Operation Thunderbolt: Its Ugandan lesson

Author, Nicholas Sengoba. PHOTO/FILE

What you need to know:

  • One the veracity of these arguments, Thunderbolt took Amin downhill, ending with Amin crumbling under the empty aura and myths created by the long tale of his invincibility. 

It is terribly minacious if history teaches men nothing. But it is regrettably catastrophic if men don’t endeavor to probe and learn something from history.

It all started on June 27, 1976 when an Air France Airbus A300 Jetliner with 248 passengers flying from Tel Aviv to Paris, was hijacked by members of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine - External Operations (PFLP-EO) and members of the West German Revolutionary Cells.

Their motive was to use the hostages as a bargaining chip to free Palestinian and other militants imprisoned by Israel. That is how Flight 139 found itself in Entebbe after stopovers in Athens, Greece and Benghazi in Libya.

The Ugandan president, the then apparently insurmountable Gen Idi Amin Dada, was in the spotlight and he relished it.

After two days, 148 non-Israeli hostages were released and flown out to Paris. Ninety four Israeli passengers and 12 crew were housed in a disused building at the old airport.

Acting on intelligence from Israel’s famous Mossad and reportedly from snitches within the Ugandan military establishment, the Israel Defense Forces (IFD) hatched a daring plan to rescue the hostages.

In what would become one of the most successful audacious commando operations in human history, 100 commandos flew over 4,000kms from Tel Aviv to Uganda via Nairobi, Kenya, after only a week of planning.
One of the African armies that was then thought to be impregnable was treated to a surprise night attack. Like most African armies that rarely fight at night, the Uganda Army was scattered.

Within 90 minutes, 102 hostages were rescued, two were killed and one died in a Ugandan hospital. All the hijackers and 45 Ugandan soldiers died while several others were injured. 7 Soviet built MIG-17 AND MIG-21 fighter jets, which were the pride of Uganda’s Air force were totally destroyed.

IDF lost one unit commander, Lt Col Yonatan Netanyahu who was the older brother of Israel’s future Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu while five others were injured.

They say a week is a long time in politics, so it is in history. In those seven days from the time Flight 139 left Tel Aviv to the 4th when the hostages were rescued, the course of Uganda’s destiny changed. To appreciate this, you need to know who Amin was at that time.

Amin who had come to power through a coup on January 25,  1971 was larger than life. He was a life president which in today’s speak would be a president ruling without the fear of age or term limits.

He had an army that imposed trepidation on all his opponents locally and he always said if anyone tried to fight Uganda they would regret ‘completely’. Had he lived to this day he would have said that if anyone tampered with his army they would go six feet below.
There was no viable opposition to him as most people were either laying low, had been killed, or were in exile. So Amin stood out as the only man with a vision capable of ruling Uganda.

The State controlled media gave Amin ample coverage that you hardly knew of anyone else capable of ruling Uganda. He was the Parliament and the Judiciary was mindful of the consequences of his displeasure.

Most of the economy was in the firm grip of the state. Those who prospered outside the state did so with the permission and support of the State through allocation of foreign exchange and agency to import or distribute essential commodities. So most people supported or pretended to support Amin’s government to prosper financially.

Then Operation Thunderbolt happened. Amin the big, indomitable school bully had blinked. The Koranic 40 days of the thief were literally over. As it happened with Samson and Dellilah in the Bible, Amin’s Achilles’ heel had been exposed.

Amin, like most dictators, revolutionaries and other thugs that rule Africa with a strong hand, for long stretches, was a product for foreign powers. It would take a foreign power to humiliate and expose him. That is what led to the Moshi Conference that gave cover for the Tanzanian Army to attack Uganda and depose Amin.

So no amount of demonstrations, red cards, struggles, elections, legislation etc. could remove him from power. It would require foreign intervention!

Amin tried to re-establish his reputation as sturdy.  He thus became even more vicious that about eight months later he reportedly killed the Anglican Archbishop Janani Luwum and two other ministers Erinayo Oryema and Oboth Ofumbi. Viciousness is key when the end is nigh. Note that.

Like it happens to leaders when they feel paranoid and longer find it easy to trust. Amin fell back to the tribe; the Kakwa, to help hold things together. They acted with impunity and made things worse. That tribal thing and impunity have a history.

More people fled to exile because it was now clear that no one was safe under Amin. This caused more resistance to him but from the safety provided by being outside the country.  Thus, he became suspicious of neigbouring countries, Kenya and Tanzania.

Some say that as a last ditch effort to create an opportunity to display his military might, he attacked Tanzania which turned out to be his Waterloo. To others the attack on the Southern neighbour was the effort of some of his lieutenants who thought they were doing something to please the boss in Kampala. This is characteristic of what happens when one loses command and control of an army. (Foreign adventurism is also one of the ways of keeping restless armies busy.)

Whatever the veracity of these arguments, Thunderbolt took Amin downhill, ending with Amin crumbling under the empty aura and myths created by the long tale of his invincibility.
To cut the story as short as Operation Thunderbolt taught us that one chink in the chain will bring a long story to a halt.

It usually comes at a time when there is an effort to prove invincibility, rely on the tribe, impunity, viciousness, military violence and general lawlessness capped by a masked fear and suspicion of ‘a neighbouring country’. 

Mr Nicholas Sengoba is a commentator on political and social issues
Twitter: @nsengoba