of pre-colonial fragmentation: Uganda was a British creation and it has not produced a strong enough sense of nationalism to entice these people to exchange London, Washington and Nairobi for the Herculean task of rebuilding Uganda. They are permanent exiles now, educating a new generation of privileged, rootless international civil servants and businessmen.

Idi Roi

Victoria Brittain, 21 August 1980

The eight-year regime of Idi Amin in Uganda will go down in history as one of the 20th-century’s horrors that could have been prevented. From Stalin’s Russia, Hitler’s Germany, Pol Pot’s Cambodia, Macias Nguema’s Equatorial Guinea, the outside world was excluded, and was therefore relatively impotent and ignorant. That was not true of Uganda. Amin strutted on the world stage: he went to the United Nations, made official visits to West Germany and Israel, was received by the Queen, and was still getting rounds of applause from African crowds as late as September 1978 (at Kenyatta’s funeral) and from African heads of state, in the summer of the same year, at the Organisation of African Unity summit in Khartoum. To Britain’s disgrace, as George Ivan Smith points out, it will be remembered that Uganda Airlines flights to Stansted, where Amin bought the Western luxury goods that kept his inner circle loyal, went on until 4 March 1979, when the Tanzanian Army was on the point of ousting him. With the honourable exceptions of the Presidents of Tanzania, Zambia and Botswana, the world did not care enough about Amin’s butcheries to impose against him an economic blockade and a refusal to buy Ugandan coffee. This would have turned his bought army against him, probably within months. The United States closed its embassy in 1973, Britain in 1976. In neither case was it because of Amin’s murderous rule.

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