The rise of Idi Amin in Uganda, 1971-72
By Mark Curtis
An edited extract from Unpeople: Britain’s Secret Human Rights Abuses
The declassified British files tell us first that British officials were delighted to see the back of the government of Milton Obote that Amin overthrew. Eleven days before Amin’s coup on 25 January 1971, Britain’s High Commissioner in Kampala, Richard Slater, ran through the list of problems that Obote was causing Britain, concluding that Anglo-Ugandan relations were in a ‘deplorable’ state. Most prominent of these was Obote’s nationalisation measures and the threat to withdraw from the Commonwealth if Britain went ahead with resuming arms exports to apartheid South Africa, as it was then proposing to do.
On the latter issue, Ugandan Foreign Minister Odaka had publicly said that to proceed with arming South Africa would strengthen it militarily, lead to an arms race in Africa, heighten racial tensions and enable Pretoria to frustrate the prosecution of sanctions against it. He said that if the sale of arms went ahead the Heath government would be opposing ‘the liberation of the oppressed majorities in Southern Africa’ and strengthening ‘the hands of the oppressors’. High Commissioner Slater said that ‘we are in for a difficult time’ with Obote if the decision to resume arms sales go through.
The Obote government’s public challenge to British interests on arms was matched by its nationalisation decrees. In May 1970 Obote announced legislation whereby the government would take over all foreign import and export businesses and acquire compulsorily 60 per cent of the shares of oil companies, manufacturing industries, banks, insurance companies and other sectors. Compensation would be paid over periods of up to 15 years out of the profits received and paid over to the Ugandan government as the major shareholder.
British officials were aware that Obote’s planned nationalisation was entirely legal but this was not the point – these measures were a direct challenge to British business interests. The threat was clearly understood by the Foreign Office as having ‘serious implications for British business in Uganda and Africa generally’. Crucially, ‘there is a danger that other countries will be tempted to try and get away with similar measures with more damaging consequences for British investment and trade’. It noted that three weeks after the Ugandan announcement, the government of Sudan nationalised foreign businesses ‘in an even more unacceptable way’.
The fear that Obote’s nationalization measures would be promoted elsewhere was repeated by a British big business lobby group, the East African and Mauritius Association, which told the Foreign Office that: ‘The end result is the loss of British investment overseas and the establishment of precedents which could involve similar action by governments of other territories with adverse repercussions on the British economy’. The danger was of ‘the emergence of a pattern’ and it urged the British government to make clear to these other governments ‘their very grave concern at recent developments in Uganda’.
Fifty British firms operating in Uganda were threatened by nationalisation, the major ones including three banks, Grindlays, Standard and Barclays, and several other large corporations like Shell/BP (then linked rather than completely separate companies), BAT, Dunlop, Brooke Bond and Mackenzie Dalgety. By the end of 1970 only one company, Shell/BP, had signed a compensation agreement with the Ugandan government. Foreign Secretary Alec Douglas-Home noted that ‘there does not seem at present to be any very hopeful prospect’ of these companies negotiating agreements satisfactory to them.
High Commissioner Slater noted eleven days before the coup that ‘British interests suffered more than any other’ from these nationalisation measures. He also noted that ‘to the extent that non-Ugandan interests were liable to be hurt, the measures were popular’. However, ‘for the vast majority of what I can only describe as the elite of Uganda, the implications were deeply disturbing’. Under Obote: ‘Capitalism has become a dirty word and the well-to-do are wondering whether it might not be wise to turn in the Mercedes Benz for something more modest and sell off a house or two’. As well as nationalisation, there was ‘another hazard’ for the elite that had appeared ‘in the form of stringent anti-corruption legislation’ enacted by Obote in June 1970.
Slater is here openly mentioning a clear theme of British foreign policy – that British interests are precisely designed to promote the ‘elite’ and help keep it from ‘popular measures’.
Interestingly, another Foreign Office official, Eric Le Tocq, conceded that ‘we are prepared to believe that the policies which he [Obote] is pushing through may well prove, in time, to be in the best interests of Ugandans’. Also recognised was the ‘inequity’ of the pre-nationalisation arrangements under the East African Community where many companies remitted their profits to Nairobi ‘instead of “reinvesting” them in the country in which they are earned’.
