Under the line of fire. April 11 marked 34 years since Idi Amin was overthrown by a combined force of Tanzania People’s Defence Forces (TPDF) and Ugandan exiles. In this fourth part of our series – Idi Amin: The Last Days – as told by his son Jaffar Remo Amin, we reveal how a panicking Amin executed a daring mission to evacuate his family out of Entebbe to Libya as mortar bombs were falling on the runway.
Upon arriving in Kampala, we were tentatively enrolled at Buganda Road Primary School by the chief presidential protocol officer Nasr Ondoga, who was responsible for all the president’s personal affairs, for the final duration of our childhood stay in our beloved country.
All the children who had left Kabale Preparatory School (apart from Mwanga Alemi who went to reside with his mother at Command Post Kololo and Asha Mbabazi who went to reside with her mother in Kololo as well), were resident with Mama Sarah Kyolaba at the present day Kampala State House, Nakasero (formerly Nakasero Lodge).
During this time, no one was residing at Entebbe State House and it was only used for State Functions as Entebbe was near the war front and constant infiltration from the porous “Masaka, Mpigi shoreline” rendered it unsafe to stay there. This was mostly in March 1979 and Kampala was taken in April 1979.
Dad’s bombastic propaganda statements continued on radio. On March 26, 1979 Radio Uganda announced that the President was “cut off at Entebbe.” We would go so much as to affirm dad’s victory announced by the Uganda Broadcasting Corporation on March 26, 1979 when it announced that “the President was cut off at Entebbe but managed to repel the enemy forces with the support of loyal troops”.
Announcements through the radio
The announcement by the radio station might have had some truth in it since this was the exact time dad was negotiating with Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi to receive his immediate family into Tripoli, and he needed the still useful Entebbe International Airport. The invading troops were still more than 70 miles away from Kampala when dad was negotiating with Gaddafi to receive us. Since vanguards of the so-called liberation forces had possibly already infiltrated some parts of the route to Entebbe by the time dad was frantically trying to get us out of Uganda, he addressed the nation asking “Ugandans who believe in God to pray day and night.”
The liberators intensified their efforts because they were hell-bent on overthrowing dad. On March 27, 1979, the “liberation” bombs commonly referred to as “Saba-Saba”, landed on the compounds of the Republic House at Mengo (Bulange building) and the Army Shop nearby in the evening. Meanwhile, a cabinet in waiting had been formed by the Uganda National Liberation Front (UNLF) in Moshi on March 24 and 25, 1979. This cabinet had been formed out of 22 political groups that had emerged in opposition to dad’s regime.
On March 28, 1979, at about 9am, Lt. Col. Pangarasio Onek, the CO (commanding officer) of General Headquarters, Mbuya, instructed his troops to commandeer any available means of transport: matatus, trucks, tractors, cars, taxis, etc, to take their families “home.” My avatar [my cousin with whom I have done a lot of research on our family], Yuga Juma Onziga, knew there and then that it was “a game over” for dad’s regime. Dad’s army was in total disarray and now fighting to “save their skins.”
The war ended at Lukaya when most of the soldiers and Secret Service Personnel either said “Congo na gawa” or “Sudan na gawa” or high tailed it out of the country. Some even said let him fight this out with his favorite Air Force and Marines – a reminder of the dangers of favouring particular units in the military over others.
As dad’s army continued to disintegrate, his bombastic propaganda statements continued on state controlled radio but by now dad knew better. On March 28, 1979, Radio Uganda claimed that dad had “smashed through the Tanzanian forces and reopened the road to Entebbe” which had been closed by the invading forces. The bluff and the bombast that had served him well for eight years were rapidly losing its effect. As a consolation, dad was now fighting a private war to evacuate some 80 members of his family and close associates to safety in Libya.
Commissioner urges people to work
Meanwhile the district commissioner of Kampala, Muhammad, addressed a rally in Kampala where he urged people to turn up for work and business as usual, yet the rebels were actually 20 miles outside Entebbe at the time.
On March 28, 1979 at about 4pm, Yuga Juma Onziga along with his wife and a two-week-old baby girl, his father and brother, fled to Arua. Between Kiryandongo Hospital and Karuma Falls, the car, a Toyota matatu they had rented, overturned and some people were injured but none seriously. The matatu was totally written off and Juma lost his JVC radio and stereo cassette in this accident.
Fortunately, his younger brother, who was driving later from Kampala also to Arua, stopped by and conveyed his wife and child along to Arua. The rest of them transferred to a nearby lorry and arrived in Arua early in the morning of March 29. They finally converged at their clan village of Rugbuza later that afternoon. The rest is history!
The same day March 28, 1979,Tanzanian long-range artillery began bombing Kampala. At about 11:20pm, Radio Uganda broadcast a news flash saying the attack was close by. “Tonight ... is the first time when the Tanzanian aggressors with mercenaries and traitors, using long-range artillery, have bombarded Kampala...” said a newscaster. This admission of truth by the national radio made Ugandans realise how close dad’s fall was.
