Who Put Gen. Idi Amin in Power?
The following extract is from an article published by The Monitor (Uganda) on March 31, 2002
There has long been suspicion that Britain organised the 1971 coup in Uganda which brought Idi Amin to power. Recently released Foreign Office papers show that the Israelis were more likely to have been the culprits. But Britain and Israel rushed to help Amin and sold him weapons.
In early January 1971 a plot is being hatched in Uganda that will unleash a terror that has become a byword for evil in Africa. General Idi Amin is about to become the military dictator of Uganda, throwing out President Milton Obote. Amin and Obote have been at daggers drawn for months. Obote has demoted his chief of staff, and is now preparing to have him arrested, possibly murdered.
As the crisis mounts, the Foreign Office in London and its representative in Kampala are engaged in another serious matter. One of Obote’s ministers has said in a speech that during colonial rule the British had punished Obote’s grandfather by hanging him up by the hair for several hours. The High Commission in Kampala want to know if this could be true and ask the Foreign office in London if there is any evidence. The chaps in the Foreign Office in London, languid, patronising, wonder if you can hang someone up by “woolly African hair”. “I suppose it is just possible that unorthodox punishment might have been meted out to him I will bear the story in mind when I speak to my Langi historian friend at Oxford”, writes the Uganda desk officer on Jan. 5.
In their cynical world-weary way they exchange messages on the subject until January 25th when the Foreign Office finally sends a note saying it can find no evidence for the allegation. Someone has scribbled in the margin that it all seems a bit irrelevant now. Obote was overthrown that morning.
Obote had gone to Singapore attending a summit of Commonwealth leaders. The Ugandan president was no friend of the British. He bitterly criticised British arms sales to South Africa and he had nationalised British companies in Uganda worth millions of pounds. He was expected to give Ted Edward Heath, the British Prime Minister, a hard time at the Commonwealth meeting.
There has long been a suggestion that the British government engineered the coup. If true, the plotters certainly did not tell the Foreign Office. Richard Slater, the High Commissioner in Kampala, was caught completely unawares.
His early telegrams suggest bewilderment. But he immediately goes to the embassy that he believes to be close to Amin, the Israeli. He is right. Colonel Bar Lev, the Israeli military attaché, has already met Amin on the day of the coup and has been out on the streets of Kampala. Officially the First Secretary at the Embassy, Bar Lev has been in Uganda for five years and has recently been responsible for setting up a paramilitary police force and training the army and police.
All the British High Commission telegrams immediately after the coup quote Colonel Bar Lev. He says that Amin had all pro Obote officers in the army arrested because Obote was going to have Amin arrested on his return from Singapore. Bar Lev discounts any possibility of any moves against Amin by army units up country. “It appears that Amin is now firmly in control of all elements of army (sic) which controls vital points.”
London is excited. “There is a good deal of interest here and we are receiving a number of enquiries,” writes Sir Alex Douglas-Home, the Foreign Secretary.
By the end of the first day the Foreign Office is already considering recognising Amin’s rule. But in Tanzania, President Julius Nyerere is already accusing Britain of organising the coup and the British are afraid of being too close to Amin too soon. They decide not to lead the way in recognition but be close behind others that do. After a few days they persuade Kenya to lead the way in recognising the new regime.
The day after the coup, Slater says he has been to talk to Colonel Bar Lev who has just been talking to Amin again. “He made it clear at once that (Amin) wanted me to be made aware of his intentions” says Slater. Amin, Bar Lev tells him, wants to hold elections and restore multi party democracy to Uganda within three or five months. Bar Lev also lists the advice he is giving to Amin. In London the Foreign Office concludes: “We now have a thoroughly pro-Western set up in Uganda of which we should take prompt advantage. Amin needs our help.”
Britain let Israel or rather Colonel Bar Lev take the lead and avoid being seen as too close to the Israelis in Uganda while increasing contact in Tel Aviv. Bar Lev informs the British that “all potential foci of resistance have been eliminated”. A number of pro-Obote officers are shot but Bar Lev explains to the British that “Amin’s plan” had been “to let Obote return and then shoot him at the airport, together with a number of those who had gone to meet him. This plan was abandoned because of the difficulty of synchronising it with the liquidation of pro-Obote elements in the army.”
Bar Lev also says that the police chief, Erinayo Oryema, was being chased by Amin’s troops and took refuge in Bar Lev’s residence. The Israeli boasts that he persuaded Oryema to surrender and persuaded Amin to forgive him and include him in the new regime. (Oryema was later murdered by Amin in 1977 together with fellow minister Oboth Ofumbi and Anglican Archbishop Janan Luwum).
In London the British want to know why Uganda is so important to Israel. The High Commissioner spells it out: “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.”
Sudan supports the Palestinian cause against Israel and Israel is determined to make Sudan pay by providing arms and ammunition to the southern Sudanese rebellion. Uganda’s co-operation is vital. Israel also wants Uganda’s vote at the United Nations.