Obote’s rule certainly had authoritarian aspects and he had earlier suspended the constitution and assumed control of the state. Yet it was not these negative features of Obote’s rule that primarily concerned British planners. At least the Obote regime had promoted several policies beneficial to Ugandans, notably the proclamation of the ‘Common Man’s Charter’ which echoed the call for African socialism by Tanzanian president Julius Nyerere. This provided the backdrop to the nationalisation measures, which, along with the possible Ugandan reaction to British arms sales to South Africa, were the major concerns of British planners.
The coup by then Army Chief of Staff Amin took place while Obote was attending a Commonwealth conference in Singapore and involved the arrest or shooting of officers loyal to Obote, resulting in the deaths of hundreds of people. The coup was immediately greatly welcomed by British officials. Britain was one of the first countries to formally recognise the new regime, along with the US and Israel, in contrast to some African states, such as Tanzania and Zambia, which refused to recognise the legitimacy of the new military regime. ‘Our interest in Uganda in terms of citizens, investment, trade and aid programme [sic] are best served in these circumstances by early recognition’, the Foreign Office noted.
The files show that British officials canvassed other ‘moderate’ (ie, pro-British) governments in Africa ‘who we judge likely to be sympathetic towards General Amin’ to recognise the new regime. ‘We are hoping that we can discreetly let General Amin know of these efforts which we are making on his behalf’, the Foreign Office noted.
‘We have no cause to shed tears on Dr Obote’s departure’, wrote the Assistant Under Secretary of State at the Foreign Office, Harold Smedley. ‘At long last we have a chance of placing our relations with Uganda on a friendly footing’, High Commissioner Slater wrote to the Foreign Office. Three weeks after the coup, Slater was telling the Foreign Secretary that ‘Anglo-Ugandan relations can only benefit from the change’ and that Amin was ‘deeply grateful (as I am) for the promptness with which Her Majesty’s Government recognised his regime’.
Britain thus welcomed the violent overthrow of a government recognised by British officials to be promoting many policies ‘in the best interests of Ugandans’. British support also came in full knowledge of why Amin had acted in the first place. Before leaving for Singapore Obote had demanded that on his return Amin should provide explanations about the disappearance of arms and corruption in the army. The following week a court case was also due to begin on the murder of Brigadier Okoya, of which Amin was strongly suspected. British officials well understood, therefore, that ‘the coup was probably dictated more by Amin’s fear that his own downfall was imminent than by any real desire to save his country from Obote’.
Obote had previously tried to arrest Amin in September 1970 but was prevented by soldiers loyal to Amin. Due to that unexpected support Obote had then contented himself with reducing Amin’s powers and made changes in the structure of the military entrenching officers loyal to him, Obote.
The British welcome also came with no illusions about Amin’s bloody past and character. Amin was ‘corrupt and unintelligent’, Harold Smedley wrote two days after the coup. There was ‘something of the villain about him and he may well be quite unscrupulous and indeed ruthless’, a Foreign Office official wrote six days after the coup. Richard Slater managed to convince himself, however, that ‘despite his limitations, he [Amin] has considerable dignity and more the air of a leader than Obote’.
Amin’s recent past allegedly involved some gruesome deeds. As an officer in the Kings African Rifles in Britain’s colony of Kenya in the early 1960s, Amin is believed to have been involved in torture and killing. In one incident, then Lieutenant Amin, responsible for dealing with illegal cattle rustling, was said to have tortured a whole village before killing eight men. Amin was never prosecuted by then Prime Minister Milton Obote since he feared the African reaction against the prosecution of a Ugandan soldier just a few months before Uganda’s independence.
There was a further hope expressed by British planners – that Amin’s military coup might be replicated by other pro-British forces. Eric le Tocq of the Foreign Office’s South East Asian Department wrote that: ‘General Amin has certainly removed from the African scene one of our most implacable enemies in matters affecting Southern Africa… Our prospects in Uganda have no doubt been considerably enhanced… If Amin’s coup is successful, in that he remains firmly entrenched in power, and eventually gains the acceptance … of the other black African governments, this will no doubt enhance the temptation to other African military leaders to follow his example. Events in Uganda will have been noted in Kenya [sic] military circles, though there seems little likelihood of any military move until president Kenyatta leaves the scene. This could conceivably produce a government better disposed to Britain than Kenyatta’s political heirs’.
