Henry Kyemba: How I fled from Idi Amin regime

LEFT: Mr Kyemba at his home in Jinja recently. He says he uses the shirt he is wearing only during interviews about Amin’s regime. Mr Kyemba adds that the shirt given to him by a medical friend in 1973 evokes memories of the Amin reign. Photo by Henry Lubega. RIGHT: Kyemba (L), Prince Mutebi (C) and Mayanja Nkangi in London in 1977 after fleeing Idi Amin’s government. The former Amin health minister and ex- PPS to Obote says he had to cover up events in his life so as to escape into exile in 1977.COURTESY PHOTO

What you need to know:

Series. In the last 50 years of Uganda as a sovereign independent state, there have been five major waves of political exile – in 1966 after the attack on Lubiri, in 1971 following Obote’s overthrow, in 1979 after Amin’s fall, in 1985 following Obote’s second fall and in 1986 when NRA came to town. In between these flash-points, however, many Ugandans have still been forced to flee to exile due to political factors.

But fleeing one’s homeland was never easy both emotionally and in terms of planning. Many things could go wrong, but many did make it to safety abroad

In our new series “ROAD TO EXILE” starting this week, Sunday Monitor brings out the personal stories of many prominent Ugandans as they undertook that perilous journey to safety. Henry Lubega met former Amin’s minister of Health Henry Kyemba and below, he recounts his story.

He was the first “inner circle” government official to have come out openly talking about the indiscriminate killings that were happening in Uganda in the 1970s during the Idi Amin’s regime.
Having been on the wrong side of the coup as the Principal Private Secretary to president Milton Obote, Henry Kyemba abandoned his former boss in exile to come back to his family.
Kyemba found himself serving in different capacities in the Amin regime until the inevitable happened and he had to leave the country.

The life
Making the final decision was not mine. I thought about it; if I go he will revenge on my family, if I stay I am giving a sense of respect to the regime and what it was doing. But for the safety of my family and friends I decided to soldier on.

Many thought the Idi Amin take over was a short term thing, and what was initially taken as a happy turn of events for Uganda turned into resentment and later a nightmare. My first thoughts of going into exile were in 1972 when I was a Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Culture. I had led a team of Ugandans to Nigeria for an African cultural festival.

When I came back I used my good relations with the ministers of Education and that of Finance Barnabas Kili and Brig. Moses Ali respectively to secure scholarships and financing for some of my relatives and friends to go out of the country. As the situation deteriorated, many people were ready to sacrifice their own relatives in order to take over their properties.
I know many people in our society who were interested in the properties of their relatives and they connived with state agents to threaten and force them into exile.

Final blow
The events of February 16, 1977, were the tipping point for me to choose exile.
This was the day Archbishop Jonan Luwum, and the two ministers; Charles Oboth Ofumbi and and Erinayo Okello-Oryema were murdered. That evening while at my official residence on Kyadondo Road, Vice President Mustafa Adrisi called me, and informed me about the deaths
Talking in Swahili, his message was that God had given them a punishment they deserved.
I didn’t take the message lightly and when I relayed it to my mother, she said: “My son you must go out, they will kill you,” I told her if I left they would kill her as well. But she told me: “Yes let them do that if they so wish. You are my son, much younger but for me I am already old.” That was the final decision when my mother insisted on me leaving the country.

Planning the exit
For starters, I registered a company called Wedding Bells co-owned with Brig. Moses Ali.
To show my commitment, I contributed money to buy the official car for the then British High Commissioner to Uganda as one of our company assets. The Faustin Princes was to be used to transport brides. Even Moses Ali didn’t know that this was a cover up for my escape.

It was delivered at Moses Ali’s house and I never knew what he did with the car as the firm was a brief case company. There was another matter to worry about. If I left, my brother D.J.K Nabeta, who was the managing director National Insurance Corporation, would be an obvious target. So the plan was he should be out of the country as well.

