Early in 1975, the British government was ready to strike selected Uganda targets.
The strike would have been a response to the execution by firing squad of Denis Hills, a Briton who was teaching at Makerere University.
Hills had been arrested after security agents raided his home in Kololo and got a manuscript of his book The White Pumpkin in which he called then president Idi Amin “a village tyrant.”
How we got here
Denis Hills arrived in Uganda in 1963 from where he started lecturing at Makerere University.
He was then arrested in April 1975 and paraded before the Uganda Military Tribunal headed by Juma Ali Oka Rokoni, popularly known as Juma Butabika
The military tribunal charged Hills with spying and sedition. He was found guilty of calling Amin a “Black Nero” and a “village tyrant” in the book that was yet to be published.
Nero (in full Nero Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus) was a Roman emperor who lived during the 1st Century AD. He was the fifth and last emperor of the Julio-Claudian dynasty, which had been founded by Augustus. Nero is commonly regarded to be one of the worst emperors in Rome’s history.
Hills’ punishment was death by firing squad.
To save Hills, the British government sent a retired army officer, Lt Gen Chandos Blair, under whose command Amin had served in the King’s African Rifles (KAR) before Uganda’s independence in 1962.
Accompanying Gen Blair was Iain Grahame, a retired a major who was Amin’s regimental commander in the KAR.
According to the Los Angeles Times of May 3, 2004, “the two British envoys who brought an appeal from Queen Elizabeth II to spare Hills’ life were forced to crawl on their knees through a low entrance to a hut where Amin received them.”
On the day of their arrival, Amin announced that Hills was to be executed two days earlier than the date set by the tribunal.
In the announcement, Amin said: “The two British representatives were guests of the Uganda Defence Council and would be dealing with defence matters only.”
On the eve of the execution, another announcement postponing it was made as efforts by Zairean leader Mobutu Sese Seko were going on.
The New York Times of June 25, 1975, reported that, “President Idi Amin of Uganda today postponed the executive of Denis Hills, a Briton, but insisted that only a personal visit by foreign secretary James Callaghan of Britain could save Mr Hills.”
Mobutu to the rescue
While on a working visit to Zaire (DR Congo) in June that year, Amin was taken on a fishing expedition by his host where the Hills’ situation was discussed.
“It was during this expedition that he felt he ought to take the opportunity to raise the question of Hills. It had taken him an hour’s argument before Amin would agree to reprieve Hills,” stated telegram number 257 from the British High Commission in Kinshasa.
The telegram attributed the change in Amin’s attitude to the respect for Mobutu, saying: “An important element in Amin’s attitude was the support he had had from Zaire alone among African countries when he first came to power.”
Mobutu went ahead to assign his foreign affairs minister Mandungu Bula Nyati to be the liaison between Zaire, Britain and Uganda for the release of Denis Hills.
On July 8, 1975, the British Foreign and Commonwealth affairs minister James Callaghan arrived in Kinshasa for talks with the Zairean leader.
During a meeting between Callaghan and his Zairean counterpart, the British minister presented a document detailing outstanding issues between Uganda and Britain.
“If we were able to take Hills back to England, British public opinion would understand, but if not any improvement would be out of the question,” the report read in part.
Despite the various issues between Uganda and Britain, the release of Denis Hills dominated talks between the two ministers.
At the end of the meeting in Kinshasa, the two foreign ministers flew to Uganda where the Zairean minister was to brief president Amin first before his meeting with Britain’s James Callaghan.
According to Telegram number 004 of July 9, 1975, from the British High Commission in Kampala to Kinshasa, Uganda Foreign Affairs minister Juma Oris “would meet the party at the airport and take Zairean foreign minister to report to Amin on Kinshasa discussions.”
The Zairean minister told his Uganda counterpart that “the precise decision about Hills, if he were to be kept in prison the chapter would not be closed.”
On the morning of July 10, 1975, Callaghan met with Amin at the command post in Kampala.
President Mobutu had been the first African head of state to help Amin after he took power in 1971. He was extremely grateful to Mobutu for giving him good advice and he fully accepted Mobutu’s views.
With no warning, Amin said he was ready to release Hills if Callaghan came to plead for his clemency.
During the meeting, Hills was ushered into the room and then Amin presented him to Callaghan.
From the command post, Amin drove with Callaghan to State House where a press conference was held.
“I would like to say how genuinely I have loved Uganda during my 12 years here, and still do. I am very sorry that I am leaving Uganda, but I will never forget this country and the kindness of the people and my pleasure in teaching Ugandan students,” Hills said at the press conference.
The British minister then said there had been no bargain for Hills’s release.
“The president has made a gesture of magnanimity. No one wished to enter into a bargain over Mr Hills, he has been released to me, and the minister has just given me his passport which I will hand back to him at London,” Callaghan told the media.
The minister then told journalists that the release of Hills would be a starting point for better relations between the Uganda and Britain.
Hills back home
Talking to the media at Heathrow airport in London soon after arrival, Hills narrated his three-month ordeal.
“I had accepted the decision, and now that it has been revoked, I am now adjusting to being here. I had accepted the punishment.”
On the language he had used to describe Amin, Hills said he had personally apologised to Amin before leaving Uganda and appreciated the way he had been treated in prison awaiting his execution.
“I think it was unparliamentarily language. I regret it now. And some other phrases for which I have, in fact, expressed my regret in writing to the president. It wouldn’t be fair of me to make any sort of criticism of my treatment. It has been perfectly correct according to the prison regulations which are much the same all over the world. And in military custody I was also treated according to the manual of military law which is based on British Army Law and it would really be untrue of me to make a complaint about my treatment.”
The military tribunal charged Denis Hills with spying and sedition. He was found guilty of calling Amin a “Black Nero” and a “village tyrant” in the book that was yet to be published. His punishment was death by firing squad.