When this period is discussed at all in the media or elsewhere (which is rare), the standard line is that given how Amin soon expelled the Ugandan Asians, British planners must have made a ‘mistake’ in acquiescing in Amin’s rise. This is not the case; British policy was far from being a ‘mistake’. The fact is that Britain consciously supported and connived in the rise of Idi Amin precisely because of long-standing British interests to get rid of governments like that of Obote who were challenging ‘elites’ and promoting ‘popular measures’. This episode is a microcosm of general British foreign policy, showing which side Britain is generally on. Since it is an ugly picture, it is invariably safely buried away from public view.
Amin effectively reversed Obote’s nationalisation plans. ‘Many firms were saved from a nasty dose of nationalisation by General Amin’s seizure of power’, Eric le Tocq later wrote. In May the new regime gave a statement on its economic policy that welcomed private investment. In expectation of this statement, the Foreign Office wrote that the policy was ‘broadly welcome to British companies here and should go a long way towards the restoration of foreign investment confidence in Uganda’. The new regime was showing ‘an encouraging attitude in the economic and financial spheres’, it noted. ‘We expect its policies to be more pragmatic and less ruled by the somewhat rigid doctrines of the Obote regime’.
Terror in Uganda
The subsequent story of Amin’s rule is one of repression and terror, a second phase that was in effect also supported by Britain as a brief chronology can show.
By February 1971 Amin had ‘concentrated all the powers of parliament and of the former President in his hands’, the British High Commission in Kampala noted. He announced that elections would only take place in five years. One Foreign Official wrote that ‘it is now beginning to look as if Uganda may merely have exchanged one form of authoritarian government for another’. In early March a decree banned all political activity for two years and people ‘continue to be detained without trial’ – the High Commission officials estimated that the number was around 1,000.
The British reaction was instructive. One Foreign Office official wrote that ‘I can appreciate that a period of rule free from all politics, if that is in fact a genuine possibility, could be desirable’. The official went on to say, however, that a ‘complete cessation’ of politics for two years was ‘unnecessary’, before adding: ‘I readily recognise that too much democracy in a country like Uganda at the present stage can be as fatal as too great a degree of authoritarianism. What would seem to be required for the foreseeable future is a realistic balance between firm and, indeed, authoritarian, government and some degree of democratic expression. I believe Uganda needs no necessarily democratic government, but it is important that government should be representative and fair as well as firm’.
With power being concentrated into Amin’s hands and officials recommending ‘authoritarian’ government, the Ugandan regime approached Britain for arms. ‘Armoured cars can go ahead. Strikemaster aircraft OK. Perhaps Harriers’, wrote the Foreign Office’s Eric Le Tocq. British policy, he said, should be to show a willingness to supply arms to prevent the Ugandans going elsewhere but discourage them from purchases which are ‘overambitious, militarily, technically or financially’.
On 21 April a British ‘Defence adviser’ in Kampala met the Ugandan Defence Minister and subsequently reported that ‘the prospects for defence sales to Uganda are both clearer and brighter’. Under discussion were Saladin, Saracen and Ferret armoured cars, Jaguar aircraft, helicopters, radar and light guns. A deal to supply one million rounds of ammunition was approved. A Foreign Office official wrote that: ‘We consider it important…both in order to keep his [Amin’s] goodwill and also to assist in maintaining the stability of his regime that we should facilitate as far as we can the meeting of requests for equipment from this country’. Another official wrote of the ‘political desirability of supporting General Amin’.
By mid-May, the High Commission was noting continued arrests with up to 1,000 inmates in one prison in Kampala. A further decree issued that month ordered that people could be detained with no time limit if ministers believed that they were engaged in subversive activities. The High Commission was also getting ‘several reports’ of incidents in which British subjects ‘have fallen foul of the army’. In one, a senior expatriate civil servant was severely beaten and his Ugandan deputy beaten to death ‘because it was thought that men working under him had been recruited for Obote’.
