Uganda: butcher on the block

David North,Dan Turner April 23 1979

Uganda: butcher on the block

David North,Dan Turner April 23 1979

Uganda: butcher on the block


The voice, hazed in static, was flat, unemotional. But the message sent a sigh of relief round the world. “From today,” said the speaker, “the oppressive regime of the traitor Idi Amin is no longer in power. The liberation forces have appealed to all peaceloving countries to support the people in their cause.”

Even more than the fall last week of Kampala, Uganda’s capital, that message-over the very transmitters he once used to taunt and mislead the world—symbolized the fall from power of the country’s 240-pound dictator. As the words of Lieutenant-Colonel David Oyite Ojok, one of two colonels who led exile forces into Kampala alongside the Tanzanian army, echoed into history, the tyrant was baying defiance from a mobile transmitter in the general area of Uganda’s second-largest city, Jinja, 50 miles to the east. But by the weekend, Uganda Radio reported that Amin had flown to “an Arab country”—presumably Libya.

His military position had been hopeless. Most of the 1,500 Libyan mercenaries who had helped hold up the “free” Ugandans and their Tanzanian allies were reported to have headed for home and Amin’s own Kakwa and Nubian troops’ loyalty was doubtful. There were reports from eastern Uganda of

unofficial mopping-up of pro-Amin troops by the local populace and the liberation drive provoked by Amin’s invasion of Tanzania last year was well on the way to completion after six months of campaigning.

Politically, too, Amin was almost

without resources. With African and other international opinion rallying to a provisional government headed by 67year-old educator Yussufu Luie, a respected figure since the final days of colonial rule, there was hardly anyone left to turn to. Little wonder that Kampala erupted in colorful joy (marred by outbreaks of looting) as the conquering troops took control of the city. It seemed but a step to the end of the man the outside world loved to laugh at—but who came to represent all that was evil in post-colonial Africa. Amin amused millions by declaring himself “conquerer of the British Empire” and “King of the Scots” ahd sending a “getwell-soon from Watergate” telegram to Richard Nixon. But British author and journalist David Martin was closer to the mark when he declared that he had “done more to confirm the prejudices of the white racialist about the black man than any African in the past turbulent decade.”

Behind the banter lay the butcheryestimates of the number of Ugandans slaughtered during Amin’s eight years in power range in the hundreds of thousands. Amin was an acute embarrassment to his fellow leaders in the Organ-

ization of African Unity, the loosely knit debating forum of black African states which he chaired for one humiliating year. But that was not so much because of his record as a mass murierer—too much blood has been spilled by other hands—but because his genius for publicity ensured that his doings received maximum exposure.

Those who saw him in action never ceased to marvel at the apparently effortless way he shuffled his personas. For Idi Amin was, in fact, three men: the rough, bluff soldier-statesman, who could and did behave with some charm in public; the private libertine, who had nearly as many wives as King Henry VIII and once dismissed a female foreign minister for a totally fictitious sexual offence; and the primitive savage who was said to drink the blood of his victims to placate his gods.

At Uganda’s independence in 1962, Amin was one of only two black soldiers

the British had seen fit to make commissioned officers, and after seizing control by overthrowing Milton Obote in a military coup in 1971 he proceeded to maintain it, not just by brutalizing the population at large but by dividing and brutalizing his armed forces.

As a member of the Kakwa, a relatively small northern tribe of 50,000 in a country of 12 million, Amin was suspicious of the loyalty he could expect from an army dominated by larger tribes, particularly the Acholi and the Langi (Obote’s tribe). As a Moslem he also foresaw difficulties in keeping power, since Moslems represented less than 10 per cent of the population.

His solution was to hire thousands of new soldiers, some of them Kakwa, some of them Moslem Nubians—descendants of a 19th-century migration from the Sudan and refugees from the 1960s war of separation against the Sudanese government. Currying loyalty

among his new recruits by giving them businesses expropriated from citizens, promoting them to top positions within the military and importing rivers of alcohol and luxuries, Amin launched them on a purge of the rest of his forces which left him unchallenged.

Gruesome stories began to circulate about Acholi and Langi tribesmen being rounded up and exterminated. Contemporary accounts spoke of prisoners forced to beat each other to death, of people being hacked to pieces, disembowelled, blown up with explosives, suffocated in car trunks, burned alive, dragged along roads tied to Land Rovers, starved to death, whipped to death, gradually dismembered. “The luckier ones were shot... and then mutilated,” said one account.

On the pretext of the ever present threat of invasion from Tanzania, to the south, where Obote had been given refuge by Tanzanian President Julius

Nyerere, Acholi and Langi soldiers were frequently ordered to the frontier. They seldom returned and it emerged later that they were systematically slaughtered by their Nubian comrades. The military secure, Amin turned on his religious and political opponents and, over the years, the Christian Acholi and Langi tribes suffered further systematic depredations.

