In my previous blog I have already mentioned Idi Amin. Let me recall some events where I encountered Idi Amin more closely or at least had dealings with his regime!
When he took power in January 1972, Kampala erupted in joy, a ”dictator” – they meant Obote – was gone. The man taking over was chief of the army and had been put there by Obote himself for the simple reason that he hoped that Amin would not cause any problems in the future. Amin was illiterate and his use of the English language was rather limited. One year, during his regime, he was invited to Buckingham Palace and at the state banquet, her Majesty the Queen is reported to have invited Amin to have a second helping. “No thanks Madam, I am fed up!” was the answer. I have no idea what Her Majesty thought! Many stories about his Kampala meetings can be heard in Kampala.
But, whatever Obote had hoped, the placing of Amin at the head of the Ugandan Army was a bad calculation. And yet that explosion of joy of the first days was not going to last very long. I recall a very highly-educated individual telling me after the takeover: “at last someone had given us our country back!” Maybe, but already in July 1972 the Indians (mostly successful traders) were expelled from Uganda. In July also some top army officers were planning a take-over but this was foiled by one of the conspirators. After that, things spiralled downwards at an incredible pace; the ones suffering under this were the little people and the have nots. Repression became the rule (in past blogs I have already touched on some of these aspects). The number of individuals who suffered death under Amin’s regime will always remain unknown, but it is estimated that at least half a million people died!
But there are some other aspects of the person of Amin (full title: His Excellency, President for Life, Field Marshal Al Hadji Doctor Idi Amin Dada, VC, DSO, MC, CBE, Lord of All the Beasts of the Earth and Fishes of the Seas and Conqueror of the British Empire in Africa in General and Uganda in Particular), which, when looked at today, make us smile. I remember one year he was to visit Ibanda and we had to stock up in whisky; his love for a good whisky was indeed great. But to see such a colossus of a man coming to you and grabbing both your hands in one of his hands still makes me shiver and conjures up ideas of repression. That same one hand was once shown in a newspaper article of him holding in it his latest newborn baby (and there was still space!). When meeting expatriates Amin had the habit of greetings them graciously with a big smile and a big “thank you!” We never knew what he really meant but we smiled back and said numerous “welcomes”.
When my parents visited me it was during the Amin years. I have already recounted their visit and it was during that time that I managed to find a full case of excellent Bordeaux in the industrial area of Kampala. Where the guy got it from remains a mystery to me. But we did enjoy it despite the other hardships we endured! One thing though that remains a semi-mystery: during all the long years of Obote I, Obote II, and Idi Amin, the breweries continued working!
Early in the Amin years there had been an attempt by rebels coming from Tanzania to invade Uganda via Mbarara. Again this failed but the day it happened I was travelling to Mbarara from Mushanga. Maybe it was my sense of adventure which put me on the road to Mbarara! I wanted to know what was happening, but we were stopped at the entry of town and were told to turn back as there was some fighting in the outskirts of town. We heard some shots and thought it was best to return to base. The man leading the assault would come back later on the political scene of Uganda and finally take over in 1986: Yoweri Kaguta Museveni who is still running the country today.
When the Indians were expelled Uganda degenerated into almost total chaos. In no time the economy collapsed as those who were running it were either leaving voluntarily or (mostly) expelled. For them it was certainly traumatic: on their way to Entebbe Airport, they were stopped at various road blocks and systematically all their possessions taken from them by drunk and drugged soldiers, so that many left empty handed with only their lives more or less intact. However, their industrious spirit would help them in their new lands of residence to emerge as new economic powers. Some even returned to Uganda to start all over again.
Amin had his own way of humiliating people, and one day he had a group of Brittons standing in front of him and they were told to kneel down and recognize him as their lord and master. They did so! One of them, Bob Astles, even became a top advisor in Amin’s government and by God he learned the tricks of cruelty from his master very quickly and was eager to enforce the erratic decisions of Amin. What was called the “State Research” acted as the frightening arm of Amin’s regime. Random imprisonment and death became the norm, and Nile Hotel in Kampala became the headquarters of the place of torture and death. It was said that Amin had a tunnel dug from State House Nakasero to Nile Hotel, which was not very far and that he occasionally visited prisoners to see “how they were doing”. I imagine the fear and fright on their faces when they saw him coming.
During that time a new airforce was created and a few old Mig Jets were bought from Russia. Russian pilots flew them but I have no recollection of any military activity on their part. I suppose those guys were staying in good hotels and enjoyed their time in Uganda. But all was not well for the people and especially politicians. Amin could not stand any criticism and the slightest hint of it would mean torture and death. Some people managed to get through it and save their lives. One case was a high ranking officer, in fact the first fully Sandhurst trained Ugandan officer, who lived through the whole regime. He was even appointed head of the Uganda Development Corporation. But his fate turned sour immediately after the overthrow of Amin and some soldiers of the new regime brought him down in front of his own family. Sad indeed!
For survival you sometimes do crazy things – I have already narrated the story of my car with an extra petrol tank! A flying bomb indeed! Living under Amin regime was not always easy, and you had to keep your head down to avoid trouble. However, sometimes trouble comes to you. On the way home from my teaching at Makerere University one afternoon I overtook some military vehicles. On reaching home, I was almost immediately surrounded by those same vehicles, soldiers spilling out with rifles cocked. I was saved by a large group of students who had heard the commotion. Boy, was I lucky that day! And so one can then imagine how the liberators were received in 1979 when they entered Kampala. Joy was the agenda of the day. I recall the weeks before the overthrow of Amin. I was living at Ggaba National Seminary and evening after evening we could hear shelling in the distance. They were called “saba-saba” and it became a habit, when the shelling started, to hear people shouting “more, more”. Once the Tanzanian army, together with some Ugandan rebels, took over Kampala the joy was real but very subdued. The Tanzanians, a very disciplined army, liberated the whole country and left Kampala in the hands of the rebels. This was going to be the beginning of another dark period for Uganda with five years of repression and military coups. It was only in 1986 that a more definite liberation came our way and since then we have lived in relative peace and prosperity.
Books have been written about Amin and even films produced. They all contain pieces of truth but I cannot assure you that all is as it had been. It was bad and the ones who suffered most were the ones who dared to raise their heads above the parapet. Sometimes it is best to live a “low key” life! But one thing is for sure: I really did live in interesting times.