About 40 years ago, in December 1972, a delegation from the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), an Afro-American organisation fighting against racial inequality in the United States, arrived in Uganda for a meeting with then president Idi Amin.
The delegation was led by Roy Innis, its executive director. Innis had been invited by Amin to Uganda along with his group to see an “unprecedented thing in recent history” – Black people owning businesses and running a government of their own without external interference after the expulsion of the Asians from the country.
According to the official newspaper of the time, Voice of Uganda of December 24, 1972, Innis said: “This is the truth, quiet as it is kept, Ugandans are happy and lucky under Gen Amin’s rule of Africa for Black Africans.”
Before leaving Uganda, Innis’ delegation received Ugandan passports and offers of land, jobs and dual citizenship.
CORE replied to this gesture by promising Amin that the first batch of 40 teachers and technicians would come “home” and be part of “this great era of African pioneering.”
Uganda then promised the returnees free housing, medical treatment and dental care at all government facilities.
Ugandan land, according to Amin, would be used to develop the pioneers’ settlement station, which would include farms and African-styled kibbutzim, or industrial centres.
According to the book To Those Who Have Died, Uganda offered its African American friends the unique experience of belonging, at last, to the African continent, contributing to where their effort was valued, and making a commitment according to the enlightened self-interest of the worldwide Black community. Two days after the meeting, Innis had become an admirer of Amin’s foreign policy.
“Uganda’s top foreign policy priorities are to solidify links with the Black African nations, normalise relations with Tanzania and to connect the kidnapped citizens of Africa from the Western Hemisphere. To really fuse the Africans and the Blacks of the United States is a very critical element in African development. Amin really turned into it more than anyone I have ever seen. He believes in it more than we do in the United States. He sees the massive resources we squander,” Innis said.
He equally believed that Uganda’s political and economic outlook under Amin was promising.
“The first thing he (Amin) has done is to give people confidence. The next thing he has done for the first time in modern history of the Black folk was to give us political and economic liberation and the next thing was to set a programme that fights against tribalism. It is an active working programme to diffuse tribalism from being a factor in Uganda’s political life,” he added.
Amin rewarded Roy Innis by including him in Uganda’s official delegation to the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) summit in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia in May 1973. Innis became the first non-Ugandan in the Ugandan delegation to ever attend such a gathering.
The summit was significant for Uganda. Amin had accused Tanzania in the league with Zambia and Zaire (now DR Congo) of breaking the condition of the peace accord drawn up by then Somali president Siad Barre after the abortive 1972 invasion.
According to Uganda, Tanzania broke the terms of the Mogadishu Agreement by continually supporting the anti-Amin guerrillas headed by the former Ugandan president Milton Obote. Matters had been aggravated when the Tanzanian authorities had arrested about 50 Ugandans working for the East African Harbours Corporation and had detained them on spy charges.
Amin had put Ugandan troops on the Tanzanian border on stand-by claiming that a force of about 3,500 Tanzanian troops was poised to attack Uganda. The Somali mediators who went to the border area, however, reported no unusual troop movement.
In Addis Ababa, the dispute was put to a halt, an order made for the release and deportation of all the arrested Ugandans. Amin in return proposed an amnesty allowing Dr Obote and all his guerrillas in Tanzania to return home and “join other Ugandans in building the nation,” suggesting that if Obote and his group did not want to return, Tanzania should expel them.
In Addis Ababa, the two countries tried rapprochement. Amin shook hands with Nyerere for the first time as head of state and made two concessions to the Tanzanians. First, he admitted responsibility for the death of about 24 Tanzanians in Uganda and second he made promise of subsequent compensation for the dead.
Obote writes to the OAU
The 1973 OAU conference had not been a smooth sailing for Uganda. Obote had broken his 28 months of silence and wrote a letter to the African leaders at the summit, accusing Amin’s government of having killed more than 80,000 people in his two-year-old rule, many of whom Obote said were disembowelled.
Appealing to African leaders not to support Amin, Obote said while the OAU celebrated its 10 years of existence, I0 million Ugandans mourned their dead.