The political savagery was complemented by economic mismanagement. Amin’s own pockets bulged with U.S. dollars (illegally held under his own currency regulations) and Uganda shillings, and his recurrent orders to the central bank were a simple prescription for high-altitude inflation: print more money. When once-prosperous copper miners complained, Amin had their union leaders killed.

Complete economic collapse was prevented for a time by high coffee prices. But last fall they began to plummet and

the U.S. government imposed a ban on commercial dealings with Uganda, making it impossible to pay for much needed oil imports. In recent months, gasoline was restricted to official vehicles and farmers couldn’t get their crops to the market. Refugees reported that government payrolls were not being met and that even the privileged military class was having to do without its booze. The shilling was down to a tenth of its pre-Amin value and the situation was so bad, one observer said, that the soldiers, who had become used to plundering the general populace when its pay cheques came through, found there was nowhere to turn. There was nothing left to steal.

The decline within was paralleled by a similar disintegration in Uganda’s relations with the outside world. In the months following his take-over, Amin was the darling of the British, who feared Obote’s socialism would harm

their local investments. He also took up with the Israelis, who were looking for friends in black Africa to counteract Arab hostility.

Amin alienated both, first by shipping more than 40,000 Asians to Britain in 1972, on the grounds that they were undermining the Ugandan economy, and, in the case of the Israelis, by deciding he could secure a better military and economic arrangement with Libya and other Arab states.

Declaring that Hitler had been right all along about the Jews, Amin convinced the Libyans that he was going to set up an Islamic state, in spite of Uganda’s scanty Moslem population. Though Saudi Arabia and Egypt soon tired of him, Libya’s Colonel Moammar Khadafy remained faithful until the moment, this month, when the last Libyan mercenaries flew home in the face of heavy losses and the Tanzanian advance.

The relationship was not without its

difficult moments, however. When Libyan-backed terrorists of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine hijacked an Air France jet with 270 aboard to Entebbe Airport in July, 1976, the Israelis staged a sensational airborne rescue which left 20 Ugandan soldiers, as well as seven hijackers, dead.

In his book A State of Blood, Amin’s former health minister, Henry Kyemba, says the subsequent death of Anglican Archbishop Janani Luwum was a direct result of the raid. Amin went to great lengths to reassert his domination and his program included the harassment and denunciation of Christian churches. Luwum and his bishops drew up a memorandum outlining their mistreatment and included a critique of the government’s lawlessness. Luwum’s dead body was later dumped at the Kampala mortuary by soldiers. Amin said he had been killed in an automobile accident, but Kyemba says the body was bullet-riddled.

If Amin was, as some dubbed him, the most hated black man north of the Limpopo river, “Major” Bob Astles, his right-hand man, undoubtedly qualifies as the most hated white. The mysterious cockney, complete with handlebar moustache, served Amin as military strategist, informer and public relations officer, and was usually on hand to assure visiting reporters that “Big Daddy,” a jolly chap, was much abused by the world press. But behind his rather down-at-heel charm, Astles was blamed for setting up Amin’s dreaded State Research Bureau, one of the cruelest secret service organizations in the world, and feeding many of the dictator’s enemies to the crocodiles. Before fleeing Kampala, Astles’ thugs went into frenzies of bloodshed, killing hundreds of people. As a last gesture they threw hand grenades into the crowded cells at their headquarters.

The man who, for the moment at least, leads Uganda is a former principal of Kampala’s Makerere University. Lule abandoned his plans for a quiet retirement late in March at the Tanzanian town of Moshi, where more than 100 Ugandan exiles of contrasting political persuasions met to overcome their differences and select a leader. He was the unanimous choice and his election has been welcomed by Ugandans as a means of bridging political rifts within the country while presenting a civilized face to the international community.

Distinguished by his good judgment and urbanity Lule, an educator first and politician second, was one of three Africans picked to serve as a minister in the colonial government before self-rule. Later, as principal at Makerere, Lule fell afoul of the radical Obote regime when he resisted Obote’s attempts to politicize his campus and in 1970 he was replaced by a more tractable figure.

Lule then went to London, where he worked for the Commonwealth Secretariat, and finally to Ghana, where he headed up the Association of African Universities.

His acceptance of the job of Uganda’s third president pleased Tanzanian President Julius Nyerere—his friend since their Edinburgh University days—no end. Before the Moshi meeting, Nyerere told the Ugandan exiles that he would only continue his invasion, which he emphasized was simply a means to return power to the Ugandan people, if they united under an acceptable leader.

Lule’s first public statements last week were to emphasize that his Uganda National Liberation Front stood for the rule of law, would arrange elections as soon as possible and would not permit revenge against Amin’s former followers, though that clemency would not, he made clear, apply to the dictator himself. It seemed that Lule’s rule might turn out to be as civilized as Amin’s was barbaric. Certainly a refreshing change, he seemed unlikely ever to rival the notoriety of his unlamented predecessor.

David North/Dan Turner