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.
In another sense, Amin had made himself only too well-known to the outside world with his ludicrous telegrams to Nixon or the Queen, and the fatuous radio bulletins which he used both to rule his country (dismissing ministers, summoning church leaders) and to conduct a foreign policy of insults directed at other countries. A small dose of this should have been enough to convince the rest of the world that he was utterly unfit to run a football team, never mind a highly politicised, sophisticated and deeply torn society like Uganda. ‘Illiterate, a racist, tribalist and dictator ... an incorrigible liar with no moral or political standards ... of whom the only prediction which can safely be made is that he is unpredictable’ was the verdict of Amin’s Minister of Education, Edward Rugumayo, who defected in 1973.
How did such a man overthrow a clever politician like Dr Milton Obote? Why was he able to stay in power so long? What does his rule portend for the future of Uganda? George Ivan Smith’s book answers none of the key questions about ‘the rise and fall of Idi Amin’ but most of the answers are in G.S. Ibingira’s African Upheavals since Independence. Grace Ibingira was Amin’s ambassador to the United Nations until he, too, defected in early 1974. From the vantage-point of architect and Secretary-General of Dr Obote’s Uganda People’s Congress (UPC) party – he subsequently became Minister of Justice, and was one of the five ministers detained by Obote in 1966 and released by Amin after the coup in 1971 – Mr Ibingira’s story of Uganda since independence, and of Amin’s place in it, has the advantages of abundant knowledge and of abundant time in exile to think out causes and effects. If now is the time to uncover the roots of the Amin phenomenon in the hope that it does not happen again (Master-Sergeant Doe of Liberia is still being rejected by African states as Idi Amin never was), then it is Mr Ibingira’s book that should be read in preference to Mr Smith. Mr Smith shows a generous spirit in believing rather more in the rebirth of Uganda, when dealing with the weeks after Amin’s fall, than the sad sequel of political musical chairs and resort to force was to justify: unfortunately, this is a measure of how little he has taken into account the crucial pre-Amin history. (And yet his book does a good job in concisely putting together the important 19th and early 20th-century history of northern Uganda and southern Sudan from hitherto scattered or unpublished sources.)
For years, Idi Amin was a lucrative industry for the press. Even now, when his political significance in Uganda is nil, the BBC was prepared to mount an expensive operation to film him in Saudi Arabia and give 15 minutes of ‘news’ time to his meaningless ramblings. Mr Ibingira has a nasty explanation for this. ‘Amin has been a priceless gift to white racists.’ Mr Ibingira thinks that ‘the extraordinary global publicity given to Amin’ can at least partly be explained as indirect support for the South African Government’s apartheid policy: if blacks are like Amin, who can blame South Africa for not sharing power with them? Probably the explanation is simpler and involves geo-politics less than journalistic laziness. Amin – with his bagpipes and his professed desire to marry President Julius Nyerere or to box him with one arm tied behind his back – was a fine racist joke. It was the easiest story in the world to write: Radio Uganda, monitored in Nairobi, provided 90 per cent of the press coverage, and the rest was laid on in interviews with ‘His Excellency’ by Bob Astles. Long after the publication in 1974 of David Martin’s General Amin might have been expected to bring some constraint, Fleet Street went on with the joke – spiced as it was with prurient pleasure in a wickedness hard to credit, completely, in the security of somewhere far away across the world.
The British public apparently has an insatiable appetite for the horrors, the hammerings to death, the blowing up of rooms full of soldiers, the tortures, the emasculations, and the flinging of bodies to crocodiles, so often retold from Mr Martin’s book. One such instant book, Lust to Kill, brought out in two months last year after Amin’s fall, sold 100,000 copies, although the writer was too embarrassed to put his own name on it. Mr Smith actually quotes from this work, and even chooses a quotation about Amin’s childhood which was clearly invented. His own lack of authority shows in the wrong details of his book, the misspelt names, the errors about relationships between Amin and Onama and Malyamungu which do not exist, the muddling of Bantu prefixes.
Describing the anatomical plates he found at Amin’s house after liberation, he implies that Amin murdered and dismembered his wife Kay. ‘I can only recall the possible dreadful significance associated with them,’ he writes, and goes on to talk of Kay’s death. But it is well-known that Kay died in an abortionist’s clinic during a termination after four months of pregnancy. The doctor who did the operation (a man with a history of mental breakdown who by some accounts was also Kay’s lover) dismembered her and put the body in his own car, before killing himself and making an unsuccessful attempt to kill his wife and children. Similarly, Mr Smith presents what he calls ‘the final, horrifying piece of evidence ... from a Ugandan I interviewed who was in a position to know such things’. The story is of Amin eating the heart of his favourite son in a small hut near Arua. It is well-known that Amin’s favourite son was Moses, the small boy in military uniform who was always with him on public occasions and who is with him now in Saudi Arabia. The real stories are horrifying enough and should not be devalued by being mixed up with myth.
