Melbourne Airport in Florida, USA, and Stansted in England have one thing in common. Besides both being airports, they were the aerial link at the time of isolation of Uganda during the Idi Amin reign.
At Stansted airport, 45km from London, a large cargo plane flown by an American crew sped down the runway. Its cargo was not of your ordinary airline. It included an assortment of Land Rover tyres, several cases of Scotch whisky, bundles of new Ugandan bank notes printed in Edinburgh and aircraft parts for the Uganda Police Air Wing, among other items.
According to The Washington Post of April 9, 1978, “there was a pervasive aroma of coffee on the plane and three armed Ugandans from Amin’s feared State Research Bureau.”
At Melbourne Airport, The Washington Post says, “a similar operation has been going on for much of the past year (1977). An aircraft of Uganda Airlines has been flying approximately twice a month and loading up telecommunications equipment and other made-in-the United States supplies.”
The two planes, a converted Boeing 707 and a Lockheed Hercules C130, shuttled between Uganda and the West. From Entebbe they took raw coffee and returned to Entebbe with the much needed goods. This was the only surviving economic relationship between Uganda and the West following the imposition of economic sanctions on Uganda’s coffee as a way of bringing Amin’s regime down.
Trade in Ugandan coffee
This kind of movement made the US a leader in the importation of Uganda’s coffee ahead of Great Britain. Between 1975 and 1976 the US took $158m worth of Uganda’s coffee, while in the first nine months of 1977 alone it took $220m worth of Ugandan coffee.
The coffee trade to Britain and the US helped sustain the regime by providing it with the much needed foreign exchange. The US accounted for almost a third of Uganda’s total coffee exports while Britain another fifth of Uganda’s foreign-exchange earnings.
The commercial ties between the US and Uganda were later viewed as an important weapon against Amin.
“American businessmen are performing a number of useful functions for president Amin, who, in his landlocked country surrounded by hostile or less than friendly neighbours, is particularly dependent on aeronautical and communications technology,” said The Washington Post.
Among the key players in running Amin’s coffee trade was Page Airways of Rochester, and its subsidiaries, Page Gulfstream and Airjet. It was this company that sold Amin two jet aircrafts and also provided the crew for the Lockheed C130 on the Entebbe-Stansted route. The American pilots were earning up to $4,000 while flight engineers earned $3,000 a month. The pilots carried large sums of money with them to pay for fuelling and landing fees. At the time, Uganda’s credit rating could not allow the airline to be offered services on credit.
Having sold Amin the Grumman Gulfstream executive jet in 1973, Charles Hanner, a senior salesman at Page Airways, established a close relationship with the president.
“Hanner’s name comes up with regularity when American commerce with Uganda is discussed. He is Mister Uganda in the States, there no one touches Charles when it comes to dealing with the president,” reports The Washington Post.
The relationship was so close that Amin made Hanner an honorary Ugandan citizen and appointed him his personal representative in the United States with the rank of honorary consul at large.
The principal function of the Ugandan Boeing that was very frequent at Melbourne was to ship out telecommunications equipment provided for Uganda by the Harris Corporation under a $4 million contract signed in April 1977.
The same company was contracted to set up an earth satellite station in Uganda and train a number of Ugandans in Melbourne and Rochester in the use of communications technology. Another company that kept working with the Uganda government despite the international pressure was Bell Helicopters. It was not only selling helicopters to Uganda, but also training pilots.
However at some point in 1977, the US state department stopped a sale of three helicopters, saying they were not approving the sale of military or quasi military equipment to Uganda. By the time the sale was stopped, Uganda had already deposited $2m for the purchase in a New York bank. Similarly, an attempt by Zimex Aviation of Zurich to buy another Boeing 707 on behalf of Uganda Airlines was blocked.
The driving force behind these behind the scenes transactions was rising world coffee prices. To facilitate the trade, another American charter company called Seaboard World Airlines was contacted by ‘coffee interests’ on the London commodity exchange to fly raw coffee beans from Uganda to the Red Sea port of Djibouti.
The company used a DC8 which made two round trips a day between Entebbe and Djibouti carrying 50 tonnes of coffee on each flight. At the time, a tonne of Ugandan coffee was going for $7,000 on the London market.
‘Big Five’ in illicit coffee
Five companies identified as the ‘Big Five’ were named as the ones driving the illicit trade of Ugandan coffee. These were Folger Coffee Company (a subsidiary of Procter & Gamble), General Foods, Saks International, ACLI Sugar Company and Nestles.
The companies were fronts for much bigger companies that needed Ugandan coffee. As a result, in late November 1977, the National Coffee Association, an umbrella body for major coffee companies in the United States, issued a statement urging the US government to implement “a uniform national policy” regarding trade with Uganda.
This move was without no contestation, not all American lawmakers were against the trade. A number of Black conservatives and some government quarters were against restricting trade with Uganda.
“Their most articulate spokesman is Carlos Russell, a Panamanian of West Indian origin who teaches African studies at Brooklyn College, strongly asserts that there is no reign of terror, that Amin is neither a monster nor a buffoon, and that he had widespread popular support in Uganda,” The Washington Post reported. In return, Amin named an island after Russell in Lake Victoria ‘Carlos Island’.