Caption for the landscape image:

How Museveni, Aliker ended up being caught in America-Libya politics

Scroll down to read the article

Dr Aliker with ministers Kahinda Otafiire and Sam Kuteesa during a State function. Dr Aliker played a crucial role in the  1988 Lockerbie Bombings negotiations between Libya, USA and UK.  PHOTOS/FILE

Dr Martin Aliker, a veteran businessman, politician, diplomat and dental practitioner died two Mondays ago. He was 95 and was buried last Sunday at Aworanga, Gulu, where he was born in 1928.

During his long and illustrious career at the intersection of politics and business, Dr Aliker used his strong connections in powerful offices across different countries to position himself as a player in international diplomacy.

In one such example, starting in the early 1990s, Dr Aliker found himself playing a mediation role in the complex relations between the United States of America and Libya, especially on the backdrop of the bombing of an American passenger plane in 1988.

Dr Aliker captured the granular details in breathless detail in his memoirs titled The Bell is Ringing: Martin Aliker’s Story.

Published in 2018, the 251-page autobiography has in recent days been restocked in various bookstores in Uganda. Dr Aliker served as advisor to President Museveni before joining his Cabinet in 1996 as minister of State for Foreign Affairs and, later, minister for Parliamentary Affairs.

Lockerbie Air disaster

In December 1988 an American airliner, a Boeing 747 Pan Am flight 103 with 259 people on board, crashed in Lockerbie town in Scotland. The plane was flying from Frankfurt in Germany via London to New York. All the 259 people on board died and so did another 11 on the ground where it crashed.

Soon, it emerged that an explosion had been planted on the plane and investigators fingered Libya. In 1991, three years after the crash, the United States government issued an arrest warrant for two Libyan nationals for their role in the crash. The Libyan government led by long-serving leader, Col Muammar Gaddafi, refused to hand over the suspects.

In March of 1992, the United Nations (UN) imposed sanctions on Libya for refusing to hand over the suspects. The sanctions, as spelt out under Resolutions 748 and 883, included travel restrictions, an arms embargo, and some financial transactions excluding those derived from the sale of petroleum products and agricultural products.

The Libyan government pushed for the suspects to be tried elsewhere, not in the United States.

It is at this point that Dr Aliker comes into the fray as his memoirs detail. In 1992, with sanctions beginning to bite, President Gaddafi approached his Ugandan counterpart, Yoweri Museveni, to persuade the Americans to have the case tried in the United Kingdom.

On page 189 of his memoirs, Dr Aliker explains how President Museveni summoned him and gave him what the author describes as a difficult assignment.

“When he told me about the mission, I remember very clearly what I told him. I said, ‘Mr. President, you have sent me on several missions in which I was successful. But I am afraid there’s very little chance of success with this one because US public opinion is so anti-Gaddafi – I have no chance.’”

Museveni, never a man to give up so easily, is quoted in the book as telling his advisor to go and add his voice to the fluid situation and “see what happens.”

Dr Aliker writes that he contacted his “friends” in Washington DC who helped secure him an appointment with two top officials from the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).

“I flew to Washington and we met in a restaurant for lunch. The two gentlemen from Langley were most affable. I gave them my story and their reactions shocked me…They told me ‘we have no problem with the case being transferred to the UK. After all British law is the same as ours.’”

Aliker says in the book that the response from the Americans shocked him because he had expected them to dismiss his proposal outrightly.

He quotes one of the CIA officials as saying: “today we are not going to shoot the messenger; we would have liked to shoot the sender!”

Aliker would later meet the British government officials over the same, establishing contact through another “friend”, Frank Steele, who in the colonial days had worked in Uganda as a district commissioner in Gulu, Aliker’s home district. After his stay in Uganda, Steele had gone on to work for MI6, the British intelligence agency.

What seemed like a breakthrough would suffer another setback in the following years after President Gaddafi turned around and said he and his government did not feel comfortable with the trial taking place in the UK.

With the intervention of Nelson Mandela, the trial of the suspects eventually commenced in 2000 in the Netherlands albeit under Scottish law. In January 2001, Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, one of the suspects was found guilty and sentenced to life imprisonment.

This, however, did not mark the end of Aliker’s diplomatic role in the Lockerbie crisis. Soon, President Gaddafi shifted goalposts on the issue of accepting responsibility for the bombing and compensating the families of the 270 victims.

In November 2001, Aliker was part of President Museveni’s delegation to the United Nations General Assembly and he was back to work on this Libya issue. Coming just two months after the September 11, 2001 terror attacks in the USA, President George W Bush had addressed the Assembly and made war on terrorism the theme of his speech.

“Tell that cowboy to behave…”

On the sidelines of the UN General Assembly, Presidents Museveni and Bush met.

Aliker captures the moment in his book, writing thus: “The presidents introduced their teams one by one. When he came to me, President Museveni introduced me as his minister and advisor. President Bush shook my hand and said, ‘you and Condie will work together very well.’”

By Condie, President Bush meant his National Security Advisor, Dr Condoleezza Rice, who was part of the meeting. And so was the Secretary of State, Colin Powell.

After the pleasantries, it was serious business between Aliker and Rice.

Writes Aliker: “Condoleezza Rice walked up to me and said, ‘we would like to see you in Washington soon.’ I asked ‘when’ and she said ‘tomorrow.’” Aliker flew to Washington for a 10 o’clock meeting at the White House. “This is when I discovered that Dr Rice may have been a lady in appearance, but she was as tough as anybody can be. She was polite, but firm.”

