History of Uganda (1971–79)
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The Ugandan economy was devastated by Amin's policies, including the expulsion of Asians, the nationalisation of businesses and industry, and the expansion of the public sector. The real value of salaries and wages collapsed by 90% in less than a decade. The number of people killed as a result of his regime is unknown; estimates from international observers and human rights groups range from 100,000 to 500,000.
From Uganda's independence from Great Britain in 1962 to early 1971, Milton Obote's regime had terrorized, harassed, and tortured people. Frequent food shortages had sent prices through the ceiling. Obote's persecution of Indian traders had contributed to this. During Obote's regime, flagrant and widespread corruption had emerged. The regime was disliked, particularly in Buganda where people had suffered the most.
By January 1971, Milton Obote, then President of Uganda, was prepared to rid himself of the potential threat posed by Idi Amin. Departing for the 1971 Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting at Singapore, he relayed orders to loyal Langi officers that Amin and his supporters in the army were to be arrested. Various versions emerged of the way this news was leaked to Amin. Also, the role of the foreign powers in the coup had been debated until recently. Documents declassified by the British Foreign Office reveal that, contrary to earlier speculations, it was not directly facilitated by Great Britain but benefited from covert support by Israel which saw Idi Amin as an agent to de-stabilise Islamic Sudan. The documents however unveil an outrightly positive assessment of Amin's personality by the British authorities as well as recommendations of support and the sale of arms to the new regime.
In any case, Amin decided to forestall Obote and strike first. In the early morning hours of January 25, 1971, mechanized army units loyal to him attacked strategic targets in Kampala and the airport at Entebbe, where the first shell fired by a pro-Amin tank commander killed two Roman Catholic priests in the airport waiting room. Amin's troops easily overcame the disorganized opposition to the coup, and Amin almost immediately initiated mass executions of Acholi and Langi troops, whom he believed to be pro-Obote.
The Amin coup was warmly welcomed by most of the people of the Buganda kingdom, which Obote had attempted to dismantle. They seemed willing to forget that their new president, Idi Amin, had been the tool of that military suppression. Amin made the usual statements about his government's intent to play a mere “caretaker role” until the country could recover sufficiently for civilian rule. Amin repudiated Obote's non-aligned foreign policy, and his government was quickly recognized by Israel, Britain, and the United States. By contrast, presidents Julius Nyerere of Tanzania, Kenneth Kaunda of Zambia, Jomo Kenyatta of Kenya, and the Organization of African Unity (OAU) initially refused to accept the legitimacy of the new military government. Nyerere, in particular, opposed Amin's regime, and he offered hospitality to the exiled Obote, facilitating his attempts to raise a force and return to power.
Once in power
Amin's military experience, which was virtually his only experience, determined the character of his rule. He renamed Government House “the Command Post”, instituted an advisory defense council composed of military commanders, placed military tribunals above the system of civil law, appointed soldiers to top government posts and parastatal agencies, and even informed the newly inducted civilian cabinet ministers that they would be subject to military discipline.
Uganda was, in effect, governed from a collection of military barracks scattered across the country, where battalion commanders, acting like local warlords, represented the coercive arm of the government. The Ugandan General Service Unit (GSU), an intelligence agency created by the previous government, was disbanded and replaced by the Ugandan State Research Bureau (SRB). SRB headquarters at Nakasero became the scene of torture and executions over the next years.
Despite its outward display of a military chain of command, Amin's government was arguably more consumed with rivalries, regional divisions, and ethnic politics than the Uganda People's Congress (UPC) coalition that it had replaced. The army itself was an arena of lethal competition, in which losers were usually eliminated. Within the officer corps, those trained in Britain opposed those trained in Israel, and both stood against the untrained, who soon eliminated many of the army's most experienced officers. In 1966, well before the Amin era, northerners in the army had assaulted and harassed soldiers from the south. In 1971 and 1972, the Lugbara and Kakwa (Amin's ethnic group) from the West Nile were slaughtering northern Acholi and Langi, who were identified with Obote. Then the Kakwa fought the Lugbara. Amin came to rely on Nubians and on former Anyanya rebels from southern Sudan.
Amin recruited his followers from his own tribe, the Kakwas, along with Sudanese and Nubians. By 1977, these 3 groups formed 60% of the 22 top generals and 75% of the cabinet. Similarly, Muslims formed 80% and 87.5% of these groups even though they were only 5% of the population. This helps explain why Amin survived 8 attempted coups.
The army grew from 10,000 to 25,000 by 1978. Amin's army was largely a mercenary force. Half the soldiers were Sudanese, 26% Congolese, only 24% were Ugandan, mostly Muslim and Kakwa.
