Eventually I got 19 radios, which had originally been ordered by the ministries of Agriculture, Geological Survey and Water Development. It did not make me very popular with these ministers who thought that they had gone into Uganda Aviation, my own organisation.
As radio transmitters they were perfect. We found they had a range of over 300 miles and would operate from a 12 volt car battery. All the crystals were changed to prevent transmissions being accidentally overheard by ministries which already had the same type and I was given the job of distributing them to secret centres in Uganda and the Congo.
It was a task I thoroughly enjoyed. Two of the Ugandan allocations were put in safe houses owned by British people who were completely loyal to Dr Milton Obote.
One of these Britons was his personal secretary, Ms Burroughs, and this circumstance later saved his life. The second Briton was so prominent that even now I must not disclose the name.
Others went to Obote’s official residence, to his private secretary Henry Kyemba (who wrote State of Blood about Amin’s later presidency), to Idi Amin’s house, and I kept one myself. I then went into the Congo and after Congolese rebels had been trained in their use, the remainder were carried around in sacks as mobile radios and eventually formed a link right into the capital, Kinshasa.
A 24 hour rota of listeners was needed and this we managed to provide. The radio operators allocated to me were fighters who would have to move hundreds of miles amongst enemies ever on the watch for Gbenye’s men. They always moved in pairs, one carrying the radio in a sack and the other a 12 volt car battery that was not a light piece of equipment.
The aerial wire of those days was 100ft long and had to be orientated towards its opposite radio link, the higher the better. There was no night frequency and all voice transmissions had to be sent during daylight. All the sets had a code so that we could always identify the caller and mine was Ndege, meaning ‘bird-man’.
I used to sit back in amazement as I recorded their messages coming by link radios over a thousand miles. On one occasion, while I was listening on my set and Dr Obote was talking on his, we suddenly found ourselves by radio in the middle of a battle of troops and aircraft when the Simbas were ambushed.
Their set went off with a swift farewell but a week later the same code sign came on the air about 500 miles away from the original location. I often used to visualise the terrible hardships and privations the men suffered on those long marches.
After the radios had been organised I tackled the problem of getting four-wheel drive vehicles, which were then very hard to come by. Only American jeeps and British Land Rovers were available on the market and were very expensive.
I was ready to help because I failed to see why the ordinary people of the Congo who had risen to the call of liberty, the clerks, drivers, farmers and peasants, should be asked to pay for anything.
I thought that the other African states which were encouraging the war under the chairmanship of Jomo Kenyatta of Kenya should help finance it and not expect the Congolese to rob banks and then pay in gold.
So I went off looking for vehicles and soon found them in Uganda where the Ministry of Works was about to sell some Land Rovers by public auction. I thought it might be possible to get them for nothing and went along to see the superintendent for engineering, named Claud Stocks, who was a European with great sympathy for the African and his fight for liberty.
After we had discussed the struggle of the Simbas he was prepared to let me have about 14 Land Rovers without charge. They were used vehicles and no longer in service but he knew that he had enough engineers who would, in their own time, get them in good enough condition for the Simbas, which they did by working day and night over the weekend and I eventually had 10 reliable vehicles.
Dispatching Land Rovers
The drivers were brought in from the Congo and none of them spoke a word of English or the local dialect. Each Land Rover was given two 44 gallon drums of fuel and a tool kit, all of which was covered by a heavy tarpaulin, and old. Number plates from various disused government vehicles in the scrap-yard were fixed to them. They were then parked for the night at a very small and out-of-the-way hotel where the drivers were staying. The night passed without incident and the convoy set off at 5am under my leadership until it reached the Congolese border.
There I shook hands with the crews and the armed escorts from the Simbas who, having received our radio signals that we were on our way, were waiting to take over for the long drive past the mercenaries’ positions. Yes! They were great days.
Once again, as in the case of the money paid into the bank for the radios, spies had monitored our movements with the Land Rovers and a few months later Daudi Ochieng’s friend and fellow Acholi Alex Latim, who was leader of the Democratic Party in parliament, was making allegations in the House that he had been staying in that small hotel when the fleet of Land Rovers arrived.