In early July Amin announced he wanted to visit Britain in the middle of the month to discuss British training of the Ugandan army and joint military exercises. The British government quickly arranged what was in effect a state visit. After it was decided to host a lunch for Amin, Prime Minister Edward Heath’s personal adviser, Peter Moon, wrote that ‘the Prime Minister would like the guests to be of high level so that President Amin feels that he is being honoured’. There should be ‘senior military representation and British businessmen with interests in Uganda’. It was understood that ‘the primary purpose of General Amin’s visit is to discuss military matters’ as Amin met the Queen, the Prime Minister and the Defence Secretary, among others.
The brief from the Foreign Office read: ‘General Amin has abandoned Obote’s radical pan-African policies for a more moderate and pro-Western policy’. The new government, a High Commision official wrote, was ‘not ideal, but by African standards as good as could be hoped for’.
At these meetings Foreign Secretary Douglas-Home told Amin that ‘we would help as best we could’ on military and economic aid and with the training of troops, although supplying Harrier jets would be too costly for Uganda. A £2 million contract to supply 26 Saladin and 6 Saracens armoured personnel carriers was signed. The Daily Telegraph wrote in an editorial that General Amin was: ‘a staunch friend of Britain… His request now for the purchase of equipment for the rebuilding of Uganda’s defences deserves the most sympathetic consideration from every point of view’.
These July agreements with the Ugandan military were being signed while hundreds of soldiers were being massacred by Amin’s forces in Uganda. ‘The killings took place at a large number of army camps across Uganda’, a Foreign Office official wrote the following month. ‘A large number of officers and men, in particular from the Acholi and Langi tribes (those associated with Dr Obote) were killed’.
Three days after this note, on 16 August, another Foreign Office official wrote that: ‘From the point of view of British interests, General Amin’s regime has so far served us well. He is extremely well-disposed to Britain… and his coup removed one of our more bitter African critics. We have already done much to assist in the establishment and recognition of his regime and we are doing what we can to help him overcome his present difficulties’.
By August Amin had announced the establishment of a military junta. In the same month, Britain offered a £10 million loan for three years. High Commissioner Slater was saying that ‘despite some obvious deficiencies, he remains a net asset from Britain’s point of view’. Slater recognised that the Acholi and the Langi ‘have fled or been killed or imprisoned’, saying that ‘this is the rather sombre background to a bright chapter in Anglo-Ugandan relations’. ‘I am sure that he [Amin] is sincerely grateful for what we have done and offered to do’, such as early recognition, military and police training and the financial loan. Slater added that: ‘So long as he stays in power, Ugandan reactions to controversial British policies in Africa will be containable and the influence of the moderates in the OAU [Organisation of African Unity] will be strengthened. It remains therefore a British interest to see his regime consolidated’.
This basic support was being offered despite officials’ ‘misgivings… about the course Uganda is taking’. This included ‘the continuing financial mess, with talk of expensive military equipment’, the ‘dangerous lack of civil law and order’ and ‘the internecine strife in the army that threatens the whole basis of his rule’. These were the beginnings of the eventual recognition that the Amin regime was so incompetent and corrupt that it was a liability. But this point had not yet been reached.
In November, the Foreign Office noted that ‘power remains firmly in Amin’s hands’ and that ‘he is probably ruthless enough to brook no opposition’. It envisaged further ‘repressive measures’ to ‘add to the unspecified numbers of those who have disappeared or are held in prison without trial’. It also stated that ‘the prospect is of a continuing slow drift towards bankruptcy and the gradual emergence of the less savoury aspects of a military dictatorship’.
Officials were also becoming increasingly wary of Britain being publicly identified with Amin. Britain’s ‘public and visible involvement with the regime’ such as the military and police training teams and the visiting aid mission, meant that ‘we might well be saddled with some of the criticism belonging to the Amin regime’.
One year into the regime’s grip on power, in January 1972, Ugandan Defence Minister Oboth-Ofumbi visited Britain to buy arms and was shown ‘a wide range of military equipment’ and given reassurances of ‘our willingness to help’. ‘The main obstacle as far as we could see concerned the provision of funds’, British officials told him; any lingering human rights problems never appear to have been raised. Projected sales at this point included an air defence radar system, fast patrol boats and anti-tank missiles worth £10-20 million. The following month the commander of the British army training team for Uganda visited the country.
