This year marks 34 years since Idi Amin was overthrown on April 11 by a combined force of Tanzania People’s Defence Forces (TPDF) and Ugandan exiles. In this fifth issue of our six-part series on Amin’s last days in power, his son Jaffar Remo Amin, narrates his father’s escape from a “smoking” Kampala, his boisterous address in Jinja and Soroti, and near death in Gulu as he desperately tried to reach Arua and his hometown of Koboko.
For all the allegations of cowardice and other characterisations levelled against dad over the years by his enemies, at the 11th hour, dad proved all these allegations and characterisations wrong.
Here was a man who against the advice of his officers and Crack Presidential Guards had decided to remain in Kampala to await his fate after having ensured that his loved ones had been evacuated.
“A captain does not abandon his ship” scenario was played out to devastating effect on April 6, 1979 when dad made an announcement on Uganda Broadcasting Corporation radio that he would stay in the country.
During this broadcast, he called on Ugandans not to be afraid of the “cowardly enemy bombardment with long range artillery”, adding that “the enemy has only seized part of south Buganda, together with a little part of Ankole.” Dad insisted, “I will stay here except when I leave Kampala for another place in Uganda”.
With Kampala almost falling, this announcement by dad prompted senior army officers like Mzee Yosa, Sergeant Bhuga from the Gimara Kakwa clan, Captain Asio of the Nyooke Kakwa clan and several hefty presidential guards to plot to get their commander-in-chief out of Kampala with or without his permission.
On April 11, 1979 when his government was overthrown, dad was still at Munyonyo in the vicinity of Kampala. He wanted to die in battle like a true soldier but several of his Presidential Guards would not let him. They actually immobilised him in the process with straps and placed him in his factory prepared 200 series Mercedes Benz coupe rally car. Then the convoy of expensive Mercedes Benz 240 SEL 6.4s set off in tow for Jinja just as Kampala was occupied by the “liberators”.
At Jinja, dad made an emotional speech to Ugandans in general and the Basoga in particular as he was fleeing to safety in a convoy headed for Arua and Koboko in northern Uganda.
Dad told the scared crowd that had been hurriedly assembled that Jinja is where he would make his last stand and die, if need be. He reminded the Basoga and his countrymen of all the good he had tried to do for his fellow native Africans and yet “all the thanks he gets for it is them turning against him”.
“You want me to go but one day you will lament that maybe I was good for the country after all,” he said. “You will then look for me but you will not find me.” “People will cry after me but they will not find me,” dad continued, amidst the initial murmurs of “Agende Kajambiya”.
Ironically, dad’s words to Ugandans through an assembled crowd of Basoga are the same words Ugandans lament over three decades later after witnessing years of grinding poverty and seeing the truth come to pass in that singular farewell.
According to him [dad], he spent that whole week in eastern Uganda with Jumba Masagazi running to and from the Malaba-Busia border trying to get the fuel his regime had paid for but the Kenyans refused to release it claiming that a new government was in place. The fuel, he hoped, could help his remaining forces move and push back the invaders.
On Wednesday, April 11, 1979 at 7am,deposed dad advised his troops on Radio Deuschwelle (Federal Republic of West Germany):
“Mimi bado Rahisi ya Uganda. Usitupe bunduki yako. Kufa na bunduki yako” (“I am still the President of Uganda. Don’t throw away your gun.
Die with your gun”). That was the first time many people (including my avatar Juma) heard him speak after his final broadcast in Kampala.
That same day, the BBC World Service announced the fall of Kampala to the Tanzanian forces commanded by Colonel Benjamin Msuya. BBC correspondent John Osman and BBC stringer Charles Harrison had kept the world abreast with the rapidly changing military situation in Uganda.
Late on April 10, 1979, unconfirmed reports had said the Tanzanian forces were already in Kampala.
John Osman had interviewed dad in February 1977 on the circumstances of the deaths of Anglican Archbishop Janan Luwum and two cabinet ministers Lt. Col. Wilson Erinayo Oryema and Charles Oboth-Ofumbi. So he had closely followed events that unfolded in Uganda preceding dad’s “speedy” fall from the “highest position in the land” and he was familiar with Uganda’s politics.
However, Radio Uganda was silent on the news. Instead the home service on medium wave and the external service on short wave frequencies were both playing light music.
Then at about 3:56pm, transmission on UBC was interrupted. After a few moments of silence, the heavy Luo-accented voice of a man came on air. He introduced himself as Lt. Col. David Oyite-Ojok. In a broadcast that was not very clear, the words “...Idi Amin is no longer in power...” filtered through. At 4:20pm that afternoon, Lt. Col. Oyite-Ojok’s announcement was repeated on the home service of Radio Uganda. This was the historic message broadcast on that fateful day by David Oyite-Ojok:
“Fellow countrymen, I am Lt. Col. David Oyite-Ojok. On behalf of the Uganda National Liberation Forces, I bring you good news. The Ugandan Liberation Forces have captured the Uganda...capital of Kampala today Wednesday, 11 April 1979...Idi Amin is no longer in power...”
However, something odd happened at 5pm when the external frequency on short-wave of UBC came on air, out of the blue, playing light music.
Those old enough to remember would know that the external service of Radio Uganda broadcasted from the Dakabela relay station in Soroti, 208km east of Kampala. Then it went off air as abruptly as it had come on.
“What was going on?” asked nervous Ugandans. There was silence for more than four hours, which only heightened the tension in Kampala. Then at 8pm, the state-owned radio in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania announced in Kiswahili that it was now going to link up with Radio Uganda in Kampala for a special message. Then in English, came the announcement, “This is Radio Uganda. Stand by for an address to the nation by Mr. Yusuf K. Lule, chairman of the Executive Committee of the Uganda National Liberation Front.”