In the subsequent enquiries he was unable to say just how many had arrived but he did produce some of their numbers which in due course were found to be numbers of tractors and unknown vehicles. However, it was true that I had taken the Land Rovers to the hotel and no doubt Latim had received the information weeks later. What I did consider disgraceful was that Latim insisted in the House that he had crept up to the vehicles in the dark, removed the tarpaulins and found elephant ivory hidden underneath, which was untrue. The Land Rovers were packed with fuel and rations.
It was a tragedy that as we battled on, others were more interested in personal gain, either of money or political power. We already knew that Brigadier Opolot, the army commander, was having secret meetings with some of his officers in the house of a royalist named Paulo Kavuma, who was a former regent and Katikkiro of Buganda and a man utterly opposed to the central government.
Opolot had married Kavuma’s daughter which had surprised the traditionalist Baganda as he was an Itesot by tribe. The meetings had been reported to us by Baganda living in the area and the house was one of the first to be kept under constant surveillance using the new electronic system.
This revealed the nature of the plotting and proved conclusively that Brigadier Opolot was not loyal either to his prime minister, Dr Obote, or to his government. The plotting was serious and at one key meeting Daudi Ochieng discussed Amin’s bank account, a matter that should not have been mentioned in the home of Obote’s enemy. If Opolot had any doubts about Amin, who was his deputy commander, he should have gone to his minister, not discussed his suspicions in a village by candlelight. Such actions degraded the spirit of independence.
On this occasion, as on others, I listened to the replay of the tapes and my fears increased that African nationalism had a long way to go before Africa would be really free. There was no doubt that the plotters were dancing to the tune of the CIA and we had been made aware that the American ambassador in Nairobi knew a great deal about the movement of Ugandan troops on the Congo border but the radios were never discovered, mainly because I had used only European men and women to help me in the distribution and in the ‘watch’ system.
Those Africans who were involved with us in other areas of operation were nationalists who believed in their continent and, incidentally, they were the ones more likely to die for their beliefs than end up with great wealth.
Foreign power involvement
Throughout the period foreign power involvement was considerable. The American ambassador stationed in Kenya, William Attwood, has already been mentioned. He was a household name and every African asking questions about the revolution, and they included Daudi Ochieng, were said to be working for him. When Akena Adoko of the General Service Unit had his suit and brief case riffled through while staying in Nairobi at the New Stanley Hotel everyone believed it was done by Attwood’s men. Attwood had not bothered to keep suspicion away from himself and said: “In Africa it always pays to have a good man around the airport; that’s where you really find out what’s going on or what’s going to happen.”
I thought this attitude had been taken too far when I found that one of the Uganda Aviation pilots, Captain Dove, who was working for me, had been taken to the American Embassy in Kampala to make a report to the CIA. Well, that was Captain Dove’s story to me and I believed him.
The world was then full of rumours that there were Chinese and Russians training the rebels in the Congo but this was untrue. The only foreigner with them was myself and only once did President Ghenye give me instructions to look after another one. He was a solitary Egyptian who had been sent out by president Nasser to see what was going on and he had only one thought in mind which was to get out of the country as quickly as possible.
Uganda, inevitably, had to be involved because the colonial boundaries had divided tribes so that there were members of the same families serving with the Congolese Simbas and with the Ugandan army. There were also the added dangers of the mercenaries crossing into Uganda whenever they felt like it to loot shops and farms.
At the time, every Congolese fighting for his country was seen as a communist and, therefore, a villain. Communists or not, the US sponsored president Mobutu treated many of the Simbas with respect after the war. At least one of their leaders, with whom I had been in the battles, was given one of the highest posts in the land and I sat with him and Mobutu years later discussing the old days.
Mobutu Sese Seko knew his strength and was capable of retaining power. If he had to be ruthless he was and where kindness was required he could be kind but I very much doubt if he was prepared to give anyone a third chance. That is how Africa has to be run or the leaders are themselves overthrown. But even he could not survive later international storms and he was deposed when he lost American support.