By February 1972, High Commissioner Slater could amazingly say to the Foreign Office that he ‘had no immediate bilateral problems to discuss’ with Amin – a few hundred murders, the banning of all political activity and beatings of expat civil servants apparently not worthy of discussion with the despot now in control in Kampala. ‘If anything special occurs to you, please let me know’, he added.
One thing that did occur to Edward Heath was to send an emissary to Amin hoping that it would ‘lead to agreement between us as to how your government can best surmount the difficulties with which it is presently faced’. The emissary, Lord Aldington, sought to advise Amin on economic matters and on arms procurement ‘and to secure those orders for the United Kingdom’. In his meetings in March, Aldington proposed sending an MoD team to discuss British arms exports, for which Amin ‘expressed complete approval’, he noted. Aldington also recommended that Britain send the military training team already agreed to.
Aldington met Amin on 24 March. Four days before, the Foreign Office noted that Richard Slater: ‘confirms that during January anything up to 400 detainees at Mutukula were put to death in cold blood after appearing before some sort of kangaroo court. Mr Slater thinks that Amin must have known what was going on but acquiesced… An unknown number of people appear to have been killed on 27 February at Soroti as a result… of army and police brutality’. The same note said that Britain should continue to help the country ‘get out of the mess it is in’ by economic aid and training missions.
Referring to the 400 deaths, another Foreign Office official noted that Amin may ‘have to resort to more unpleasant manifestations of his power in order to retain authority, ie, more disappearances and deaths’. ‘He may increasingly become an unsavoury friend to have’. This official also wrote: ‘It is a nasty business and seems bound to excite international attention. We may well get some awkward parliamentary questions… We are close to Amin and are known to be close to Amin and some of the odium may well rub off on us. If there are any more reports and if we get a spate of awkward questions, particularly if they refer to the help we are giving Amin, we may find it necessary to ask the High Commissioner to seek from Amin some explanation’.
Thus after mass killings and clearly announced decrees of repression, Whitehall might simply seek ‘some explanation’ from Amin, which might only be necessary due to ‘awkward parliamentary questions’.
The files show that by the early months of 1972 there were constant stories of killings by the army. This was when the first eight of the Saladin armoured cars – ideal for domestic repression, it should be said – were delivered. In May, Ministers approved the export of 20 Ferret armoured cars.
Also in May an ex-MP and prominent lawyer, Anil Clerk was taken from his home by the police and was not heard of for weeks. The Clerk case received some press coverage in Britain, by which time the brutality of the Amin regime was public knowledge. At this point, Foreign Secretary Douglas-Home recommended sending ‘a strong message’ to the Ugandan government saying that the Clerk case could lead to a deterioration in relations.
But Clerk’s disappearance promoted a rather extraordinary despatch by High Commissioner Slater. He wrote that: ‘So now we know who we are dealing with. On the one hand, a man [ie, Amin] of considerable charm, endowed with tremendous energy, concerned for the welfare of his people, well-disposed towards Britain. On the other hand, a tyrant, vindictive, ruthless, moody and stubborn as a child, often quite unamenable [sic] to reason, pathologically suspicious, a liar and hypocrite. On balance more Hyde than Jekyll, and not the man one would choose to do business with’.
But then, Slater argued, ‘we do not have a choice’. ‘We cannot tell him to stop murdering people’ and ‘my plea is for business as usual’. Slater argued that Britain could not conceivably influence Amin by withdrawing some measures of support and any move against him ‘would be fraught with consequences for our community [ie, the thousands of British passport holders in Uganda] for which we are at present ill-prepared’.
Foreign Office official Simon Dawbarn noted later that there were reports that ‘Amin was personally responsible’ for Clerk’s death but that ‘we must go on doing business with Amin’ since ‘we have too many hostages in Uganda’, referring again to the British passport holders.