Obote’s letter to the OAU leaders detailed 3,500 killings, including the death of seven of his former Cabinet ministers, including former Information, Tourism and Broadcasting minister Alex Ojera, former Public Service and Cabinet Affairs minister Joshua Wakholi, former Agriculture minister John Kakonge, former Internal Affairs minister Basil Bataringaya, former Local Government minister James Ochola, and former minister of Works Shaban Nkutu.
“Too many nations regard what is happening in Uganda as an internal matter. Is the systematic genocide an internal matter or a matter for all mankind?” Obote asked in his letter, adding that the Sharpville Massacre (which had taken place near Johannesburg, South Africa, in 1960) where 70 people were killed and about 180 injured was condemned by the entire civilised world but nobody had condemned the wholesale killings and disappearances of Ugandans.
“I plead that even if as Africans you cannot materially and morally support Ugandans in their determination to overthrow Amin, do not materially and morally support Amin and do not arm him, for to support and to arm him is to give him an international certificate to massacre the people of Uganda at will and on his whims,” Obote added.
Roy Innis reacts
Soon after receiving Obote’s letter in Addis Ababa, CORE leader Roy jumped to Amin’s defence. The letter, he said, contained wild and reckless accusations against Amin.
“Imperialists, colonialists, their agents and their stooges used the letter as a dirty trick to discredit and sully Gen Amin and thus to discourage the thawing in relations between Tanzania’s president Julius Nyerere and the General. Uganda is the symbol of the most important tenets of pan-Africanism and Black self-determination,” Innis noted.
He then telephoned the CORE headquarters in the USA to commend Amin’s speech before the OAU, calling it powerful and impressive.
Upon return from Addis Ababa, Voice of Uganda published a lengthy poem in praise of Amin said to have been written by Innis.
“Oh Idi Amin Dada, thou great African of our time, yours have been words and deeds in their sacred prime. For the fates of the great nation have hung on your words, and how very shrewdly you have played your cards, no matter what the prophet of doom may say,” the poem read in part.
“Before, life of your people was a complete bore, and they were poor, oppressed, exploited and economically sore. And you then came and opened new, dynamic economic pages. And showered progress on the people in realistic stages. In such expert moves that have baffled even the great sages, your electric personality pronounced the imperialists’ doom, your pragmatism has given Ugandans their economic boom...”
“…now you champion the federation of East Africa’s men and women, something which has been lauded in this past 10 years. To have a common trade, tariffs, laws and free flow of money, to enjoy our meat, fish, tea, coffee, grains, milk and honey, For all East Africans to feel one people once again, for socio-cultural cohesion, political unity, economic progress and mutual gain... long live Idi Amin,” it concluded.
Death of plan
However, Amin’s Black American pioneer programme did not go as planned. In his congratulatory message to the newly elected US president Gerald Ford the following year, Amin suggested that the Black man in the US should be given total liberty in America.
“I wish to advise you concerning the issue of our time and to alert you on the impending danger namely: the position of the Black people in your country.
You are aware Africans were kidnapped from Africa by the Whites and forced against their will to leave their motherland and to go in chain to the United States,” Amin wrote, adding that the Black people were hardworking, sincere and indeed had many talents and that they had contributed a lot to the development of America, suggesting that their important role in the society must be recognised.
“As a fellow president and a fellow commander in chief, I wish to advise you that for the smooth running of the administration, you must not discriminate against the Black people. Not only should you appoint them to high offices in your White House staff, your vice president should also be a Black man,” Amin concluded.
By this time, the pioneer programme was still far from being began and Amin seemed to have forgotten his support for the African Americans.
About Roy Innis
It is after Innis’ tour of Africa during the early 1970s that the support for his leadership as CORE’s national director began to fall apart.
Innis’ plan was to create a programme for dual citizenship in Uganda for African Americans similar to how American Jews have dual citizenship in Israel. The choice of Idi Amin as a partner, however, was wrong headed since he would eventually become known as a brutal dictator responsible for the murder of tens of thousands of Ugandan citizens, both political rivals and supporters of Amin.
Innis made Amin a member of CORE for life. Amin along with the Organisation of African Unity would eventually denounce Innis as an agent for US intelligence agencies.