I had many exciting days in the Congo and had enormous respect for the Simbas, or rebels as Europe called them but who were called nationalists in Africa. They took their war seriously and the memory of Patrice Lumumba was fresh in their minds.
As in more recent times, there were boy soldiers as well as adults and many were youngsters who had seen their parents massacred by the guns of the mercenaries and wanted to fight back. Rebels do fight for ideals and against terrible odds. They kill, it is true, but they have seen whole villages wiped out and to them the massacres are the work of the White man and so all White men must be taught a lesson.
Some Africans are so filled with hate following atrocities to themselves and their families that they are very dangerous and even their leaders have to be wary of them.
I have had many a close shave with such individuals and one of these incidents was in the Congo. For a long time I had heard about a Congolese Simba who had been very close to Patrice Lumumba. They had worked together in the postal service and then this man had served him in a lowly position in the newly created government.
He had watched Patrice being arrested by the Congolese soldiers, seen his arms trussed behind him like an African village chicken being tied for market, and then seen part of a copy of the United Nations Charter forced into his mouth. He never forgave the White pressmen for milling around with their cameras asking the soldiers to push Patrice this way and that to get better pictures.
Over the camp fires I was told that he had become a fighting animal, always in the front line and always attacking. They said that he was dangerous and killed Whites, which indeed he did in Stanleyville, since renamed Kinshasa.
There were many stories about him, most of which were quite untrue, but I did know that he had lost his tongue. It had been cut out by African soldiers after he was captured in the early days of the revolution when Tshombe was trying to seize power. I encountered him myself one hot evening when there was a full moon and the Simbas were changing their patrols, which they usually did once a week because all their fighting was in thick bush.
The fighters were very young, nearly all between 12 and 14 years old, and most of them were carrying the heavy Chinese machine guns with the circular drum-like magazines. They were utterly spent from lack of food and as I was going down one of the tracks, moving from one exhausted group to another, checking radios, I suddenly came upon a huge Congolese carrying a rifle over each shoulder, followed by a small boy with a shattered arm.
The man gave a roar and dropping both guns, he grabbed me round the throat. I know now what it is like to be choked and have your legs turn to rubber. He was quick but my bodyguard of young boys, who were trailing behind, rushed into the commotion and, as I came round, all I could hear was a continuous stream of rattles and grunts from this huge man trying to knock away the young Simbas as they fought to keep him from kicking me to death.
It was indeed the Simba about whom I had heard so much. Normally he would never have been near the Simba headquarters, but after a fierce battle with mercenaries at Mahagi he was bringing back the youngster whose arm had been shattered by a rocket. We came to know each other quite well after that confrontation but I never really trusted him. Killing or revenge was in his heart and no one would ever be able to remove it. No doubt he fought on until his bitter end.
In the Congo disturbances following independence in 1960 I saw Africa in all its aspects of failure and success. Corruption, death, power and dedication were all there to be observed and the lessons digested.
The Europeans had been driven out in their thousands, never to return, and eventually much of what they had built would be covered by the ever encroaching jungle. Soldiers of a once European-controlled army ran amok and the world accused all those who opposed the disintegrating force of doing so in order to ensure a communist take-over.
As scores of the educated Black elite jockeyed for power those with justice on their side were deemed to be in the wrong. Yet the nationalist or rebel, according to your point of view, was usually bright, educated and fired only by a determination to improve the country of his forefathers.
Everywhere I went in the Congo I met this determination, yet these undernourished young nationalists, often carrying weapons as long as themselves, were fighting under horrible conditions. They slept out in the rain forest, through tropical storms, without blankets or shelter, never knowing where their next meal was coming from and with only the clothes they stood up in.
And to stand up at all was an ordeal for many of them, wracked as they were with fever and with pus pouring from the inevitable jungle sores. As for the battles, all they knew was that they had to resist White men with armoured jeeps and a continuous supply of ammunition provided by some unidentified Western power or business interest.
They saw their struggle as one of Africans against Europeans and they were right to do so for their enemies were the mercenaries and the fight was rarely solely between Africans.
Extracted by Sarah Aanyu
Continues tomorrow …