Mr Smith pins his book to a short visit to Kampala immediately after the liberation last year: ‘the crossroads of central Africa at a strange moment in its long history’. The brevity of the visit inevitably led to mistakes. He has the famous policeman/runner John Akii-Bua returning from exile to greet the liberators, when he was in fact returning from Kenya (where he had been briefly held in the Kakamega camp for Amin’s men fleeing the liberators) after a running engagement in West Germany. He never defected. Mr Smith’s claim of hard fighting by Amin’s men in the north just before the end of the war is the result of being too close to events for too short a time. Amin’s army broke and ran, and the Tanzanians met only sporadic, feeble resistance in the north. Amin relied on bluff to the end, and his army would not fight for him.
Mr Ibingira’s central ideas about what went wrong with independent Uganda are two. First, he blames the colonial government for its poor preparation of the men who, in administration and in the army, were to hold together the nation state which that government had forged out of disparate (and often traditionally hostile) tribes. His second point, the ‘winner-takes-all philosophy’ of the first generation of African leaders after independence, will be considered later.
The Ugandan Army has basically run the country since Obote’s revolution of 1966, and has been a crucial factor in the year since the fall of Amin. The British handed over a force which had been commanded by white officers: it was colonial policy that no educated Africans should be trained as officers. For cosmetic reasons, two soldiers were hurried into officer’s uniforms just before independence, although one, Idi Amin, as Mr Smith recounts, was known by the British to have been guilty of unacceptable levels of brutality against Turkana villagers in Kenya during the Mau Mau years when he served in the colonial army. Amin’s career was saved by Obote (the Prime Minister) on that occasion and on four others when he was urged to dismiss him by such diverse figures as the British Governor of Uganda, two British colonels who knew him well, and the Ugandan Parliament. In addition, Shaban Opolot, from Teso in eastern Uganda and married to a Muganda woman, although nominally Amin’s senior in the Army, was eased out (and finally detained) by Obote, who chose Amin to work through and who built him up.
Mr Smith says simply that Amin changed and became insubordinate to Opolot after the British left, and that he also revealed himself as more than just a simple soldier in the Zairean gold and ivory scandal, where he allegedly made a fortune out of transactions with the Congolese rebels who were supplied from Uganda. But he does not bring out Obote’s crucial support of Amin in these incidents and throughout the early Sixties: this turned him into the power he soon became.
The basis of Amin’s power was the Army, and it was handed to him on a plate by Obote, who also used it. As Mr Ibingira spells out, it was the fastest-growing army on the continent in the five years after independence, expanding at a rate of 48-50 per cent a year. Its tribal balance was also important. In the first battalion inherited from the British the breakdown was: Acholi 35 per cent, Iteso 30 per cent, Lugbara 20 per cent, other West Nile tribes 10 per cent, others 5 per cent – a 65 per cent Northern army. The third battalion of 1000 men recruited after independence was 90 per cent Northern. (Obote’s own Langi tribe was of very little significance, another point Mr Smith gets wrong.) Obote, keen only to keep Southerners excluded, foolishly left Amin a free hand to continue the British policy of a Northern-based army and to swing it even further that way by allowing the recruitment by Amin of southern Sudanese with no stake in Uganda. (After liberation, 100,000 people crossed into southern Sudan and 65,000 of them were classified by the UNHCR as ‘returnees’: they had no reason to fight for Amin or Uganda against the Tanzanians, and they did not.)
The whole sorry story of the breakdown of faith in the political system in Uganda is at the root of why Amin and the Army could successfully hijack the country in 1971. Mr Ibingira’s ‘winner-takes-all’ theory traces through the early years of independence the concentration of power in Obote’s hands to the disillusion of the people; the intensified Protestant/Catholic split as a result of Obote’s witch-hunts against Catholics, who were branded as Democratic Party supporters and removed from important jobs; the breaking of the independence and strength of the judiciary, the legislature, local government and party organs by packing them with UPC men and shamelessly changing the law to suit the Government; the splits within the ruling UPC party; the creation by Obote of the General Service Unit to spy on UPC colleagues; Obote’s determination to break the Baganda rather than bring them into the UPC and share power with them.