Sir Alec Douglas-Home, Britain’s Foreign Secretary and chief advocate of arming apartheid South Africa, is keen for Britain to back the new government. When British intelligence reports that Obote has arrived in Khartoum on Jan. 29 and may try to re-enter Uganda from the northern border, the foreign secretary orders that a warning message be sent to Amin through the Kenyans.
Soon after a more sinister Briton turns up in Kampala. Bruce Mackenzie is a British intelligence officer resident in Kenya who was also a roving ambassador for President Jomo Kenyatta. It was also certainly Mackenzie who persuaded Kenya to recognise Amin, though Kenya’s other neighbours; Somalia and Tanzania treat the coup as mutiny.
Mackenzie is a cantankerous former fighter pilot with a handlebar moustache and firm views about who is on “our side” and who is an enemy. He immediately urges London to back Amin, telling the Foreign Office to sell him armoured cars.
Two days later an internal Foreign Office assessment reads: “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 providing we take the opportunities open to us “
Amin is certainly making all the right noises for the British. He has said he will tell other African leaders not to criticise Rhodesia or South Africa, he will not nationalise British firms in Uganda and sees Britain as an ally that has done much for Uganda.
To pursue these “opportunities” an increasingly sceptical Slater is ordered “to get as close to Amin as you can and see whether you can develop a degree of familiarity which would enable you to feed a certain amount of advice.”
But what are these opportunities? Britain sends out a Foreign Office minister, Lord Boyd, who meets Amin on April 3. Amin, he reports, wants a signed portrait of Queen Elizabeth and a royal visit as soon as possible. Amin tells Lord Boyd that he has written her Majesty “a very nice letter”.
The British like this. Even more they like Amin’s desire for guns. He wants to be able to hit Khartoum with bombers. The Israelis have already obliged by providing ten refurbished American-made Sherman tanks and lots of small arms. But Amin wants armoured cars and aircraft. He likes the new Harrier jump jet that Britain is developing and, incredibly, the British think of selling them as well as Phantoms and Jaguars, all of them heavyweight fighter bombers.
With a haste that upsets the Ministry of Defence, the Foreign Office brings over some senior officers to observe a display of British weaponry in action. From Kampala Slater’s warnings to proceed cautiously are swept aside by the likes of Sir Alec Douglas-Home.
He writes: “The P(rime) M(inister) will be watching this and will, I am sure, want us to take quick advantage of any opportunity of selling arms. Don’t overdo the caution.”
But it transpires Amin is playing a double game. Slater’s caution is proved right. Amin told the British how much he admired them and their weapons. He has told the Americans exactly the same thing. This worries Britain less than the possibility that he will approach the French with a similar request.
On March 3, Mackenzie urges Britain to supply them quickly. He says Amin is relying primarily on Israel, then on Britain and lastly on Kenya. He then flies off to Israel to see Prime Minister, Golda Meir and General Moshe Dayan. Seven years later Amin had Mackenzie murdered, placing a bomb on his plane as he left Uganda after a brief visit, ironically to try to sell Amin weapons.
In Kampala Slater seems to give up. He even begins to warm to Amin, noting his popularity and his clownishness. “He has the wherewithal to provide a satisfactory administration and has shown great qualities of leadership and a marked flair for PR…” though he admits he is “Large, ungainly, inarticulate and prone to gout He has earned a great deal of popularity by mixing freely driving his own jeep, ignoring security precautions. I believe him sincere in his wish to hold elections.” Slater concludes that there is no alternative. “I had reached the end of the road with Obote“, he writes.
Yet his caution about Amin had been right. Amin’s love affair with Britain and Israel lasted just over a year. Israel overplayed its hand in helping to put Amin in power and thought he was their puppet. He resented that, especially when they demanded payment for the help they were giving Uganda.
Idi Amin’s plane
Carl Taylor was a corporate pilot. His career covered 30-something years and the world.He had several “adventures”, maybe none to compare with this one. Betty remembers hearing that he piloted planes for people like John F. Kennedy in Wisconsin during his presidential campaign, for Actress Elizabeth Taylor when she was married to Senator John Warner. And, also for the Pro-basketball team, Lakers, way back before they moved to California. The family had a scare when he piloted with the Lakers…They heard one day in early 60’s, that their plane had crash-landed in a cornfield in Iowa. Knowing he was their pilot at the time, they were really scared!! But, turns out, he was sick and stayed in New York City that day and his co-pilot had taken the flight. No serious injuries in the crash landing and Carl got to go and fly the plane out of the cornfield!! He commented that it was harder to fly the plane out than the landing might have been!! Sadly, Carl’s career and life ended in April 1981, just 5 years after the Idi Amin incident, when the plane with he and two businessmen crashed on landing approach near the Alpena, Michigan airport. He is buried in the Ft. Snelling National Cemetery in Minneapolis, MN.
Carl Taylor was the pilot who flew Idi Amin’s president’s Westwind jet back to it’s Israeli builders. Carl was at the Uganda airport when Idi Amin came to the airport on a bicycle to meet them. This was just 2 months after the 4th of July Israeli raid on Entebbe to free more than 100 hostages from an Air France jet that was hijacked.