On August 7, 1973, Idi Amin decreed Swahili was to be Uganda's official language. 12 out of the 20 districts had chosen this, the other 8 wanted Luganda.
The army, which had been progressively expanded under Obote, was further doubled and redoubled under Amin. Recruitment was largely, but not entirely, in the north. There were periodic purges, when various battalion commanders were viewed as potential problems or became real threats. Each purge provided new opportunities for promotions from the ranks. The commander of the Uganda Air Force, Smuts Guweddeko, had previously worked as a telephone operator; the unofficial executioner for the regime, Major Malyamungu, had formerly been a nightwatch officer. By the mid-1970s, only the most trustworthy military units were allowed ammunition, although this prohibition did not prevent a series of mutinies and murders. An attempt by an American journalist, Nicholas Stroh, and his colleague, Robert Siedle, to investigate one of these barracks outbreaks in 1972 at the Simba battalion in Mbarara led to their disappearances and, later, deaths.
Muammar Gaddafi and the Soviet Union
Amin never forgot the source of his power. He spent much of his time rewarding, promoting, and manipulating the officers and soldiers of the Ugandan army. Financing his ever-increasing military expenditures was a continuing concern. Early in 1972, he reversed foreign policy — never a major issue for Amin — to secure financial and military aid from Muammar Gaddafi of Libya. Amin expelled the remaining Israeli advisers, to whom he was much indebted, and became anti-Israel. To induce foreign aid from Saudi Arabia, he rediscovered his previously neglected Islamic heritage. He also commissioned the construction of a great mosque on Kampala Hill in the capital city, but it was never completed during his rule because much of the money intended for it was embezzled. In 2008, however, Amin's dream of building one of Africa's largest mosques came true, and construction was finally completed more than 30 years after it initially began.
Expulsion of Indians and nationalisations
In August 1972, Amin expelled almost all of Uganda's 80,000 Asians and seized their property. Although Amin proclaimed that the “common man” was the beneficiary of this drastic act — which proved immensely popular in Uganda and most of Africa — it was actually the Ugandan army that emerged with the houses, cars, and businesses of the departing Asian minority. This expropriation of foreign property proved disastrous for the already declining economy. With the economy now run by Ugandan army officers and supporters, local businesses were run into the ground from mismanagement and abuse of power, cement factories at Tororo and Fort Portal collapsed from lack of maintenance and neglect, and sugar production ground to a halt as unmaintained machinery jammed permanently.
Uganda's export crops were sold by government parastatals, but most of the foreign currency they earned went for purchasing imports for the army. The most famous example was the so-called “whisky run” to Stansted Airport in Britain, where planeloads of Scotch whisky, transistor radios, and luxury items were purchased for Amin to distribute among his officers and troops. An African proverb, it was said, summed up Amin's treatment of his army: “A dog with a bone in its mouth can't bite.”
The rural African producers and farmers, particularly of coffee, turned to smuggling, especially to Kenya. The smuggling problem became an obsession with Amin; toward the end of his rule, he appointed his mercenary and political adviser, the former British citizen Bob Astles, to take all necessary steps to eliminate the problem. These steps included orders to the Ugandan police and army to shoot smugglers on sight.
Another near-obsession for Amin was the threat of a counterattack by former president Obote. Shortly after the expulsion of Asians in 1972, Obote did launch such an attempt across the Tanzanian border into southwestern Uganda. His small army contingent in twenty-seven trucks set out to capture the southern Ugandan military post at Masaka but instead settled down to await a general uprising against Amin, which did not occur. A planned seizure of the airport at Entebbe by soldiers in an allegedly hijacked East African Airways passenger aircraft was aborted when Obote's pilot blew out the aircraft's tires and it remained in Tanzania. Amin was able to mobilize his more reliable Malire Mechanical Regiment and expel the invaders.
Although jubilant at his success, Amin realized that Obote, with Nyerere's aid, might try again. He had the SRB and the newly formed Public Safety Unit (PSU) redouble their efforts to uncover subversives and other imagined enemies of the state. General fear and insecurity became a way of life for the populace, as thousands of people disappeared. In an ominous twist, people sometimes learned by listening to the radio that they were “about to disappear.”
State terrorism was evidenced in a series of spectacular incidents; for example, High Court Judge Benedicto Kiwanuka, former head of government and leader of the banned DP, was seized directly from his courtroom. Like many other victims, he was forced to remove his shoes and then bundled into the trunk of a car, never to be seen alive again. Whether calculated or not, the symbolism of a pair of shoes by the roadside to mark the passing of a human life was a bizarre yet piercing form of state terrorism.