The same process of disintegration is spelt out in S.R. Karugire’s newly published A Political History of Uganda. Mr Karugire was in exile from Amin’s Uganda as head of the Department of History in the University of Zambia, and his study does not cover Amin, but he sets the scene for the coup well. ‘The once dignified civil service was filled with obsequious mediocrities, as were the parastatal bodies – the only sure qualification for holding these positions was undoubted loyalty to the leader’: he is writing about Obote, but it shows how Uganda was ready for Amin.
Mr Smith’s analysis of the geo-political events behind Amin’s coup is the best contribution to history which his book makes. Mr Smith was then the representative in London of the United Nations Secretary-General, and he happened to be in Dar es Salaam when the Presidents of Tanzania, Uganda and Zambia met in an emergency summit to discuss Sir Alec Douglas Home’s announcement in July 1970 that Britain would sell arms to South Africa. Mr Smith was invited to join the Presidents’ meeting and he brings out well the unbridgeable chasm of mistrust which opened between Britain and Obote and Nyerere. Unlike most Ugandan insiders, he does not actually implicate Britain (and more importantly Israel, which had seen Obote turn sharply pro-Arab in 1970) in the coup. But he does say that British Intelligence knew about the plans for it in advance, and did not inform Obote during the Commonwealth Conference in Singapore. He includes an interesting long memo to himself from Obote which firmly implicates Israel in the coup, and suggests that its trigger was two impending trials: in Khartoum, of Rolf Steiner (the mercenary who had been helping the Anyanya rebellion in southern Sudan with the Israelis and Amin), and in Uganda of the murderer of Brigadier Okoya and his wife. The second of these trials was leading inexorably to the inculpation of Amin.
As Mr Ibingira says, ‘the coup was welcomed with intense joy in most parts of Uganda. The masses of people who greeted Obote’s fall in the capital and other areas of the country exceeded those who had gathered to celebrate independence, both in numbers and in emotional release. I witnessed both.’ Mr Ibingira was among the first people released from prison by Amin.
No evidence is adduced for Mr Smith’s assertion that ‘the coup could have been aborted very easily if Obote had had advance knowledge of it.’ Although Obote’s first instinct when he arrived in Kenya from Singapore was ‘to go back to Uganda and raise the popular support which he felt he had’, the Kenyan Government did not let him go. However, nothing prevented him from flying back from his next stop in Dar es Salaam except the bitter knowledge that he had no support to rally against Amin’s army. Even Henry Kyemba, Obote’s principal private secretary, who did fly back from Dar, admits that ‘the country greeted Amin as a hero.’
In his story of the Amin years Mr Smith gives a fair account of the all-pervasive spy and counter-spy system by which Amin ruled. His quotations from the heaps of files left lying in the State Research Bureau for anyone to read in the weeks after liberation give a good idea of the illiterate, randomly chosen pieces of pointless ‘information’ which sent so many men to their deaths in that horrific place. But he does not quite drive home that what haunts Ugandans today about the system is that it was not just an alien group of Rwandese, Nubians, Libyans fed by the scum of Ugandan society scraping a living, but that its informers included educated men and women from every tribe in the country. Almost everyone broke down under the imperatives of living in a society where random death was a daily possibility for them all, where the normal economy was replaced by the black market (magendo), and where the rules of justice or of orderly government no longer prevailed. Fiction on this theme, like Lord of the Flies, is popular in the West, but the full non-fiction story from inside Amin’s Uganda has yet to be written.
There were at least twenty attempts to kill Amin, and there was almost continuous plotting by exiles to rid the country of him. Mr Ibingira puts a good share of the blame for Amin’s survival for so long on internal Ugandan causes: ethnic divisions, the greed of those who were getting something out of the regime, divisions and betrayals among competing exile groups. Both he and Mr Smith strongly blame the outside world too – specifically Kenya, for not cutting off Uganda’s route to the sea, and Britain. Both governments had strong economic motives for not doing anything so revolutionary in international relations as bringing down a head of state for moral reasons: but it seems a bit too easy to restrict the responsibility to these governments alone.
In Uganda, back now to military rule after its one chaotic year of democracy under the Uganda National Liberation Front, most people are not interested in the Western preoccupation with Amin as the embodiment of evil. Economic preoccupations rule their lives and civilised men become primitives. Work, art, politics, morality are luxuries in a society which saw, in the years before Amin, the death of the institutions that safeguard democracy, which still keeps men like Mr Ibingira in exile, and which has to endure a ‘magendo’ economy. As one professor soberly remarked, ‘magendo is very tiring, and takes up most of the day.’