He had an official trip to Nigeria on insurance related issues and that’s the time I felt I should also leave the country. At that time I was the chairman of the African health ministers under the World Health Organisation (WHO) and was consulting with other health ministers on the impeding election of the new WHO director general.

This was going to be my cover for going out of the country. I planned a trip to go to different countries to consult on the election of the new director general. I was to go through Addis Ababa, Cairo before moving to Geneva for the WHO conference.

As I was planning this, I made a few diversionary plans, for instance, I made plans to expand my farm in Jinja and I was talking openly about it in the presence of Amin’s trusted spies.
This, I did, so that should word leak out that I was planning to escape, they would not believe it as I had bigger plans for my future in Uganda.

As a minister, I was given a military uniform and a gun which I kept in my house at Kyadondo Road. In April 1977, I packed my Uniform and the AK 47 that I was given by government, put them in a drawer in the house while I took my personal gun to the Central Police Station (CPS) as it was the rule whenever I was out of the country.

I gave away a few personal things but at the same time not too much to raise suspicion that I was leaving the country.

My family
At that time, I had two wives, my first wife Theresa was the deputy nursing officer at Mulago and we were staying together at Kyadondo Road while my second wife, Betty, was in Jinja with my two children.

My first wife was part of the Ugandan delegation to the Geneva conference, but because I had other places to go, I flew out earlier. Theresa decided to travel by road to Nairobi and connect from there; unfortunately her flight was coming through Entebbe. The Ministry of Health officials going for the same conference met her on the flight from Nairobi.

This may have caused suspicion why I had not travelled with my wife and why she had caught the plane in Nairobi and not Entebbe. As soon as I arrived in Geneva, Amin called me telling me he had heard rumors that I had run away. He said: “These imperialists say you have run away, they are telling stories that you are not coming back.”

And I told him I had just been elected the vice chairman of the World Health Organisation. I asked him if he did not want me to represent the country and I come back, and he said: “No you are doing a good job, continue.” But by that time, I had been informed that my second wife had been arrested and taken to Gaddafi barracks.

When he [Amin] didn’t ask me to speak to my wife on phone confirmed my fears that she had been arrested. My house was turned into another of his military property for some time as my young children were subjected to military harassment with their auntie who had stayed behind as the care giver when their mother was taken away.

I will be ever grateful to ambassador Akisoferi Ogola, Uganda’s ambassador to Geneva at that time. He was sent to spy on me, and he came and told me exactly what he had been told to do. He told me he could not report back home about me since he knew what could befall me when I went back.

During the two weeks I stayed in Geneva, I was buying time to have my children and their mother escape to Nairobi. After a week in custody at Gaddafi barracks, my wife was released and she went back to her job at Jinja Hospital in Walukuba.
One night, they were picked from home and driven to the border under the cover of the night. Once in Kisumu, the team responsible informed me that the family had safely crossed to Kenya. That’s when I left Geneva and headed for London.

Life in Exile
It was in May 1977 when I started a new life in exile in London. My brother Nabeta had already got there and had secured a flat. Amin got to know about my not returning after being approached by Harold Evans, then editor of the Sunday Times, asking me to write a series of articles about my experience working with Amin.

Evans gave me a journalist, Russel Miller, with whom I worked with to do the series. It’s in one of these articles that I came out to say I had left the government. When the articles were well received, I decided to write a book about the regime. I presented the book to the UN and all the UN ambassadors received a copy. I even sent one to Amin through Uganda’s ambassador to the UN.

I moved to the US and by 1979 when the Amin government was overthrown, I was at North Western University of Evanstone doing a masters in History. When I heard of the news, I immediately made arrangements to return home.

I got home when Lule had just been overthrown. I kept a low profile all through the Godfrey Binaisa, Paulo Muwanga, Obote II, and Tito Okello regimes.

When the National Resistance Army took over power in 1986 and started the National Resistance Council elections, I was first asked by my neighbours to stand as the RCI and I evolved from there to get up to the NRC from where I was spotted by President Museveni to be appointed state minister for Animal husbandry.