It was not until June 1972 that, according to the files, British officials began to consider cutting off support to the Amin regime. The Foreign Office recommended to the Prime Minister’s personal adviser, Lord Bridges, that the despatch of the military training team should be held up. The reason was that Amin had recently delivered several ‘wild and irresponsible’ public statements such as calling for ‘military action against the “imperialists”‘ and joint naval exercises between African and Soviet vessels. His hold on the country seemed ‘increasingly insecure’ and the discipline of the army had deteriorated with killings continuing. ‘The army is now feared by the civilian population’, the Foreign Office noted. The military training team should be delayed since ‘there would be a risk of criticism in the press and parliament which would not be easy to refute’. Heath agreed to delay the despatch of the team in early June.
On 5 August Amin told the British High Commissioner of his intention to expel 80,000 Asian British passport holders from Uganda, giving them three months to leave, and accusing them of excluding Africans from business and being responsible for illegally exporting capital. Heath wrote to Amin urging him to reverse this announcement saying that: ‘The British government have gone out of their way to try to be friendly and cooperate with Uganda ever since your administration took over. We were and are very anxious to help you in all the economic and security problems which face your country. I have hoped that our personal relations could be close’.
Right up until the last, therefore, British ministers were obsequiously trying to deal with this dictator. Even then, the files show that officials wanted to retain the British army training team in Uganda – ‘we thought that it was doing useful work and we did not want the current differences between our two governments to broaden’, the Foreign Office noted. It was Amin who expelled the team in September as British officials then spoke of a break in diplomatic relations. Export licences for 28 armoured cars approved for sale to Uganda were revoked, the other eight having already been delivered.
There is one final aspect to recount that again reveals British priorities. After his overthrow, Obote initially made his intent clear to come back and reinstate his government. In early February 1971 British officials were receiving reports of movements by the Tanzanian military close to the Ugandan border which pointed at the possibility of an invasion to reinstate Obote. These military movements were called off abruptly on the evening of 4 February.
The High Commissioner in Tanzania, Sir Horace Phillips, wrote that ‘I cannot be sure of the reason’ for the halt in these military movements ‘but I think it no coincidence that this was just after I had informed’ President Nyerere of Tanzania ‘of the likelihood of British recognition [of the Amin regime] within a short while’. British recognition actually occurred the following day, 5 February. This meant that what previously would have been for Nyerere ‘action against a rebel regime in support of a legitimate President suddenly assumed the character of an attempted overthrow of an internationally recognised government’. ‘It may be’, Phillips concluded, ‘that this proved an effective deterrent’.
Britain also rejected a second chance of helping to reinstate Obote in June 1972. Word had then reached British officials that Obote was in contact with dissident Ugandan army officers who were planning a coup against Amin. A message delivered to British officials said that in future Obote would promise not to adopt the nationalisation measures that he had previously undertaken, and wanted the British reaction to likely support for this coup. Both Richard Slater in Kampala and the Foreign Office in London agreed not to reply. Slater said that ‘Obote in my view has never been and never will be a friend of Britain’ and that it was not only nationalisation that was the issue of dispute. There were also concerns about whether it would succeed and whether the plan was intended to ‘compromise us with Amin’ – friendly relations then still obviously being of primary concern.
The story thus took its gruesome turn as the Amin regime proceeded to expel the Asian community from Uganda, 27,000 of whom were airlifted to Britain. A campaign of terror was launched throughout the country moving beyond Obote loyalists and the army to the entire country, killing church figures, lawyers, cabinet ministers and anyone else, resulting in the deaths of between 300,000-500,000 people. The regime’s various internal security organisations, notably the State Research Bureau, were responsible for grisly torture and executions.
The regime was only stopped in 1979 when the Tanzanian army, backed by Ugandan exiles, responded to a Ugandan invasion by counter-attacking and eventually overthrowing Amin. Subsequently, Amin escaped to exile in Saudi Arabia where he, his 25 children and six wives were provided with income and lavish expenses until his death.
The British government was asked in a parliamentary question in 1998 whether it would call on the Saudi government to expel Amin from its territory. ‘We have no plans to make such representations’ was the reply by Foreign Office minister Derek Fatchett, Whitehall no doubt being too busy selling arms to its Saudi clients to worry about trifling matters like bringing mass killers to book.
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