During that broadcast, it was formally announced that Yusuf Lule had become the new president of the Republic of Uganda. A provisional government was announced and Ugandans were told that elections would be held “as soon as possible.”
Significantly, Uganda’s radio station had called itself “Radio Uganda” rather than the “Uganda Broadcasting Corporation” as it was known in dad’s era. As the then BBC Nairobi Editor for monitoring Tom Heaton recalls, “This gave us a clue as to what to watch out for on the Soroti external frequency.”
At 10 O’clock the same night, the home service of Radio Uganda closed down but 35 minutes later, the external service shortwave frequency broadcasting from Soroti suddenly announced, “Dear listeners: this is the external service of Uganda Broadcasting Corporation...”
At 10:41pm, there came another segment of broadcasting. There were two voices - one male and unknown, the other, a low soft baritone bass familiar to Ugandans, the international community, and especially weary diplomats for eight long years. That voice was dad’s and the broadcast segment went like this:
Voice one: “Hello!”
Voice two: “Are you ready?”
Voice one: “Yes, we are ready, please, Your Excellency.”
Then voice two again: “I, President Idi Amin Dada of the Republic of Uganda, I would like to denounce the announcement made by Lt. Col. Oyite-Ojok, the so-called chief-of-staff, that my government has been overthrown and they have formed their rebellion government in Uganda…” It was now clear that dad was in Soroti, broadcasting on his sophisticated electronic equipment that he had frequently used on his upcountry tours. Dad gave a second version of his speech from Soroti in Kiswahili but it was the largely ineffective defiance of a desperate leader, now deposed.
On the day dad was toppled, there were “celebrations”, “celebrations” and more “celebrations” reminiscent of the ones that occurred when he took over power from Apollo Milton Obote in 1971.
There were also rampant killings of people labelled as dad’s henchmen - the sometimes-unfair reference to anybody associated to dad by tribe, religion and region of origin, including people who did not benefit from dad’s rule in Uganda. These scenes replayed themselves over and over again.
On April 12, 1979, when dad passed through Lira and Gulu in northern Uganda, he was still intent on hanging onto power. However, it was only a dream at this time. Nonetheless, he continued his feeble attempts to hang on.
On April 13, 1979,while still broadcasting from the relay station in Soroti in Teso area and later still, on the Gilgili Radio Station at Arua probably on a recorded tape, dad was still telling Ugandans that he was their President. However, deep down, he knew that he had been had.
One of dad’s associates on the entourage Mzee Kivumbi was able to give a blow by blow account of their movements between April 10, 1979 and April 23, 1979 when they arrived in Arua.
Kivumbi was a signaler in the presidential security.
According to him, there were several attempts to block, capture and even kill dad as he made his way back home through eastern Uganda.
This ranged from heavy fighting in Teso to trees being felled onto the roads in Lango land to block his convoy from passing through and dramatic an incident in Gulu when it all could have ended.
Apparently, the so-called “Luo militias” had risen up, realising that the nation had changed hands but dad passed through all hostile territory without being hurt and experiencing some of the fiction included in the book and film about him titled Rise and Fall of Idi Amin.
A harrowing incident which showed both dad’s bravery and ability to calm agitated soldiers happened in Gulu when an artillery gunman spotted the fast moving presidential convoy, levelled his artillery towards the oncoming convoy and then gave the conventional “Holuko” - HALT!
Then the soldier started to harangue his commander-in-chief.
“All the officers have left. We are only soldiers and NCOs. Now you Affende are leaving? Better we die here and now rather than leave you to pass”[sic].
According to him, telling me in a hushed tone, dad got out of the E200 Series Mercedes Coupe and strode towards the 3,000 plus remnants of his fighting force and pointed at the daring soldier in reply.
“Here is a soldier. If I had 20 or more like him, we could not be defeated,” he told them.
These few words made the soldier bow his head, with tears in his eyes, having realised that he had confronted the commander-in-chief. But the words also turned the tide into sympathy from a hostile 3,000 strong battle weary troops, his last fighting force.
“Where are the field commanders?” dad asked the soldiers.
“They all headed for Arua” they answered.
“Soldiers, let me go and try and convince them to return to the battle field,” interjected dad.
“We also need reinforcements from Libya and Gulu and Arua Airfield are still in our hands. We will check whether Nakasongola is still in our hands. Kenya has blocked our fuel supply. The only way out is through the Sudan and Libya,” he explained.
They let them proceed to Arua. It was a close shave!
Death of Janan Luwum
February 1977. The murder of Archbishop Janan Luwum in February 1977, more than any of the previous killings by the Amin regime, became the last straw of in its moral legitimacy internally and internationally. From this atrocity, Amin more than ever before became indefensible. The human rights accusations to the UN and the USA Senate gained credibility and caused imposition of economic sanctions.
From the deteriorating economic conditions, the popular uprising attempt by the Makerere University students, the uncovered two major plots to oust him, and the impact of Luwum’s death, Amin’s internal popularity and external support were now at their lowest. His solution to this problem was to get soldiers declare him ‘Life President’ in April 1977.
The 1978-79 war. In July 1978, there were border clashes over grazing fields between Bahima herdsmen across the Uganda-Tanzania border in the then Mbarara and Masaka districts of Uganda. Amin’s men would later enter Tanzanian border and accused the country of having a role in the border insecurity and deployed there. Tanzanian troops later retaliated and fought back Amin men. His fall was eminent.
Source: Uganda’s Presidents: An illustrated biography. (Fountain Publishers)
Continues in Sunday Monitor