Documents on Idi Amin's 1971 coup released

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Ex-dictator Idi Amin Dada

«Popular and a natural leader of men, but simple and practically illiterate»

British diplomats on Idi Amin

afrol News, 7 April - The British Public Record Office recently has declassified a series of documents concerning the military coup staged by brutal dictator Idi Amin in Uganda in 1971. Breaking with earlier speculation, Amin had not obtained help from the British but from the Israelis. The documents however unveil a rush of British support to the new Head of State and a very positive verdict of his personality. 

General Idi Amin Dada is a "popular and a natural leader of men, but simple and practically illiterate; a man of the people," a paper titled "Personality Notes" written by the British Embassy in Kampala in July 1971 assesses. The British were blinded by Amin's expressed love for England and his intentions to build a pro-Western government. "Amin needs our help," the Foreign Office in London concluded, recommending the sale of arms. In his following 8-year terror regime in Uganda, Amin came to give a new meaning to the word "despot".

The British, who immediately were suspected of orchestrating Amin's coup, certainly felt they had reasons to celebrate the downfall of Ugandan President Milton Obote, "one of our most implacable enemies in matters affecting Southern Africa," according to the Foreign Office in 1971. President Obote was a fierce criticiser of British weapon exports to apartheid South Africa, raising support for the possibility of boycotting South Africa and racist Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). He had further "nationalised British companies in Uganda worth millions of pounds," according to the Kampala-based daily, 'The Monitor'.

President Milton Obote left Kampala for a Commonwealth Summit in Singapore in January 1971 and his government was toppled by Major-General Amin on 25 January. Amin and Obote reportedly already were in a feud, Obote allegedly planning to have Amin arrested upon his return. Obote and Amin were however not to meet again.

The newly released British documents show that London was taken by surprise by Amin's coup. In fact, British diplomats went to the Israeli Embassy to gather information about the situation in Uganda, and immediately hit the right source. Colonel Bar Lev, the Israeli military attaché met Amin already on the day of the coup, UK documents show. The role of Bar Lev in preparing the coup, known to have been close to Amin before this event, however remains unclear.

London however lists the Israeli motives for helping Amin to power or to consolidate his power. The British High Commissioner in Kampala explains it to the London central: "The main Israeli objective here is to ensure that the rebellion in southern Sudan keeps on simmering for as long as conditions require the exploitation of any weakness in the Arab world. They do not want the rebels to win. They want them to keep on fighting." Ugandan cooperation with this aim was "vital", 'The Monitor' remarked on this passage, and Amin had proclaimed his willingness to cooperate.

Supporting the theory that Israel was involved in the actual planning of the coup is information Bar Lev gave to the British High Commissioner that Amin's plan on 25 January had been to shoot Obote dead at the airport upon his return from Singapore; a plan later changed. While an Israeli aid to the actual coup remains unclear but reasonable - and a British aid is ruled out - the declassified documents show that both governments did their utmost to secure Amin's grip on power during the days and weeks following the coup. 

The British Foreign Office immediately was thrilled by the news of President Obote's disposure. "General Amin has certainly removed from the African scene one of our most implacable enemies in matters affecting Southern Africa," it concluded two days after the coup. "Our prospects in Uganda have no doubt been considerably enhanced providing we take the opportunities open to us. We now have a thoroughly pro-Western set up in Uganda of which we should take prompt advantage. Amin needs our help."

And the British did help Amin in practical terms. British intelligence followed the trace of ex-President Obote. Receiving news of his arrival in Khartoum on 29 January, the British government immediately warned Amin, through Kenya, that Obote might try to enter Uganda through its border with Sudan. 

The British also promoted the quick international recognition of Amin as Ugandan Head of State. According to the documents, London wished to recognise Amin's government already on the day of the coup, but the matter was made complicated by the quick suspicions Britain had staged the coup against Obote, voiced by Tanzanian President Julius Nyerere. Britain had to move in diplomatic ways.

A British diplomat and intelligence officer in Nairobi, Bruce Mackenzie, persuaded Uganda's neighbour Kenya to recognise Amin. The Israelis joined in recognising him. Thereafter, the international rush followed, where Britain could take an anonymous seat. 

Amin's overtures to praise English institutions such as the Queen, oppose condemnation of South Africa and Rhodesia and his desire for British weapons - "he wants to be able to hit Khartoum with bombers" - made the British Foreign Office to advice against to "overdo the caution," which was being voiced by some diplomats at the spot in early days, finding Amin's exaggerated overtures suspicious. The 'Personality Notes' even state Amin was "Well-disposed to Britain; perhaps to an extent damaging to him in the African context."

As a temporary peace was established in Sudan in 1972 and Amin slowly distanced himself from Israel, the Israelis lost their interest in Uganda, 'The Monitor' observed. Britain first became suspicious against Amin when they found out he had made the same overtures toward the US. As Amin withdrew his promises to hold multi-party elections, made himself a totalitarian dictator and shifted diplomatic attentions toward Ghaddafi's Libya, Britain's cooperation was already unnecessary to him. The terror regime had been established, and went on until the Tananzian army removed him in 1979.

Idi Amin still is alive, living in Saudi Arabia, while Milton Obote has lived in Lusaka (Zambia) since 1987. According to a recent statement by Ugandan First Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Internal Affairs, Eriya Kategaya, Obote would be welcome to return to Uganda. Amin, on the other hand, should be prepared to face charges for atrocities he committed while in power. "For Amin, we have no reconciliation," he said. 

Sources: Based on 'The Monitor', British Public Record Office and afrol archives

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