There is no foreign leader, not even the late President Julius Nyerere of Tanzania, who has had such a long fascination and involvement with Uganda as Colonel Muammar Gaddafi.
Nobody has ever asked Gaddafi why he has been so fascinated by Uganda, for so long, and more than any other country. The nearest to his sustained interest has been Chad, his southern neighbour.
Uganda, until oil was discovered in 2006, did not have strategic minerals or sea access that should have been of crucial interest to Libya or Gaddafi personally. It does not have a majority or even a large Muslim population.
Perhaps a long-lost relative of Gaddafi’s once lived in Uganda from the Khedive Ismail protectorate days. Gaddafi, upon coming to power in 1969, soon turned most of his attention to international affairs.
It was none other than Gaddafi who in March 1972 persuaded President Idi Amin to abandon his close ties with Israel and join the Arab and Palestinian cause. Libya then promised and delivered money to Uganda to compensate revenue lost from severing ties with Israel.
In many ways, Amin was very much a Gaddafi kind of leader. He commented a lot and frequently about international affairs. Amin led an obscure East African country but his foreign policy pronouncements gave Uganda a greater presence on the world stage than its economy and military warranted.
He became passionate about the Arab-Israeli conflict. Amin was fiercely pan-African in outlook long before Gaddafi started focusing his energies in 2000 on a united Africa.
Amin in the 1970s was also an outspoken, flamboyant and controversial leader. He had the temerity to lecture British prime ministers and US presidents, something that very few Third World leaders dared do at the time.
Considering what Gaddafi was to become in the 1980s and 1990s, this larger-than-life side to Amin’s personality and foreign policy must have impressed Gaddafi since that is who Gaddafi was and still is.
When Kampala’s turn came to host the 1975 OAU summit, Libya and Saudi Arabia helped meet some of the costs.
During the 1978-79 Tanzania-Uganda war, a Libyan C-130 transport plane was destroyed by a Tanzanian Rocket-Propelled Grenade at Entebbe Airport in April 1979. Several dozen Libyan troops sent to Uganda were killed in the fighting and in ambushes.
Gaddafi was hurt and humiliated by this military defeat and never forgave Tanzania for that.
When the former Minister of Finance under Idi Amin, Brig. Moses Ali, the former deputy Minister of Internal Affairs, Andrew Kayiira, and the former Defence Minister Yoweri Museveni under the post-Amin UNLF government started guerrilla wars against the second Obote government in 1981, Gaddafi eagerly leapt to their assistance.
He supplied them with weapons and money and several guerrillas of Kayiira’s UFM group were sent to Libya in 1982 for military training. Former Cabinet minister, Matthew Rukikaire, told The Monitor of July 4, 2004 that “At that time, Gaddafi was actually bent on supporting UFM because he thought that they were more active, stronger and were made up of older people.”
One of the first countries Museveni established strong ties with after taking power in 1986 was Libya. Museveni’s External Security Organisation (ESO) and the Internal Security Organisation (ISO) intelligence agencies took their names from their Libyan counterparts.
One of the little-known facts of Great Lakes history is that Gaddafi also funded the RPF rebels after they invaded Rwanda in 1990. He provided them arms that were flown into Uganda, then handed to the RPF by the Museveni regime.
It is most ironic, then, that the Gaddafi who has spent most of his long rule sponsoring armed insurgents across Africa should now get so angry when rebels take up weapons against him.
If Gaddafi had an odd and long-running relationship with Uganda the country, after 2001, he developed an even more curious relationship with a kingdom within Uganda called Tooro in western Uganda.
As a result of his friendship with Tooro’s Queen Mother Best Kemigisa (itself a matter of great public speculation and amusement in Uganda), Gaddafi became anything from a regent to the youthful Tooro king Oyo to the main financier of kingdom projects.
Since it has always been believed that Tooro is one of the few places in Uganda where President Museveni has enjoyed unwavering support since 1986, Gaddafi’s involvement with Tooro affairs, bankrolling the renovation of the king’s palace, among other things – the very display of public generosity that is Museveni’s ruling style – it was not long before a somewhat upstaged Museveni started to develop friction with Gaddafi.
Tensions between Museveni and Gaddafi reached the point where, as the WikiLeaks US diplomatic cables later published, in September 2009, Museveni started to get concerned that Gaddafi could even order the shooting down of his presidential jet.
However, relations between the two leaders appear to have been repaired this year. On July 3, Libyan state TV reported that “Ugandan president sends condolences message to Libyan leader for death of his son, all “martyrs” of Nato bombings.”
From the Tropical African Bank in the 1970s (formerly called the Libyan Arab Bank) and since 2001 Uganda Telecom, National Housing and Construction Corporation, the Windsor Lake Victoria Hotel and other companies, Libya has invested substantially in Uganda.
To Uganda’s Muslim community, the lasting legacy of Gaddafi in Uganda will be the beautiful peach and cream-coloured grand mosque atop Old Kampala Hill, a construction project that started in 1972 but seemed like one of those that would never get completed.
Ugandans too have had their long-running fascination with Gaddafi. His flamboyant fashion sense, the hilarious fights his bodyguards always got into with Museveni’s presidential escort, that relationship/friendship/alliance with Best Kemigisa, all made headlines.
Uganda has had leaders over the years (Princess Elizabeth Bagaya, Presidents Binaisa, Museveni, military officers Kahinda Otafiire, politicians Speciosa Kazibwe), who became famous or notorious for their flamboyance or cantankerous utterances.
Gaddafi’s outrageous statements were in the mode familiar to Ugandans.
Ironically, considering the erratic person that Gaddafi is supposed to be, he has maintained a relationship in one form or the other with Uganda spanning four decades. If we were to go by that and to be fair to Gaddafi, 40 years certainly speaks of commitment.