At that time the truth about dad’s impending downfall remained concealed by the Kampala authorities. However, BBC World Service regularly intercepted Radio Uganda broadcasts from their monitoring station at Caversham Park in England. Ugandans who were brave and bold enough to follow the events at the risk of being discovered by the notorious State Research Bureau intelligence agents continued to quietly keep track of BBC broadcasts and the truth about dad’s impending defeat. They had begun to do so early in the war.
How we flew to Libya
The day my family flew out of Entebbe to Libya we could hear the artillery shells in the distance getting closer. It was amazing and there was a sense of disbelief. Dad was having 60 to 80 seats installed in a cargo plane for all of us. He was talking to Gaddafi on the phone, telling him, “My children are coming”. Dad sent us ahead because he wanted to stay on to make his last stand, even though he knew that the war was lost.
Apparently, a reluctant Egyptian pilot had to be commandeered and he was paid cash down in hard currency so that he could accept to fly the president’s children out of the country to safety. The bombardment was only 20 miles away then. The Boeing 707 cargo plane had recently come in from one of its expensive cargo transport flights taking coffee to the USA and he (the pilot) was very tired. It had no seats whatsoever.
So, some 60 to 80 seats were hurriedly placed in the plane to accommodate probably 60 persons who were given blankets against the cold emanating from the bare aluminum floor. I had actually been hurriedly discharged from Mulago Hospital following a sprain of my ankle and still had an itchy plaster on.
The Boeing 707 managed to take off under strange circumstances, due to the fact that artillery shellfire was now raining into the airport area. It was on the night of March 27! The bodyguards were forced to place four cars around the plane and they raced down the runway like lighting for the pilot until we were airborne!
What an uncomfortable ride to safety this was, all the way to Tripoli, Libya!
The plane ride to Tripoli was rough and uncomfortable. I have often reflected about what could have gone wrong with a plane that had no seats and was flown by a reluctant Egyptian pilot that had to be commandeered and paid in hard currency, before accepting to fly the President’s children out of the country to safety. I have often wondered what would have happened if the Egyptian pilot didn’t honour the hefty bribe he received from dad to fly us out of Uganda to safety but decided not to dwell on the predicament. Some say it was the fatigue that built the reluctance and no civilian pilot wants to work under a war situation, which was understandable under the circumstance.
We left behind some very prized items. I still see in my mind’s eye an ornate golden Mantle Clock left in my dad’s State House bedroom that had been given to dad by Tito of Yugoslavia on one of his last state visits to the Balkans. That visit holds a lot of meaning to me since dad had promised me that if my grades improved, he would take me on his next visit abroad. My grades did improve but my brother Lumumba was chosen on that particular trip and I remember my kid brother feeding a giraffe in the Belgrade Zoo on a photo shoot with the World War II hero. I remember asking my stepmother Mama Sarah if she had remembered to bring the Mantle Clock and she regretted that it had stayed in State House Entebbe.
Continues next week in Saturday Monitor.
‘Memories of our last hours in Uganda’
I will never forget the last days of our stay in Uganda due to the constant boom-boom sound made by the “Saba-Saba BM21” artillery fired into the capital Kampala by the liberators. Having been picked up from dad’s residence in Nakasero where we were residing at the time, we were all gathered at Command Post in Kololo, another of dad’s residences.
Then we set off in a convoy towards Munyonyo (Cape Town View) and used the Garuga detour towards Entebbe, coming out near Kajansi since some liberation troops had already cut off – and probably laid an ambush – on the main road probably around the Lubowa Estates area. We arrived at the old colonial residences (State House Entebbe), to await the planned flight to Tripoli, Libya.
Mama Sarah Kyolaba had preferred to stay at Nakasero Lodge in Kampala even though she and dad’s other wife, Mama Madina, previously jointly shifted to State House Entebbe, which has a better defense position following attempts to raid the Kampala residences by insurgents.
In 1978, Mama Madina had left for Iraq together with Mama Nabirye, the presidential bodyguard dad married the same year, 1978, for medical treatment. Mama Nabirye had previously been in residence at the Cape Town View Resort before leaving for Iraq.
Mama Madina had a detached retina while the expectant bride, Mama Nabirye, went for precautionary tests. After the fall of dad’s government, the two women ended up first in Central Africa then in Paris, France after the fall of Jean Bedel Bokassa, president of the Central African Republic and dad’s friend, also in 1979.
My sister Zam Zam (Mama Nabirye’s daughter) was born in Bangui the capital of the Central African Republic on the night of the Military coup against Bokassa. Then she and Mama Madina left together for Mobutu’s Kinshasa in 1979 via Paris, France where Catherine Bokassa had taken refuge.
Friendship with gaddafi
Idi Amin and Muammar Gaddafi struck up a friendship. After Idi Amin’s government was overthrown in Uganda, Muammar Gaddafi welcomed him and his entourage into Libya where the Libyan government took care of them for several months. On the little known occasion relating to Amin threatening to walk to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia if Gaddafi did not offer him safe passage to the holy land of Sunni Islam, Amin had felt betrayed by Gaddafi because Gaddafi wanted to be the Chairman of the Organisation of African Unity in 1979.
To increase his chances of getting elected to the chairmanship of the OAU, Gaddafi had to “befriend” Julius Nyerere, the President of Tanzania who was responsible for Amin’s ouster from power in Uganda.