During the eight years under Amin's rule, the Ugandan environment and ecological system was subjected to abuse and destruction by widespread poaching and deforesting committed by both smugglers and Ugandan army soldiers. It is reported that Uganda lost 75% of its elephants, 98% of its rhinos, 90% of its crocodiles, 80% of its lions and leopards, in addition to numerous species of bird.
Palestinian hijackers of Air France Flight 139
Amin did attempt to establish ties with an international terrorist group in June 1976, when he offered the Palestinian hijackers of an Air France flight from Tel Aviv a protected base at the old airport at Entebbe, from which to press their demands in exchange for the release of Israeli hostages. The dramatic rescue of the hostages by Israeli commandos was a severe blow to Amin. Humiliated, he retaliated against an elderly hostage—75-year-old Dora Bloch— who was hospitalized in poor health at the time of the raid and was left behind. Bloch was kidnapped from her hospital bed and murdered on Amin's orders, along with the entire civilian staff of Entebbe airport.
Amin's government, conducted by often erratic personal proclamation, continued on. Because he was illiterate his entire life — a disability shared with most of his fellow military officers and soldiers — Amin relayed orders and policy decisions orally by telephone, over the radio, and in long rambling speeches to which civil servants were told to pay close attention. The bureaucracy soon became paralyzed as government administrators feared to make what might prove to be a wrong decision that would displease or anger Amin in the slightest which would result in their immediate arrest and imprisonment or summary execution.
Shortly after Amin seized power, the minister of defence demanded, and was given, command of the Ministry of Education office building, but then the decision was reversed by Amin for no clear reason. Important education files were lost during their transfer back and forth by wheelbarrow. In many respects, Amin's government in the 1970s resembled the governments of nineteenth-century African monarchs, with the same problems of enforcing orders at a distance, controlling rival factions at court, and rewarding loyal followers with plunder. However, Amin's regime was possibly less efficient than those of the pre-colonial monarchs.
Religious conflict was another characteristic of the Amin regime that had its origins in the nineteenth century. After rediscovering his Islamic allegiance in the effort to gain foreign aid from Libya and Saudi Arabia, Amin began to pay more attention to the formerly deprived Muslims in Uganda, a move which turned out to be a mixed blessing for them. Muslims began to do well in what economic opportunities yet remained, the more so if they had relatives in the army. Construction work began on Kibuli Hill, the site of Kampala's most prominent mosque. Many Ugandan Muslims with a sense of history believed that the Muslim defeat by Christians in 1889 was finally being redressed. Christians, in turn, perceived that they were under siege as a religious group; it was clear that Amin viewed the churches as potential centres of opposition. A number of priests and ministers disappeared in the course of the 1970s, but the matter reached a climax with the formal protest against army terrorism in 1977 by Church of Uganda ministers, led by Archbishop Janani Luwum. Although Luwum's body was subsequently recovered from a clumsily contrived “auto accident”, subsequent investigations revealed that Luwum had been shot dead.
This latest in a long line of atrocities was greeted with international condemnation, but apart from the continued trade boycott initiated by the United States in July 1978, verbal condemnation was not accompanied by action. In September 1978, Amin banned nearly all Christian Church activities for their subversiveness. By early 1978 Amin's circle of close associates had shrunk significantly — the result of defections and executions. Because of his violent temper as well as his erratic and unpredicable behavior, it was increasingly risky to be too close to Amin, as his vice president and formerly trusted associate, General Mustafa Adrisi, discovered. When Adrisi was injured in a suspicious auto accident, troops loyal to him became restive. The once reliable Malire Mechanized Regiment mutinied, as did other units.
In October 1978, Amin sent troops still loyal to him against the mutineers, some of whom fled across the Tanzanian border. Amin then claimed that Tanzanian President Nyerere, his perennial enemy, had been at the root of his troubles. Amin accused Nyerere of waging war against Uganda, and, hoping to divert attention from his internal troubles and rally Uganda against the foreign adversary, Amin invaded Tanzanian territory and formally annexed a section across the Kagera River boundary on November 1, 1978.
Declaring a formal state of war against Uganda, Nyerere mobilized his citizen army reserves and counterattacked, joined by Ugandan exiles united as the Uganda National Liberation Army (UNLA). The Ugandan Army retreated steadily, expending much of its energy by looting along the way. Libya's Qadhafi sent 3,000 troops to aid Amin, but the Libyans soon found themselves on the front line, while behind them Ugandan Army units were using supply trucks to carry their newly plundered wealth in the opposite direction. Tanzania and the UNLA took Kampala on April 11, 1979, and Amin fled by air, first to Libya and later to a permanent exile at Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. The five-month war, which had cost Tanzania an estimated US$1 million per day, was over.
- This article incorporates public domain material from websites or documents of the Library of Congress Country Studies. - Uganda
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