Rice’s seriousness, according to Aliker, was demonstrated in a message she delivered to him which he, in turn, was to deliver to President Gaddafi. As they settled down to work, the door suddenly opened and President Bush walked in.

As Rice and Aliker stood up, Bush reportedly asked, “How are things going guys?” Rice explained to the President that she was outlining the points he wanted to convey to Colonel Gaddafi to which Aliker quotes Bush as saying: “Tell that cowboy to behave or I will kick his a** off!”

Four points

Aliker was to carry the following four points to Colonel Gaddafi: to denounce terrorism; renounce weapons of mass destruction; accept responsibility for the Lockerbie bombing; and pay compensation for the victims.

Next, it was a whirlwind of movements for Aliker from Washington to Kampala, then to Tripoli and back to Washington. He says that when he reported to Museveni what had transpired in the meeting with Dr. Rice, the president “just listened.”

Two days later, President Museveni and Aliker travelled to Libya to brief Colonel Gaddafi.

In a May 2013 interview with Prof Sue Onslow of the Institute of Commonwealth Studies at the University of London, Aliker said: “My President said to Gaddafi, ‘My minister here has been to Washington and he has told me something that I want him to tell you himself.’

So, I repeated what the Americans said. Aliker writes on page 192 of his book that Gaddafi asked his advisors and interpreters to leave the room, leaving him with his two important visitors. “Gaddafi suddenly discovered that he could speak and understand English. He said, ‘I denounce terrorism, because they wanted to kill me, I killed them. I don’t have any weapons of mass destruction. I merely have intercontinental ballistic missiles of 2000 km range, in case my neighbours cause trouble. And I will pay compensation.” Aliker however says that the Libyan leader did not directly respond to the third demand of accepting responsibility.

“We love you but…”

From Libya, Aliker flew to the USA to deliver Gaddaffi’s response and then back to Libya with responses from Dr Rice. He writes, on page 193, thus: “I then returned to Tripoli and met him (Gaddafi) alone. We talked long into the night, but there was no change in his position. On my third visit to Washington, Rice said, ‘Martin, we love you very much, but unless Gaddafi accepts responsibility, please don’t come back.’”

At the heart of the compensation demands was a $10 million figure for each of the 270 victims of the Lockerbie air disaster. Libya would eventually pay up to $3billion in compensation. Aliker quotes Gaddafi as saying Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, the convict in the Lockerbie bombing, “is a Libyan, we cannot abandon him.” Aliker interpreted this as Gaddafi’s way of accepting responsibility.

More encounters

In 2013, two years after Gaddafi’s overthrow and assassination, Aliker said in the interview with Prof Onslow that he remained in contact with the then Libyan leader to the very last days of his rule.

 “I was, to the last of his days, the go-between. I went to visit Gaddafi several times—on behalf of my government and some other foreign governments as well.”

Aliker did not mention names of the foreign governments.

In his memoirs, Aliker narrates how, after war broke out and it became very difficult to travel to Libya by air, he flew to Djerba in neighbouring Tunisia and from there travelled by road, in the desert, for 400 kilometres to Tripoli to deliver to Gaddafi a message from President Museveni.

“…President Museveni asked me to travel to Libya to see what could be done to save Gaddafi. He had in mind the organisation of safe passage for him out of the country,” he writes.

Aliker also revealed that his convoy of three vehicles arrived in Tripoli at night on April 27,  2011, as Nato (the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation) bombs dropped on the city.

He writes: “Of course I was scared. The only thing that gave me comfort was to discover that the hotel in which I stayed was also the one in which Western journalists were staying, which provided some protection.”

The next day in the afternoon Aliker met top security and protocol officials and told them President Museveni wished to know “what Gaddafi would like him to do for him personally and what Uganda could do as a country.”

Later that night, at 11:45, the long wait and constant change of programme ended. He was driven out to a secret location, as bombs continued to fall on the city. There, he met Bashir Saleh Bashir, the head of Libya’s Sovereign Wealth Fund and one of the most trusted lieutenants of the now embattled President Gaddaffi.

Aliker says: When the telephone rang, Bashir answered and spoke in a subdued tone. He turned to me and said that the leader could not come to our meeting because the enemy was tracking his movements… He then read a two-page message from the leader.”

“Kill Gaddafi…”

In the statement, according to Aliker, the Libyan leader conveyed greetings to his Ugandan counterpart and said Libya trusted only Uganda of all the African countries that were trying to help, including South Africa, Congo Brazzaville, Mali and Mauritania. He said he was ready to work with the African Union to solve the problem and that the Western powers claiming to be Libya’s allies were not interested in promoting democracy in Libya. They were only interested in “killing Gaddafi, killing Gaddafi and killing Gaddafi.” Gaddafi was quoted as saying that what the enemies of Libya did not understand was that if they changed his regime the next one would be of Islamic extremists and Al-Qaeda. He said that Libya was the great wall which, if broken, would lead to a flood of illegal immigrants into Europe, some of whom would die on the water but some would survive and reach Europe. He said he was ready to talk to the rebels but that the rebels were not ready to talk.

Four months later, in August 2011, Gaddafi’s government fell to the Nato-backed rebels and in October, he was captured and killed as he attempted to escape by road into exile.

Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, meanwhile, outlived Gaddafi. He had been freed from a Scottish jail in 2009 on compassionate grounds because of cancer. Doctors had given him less than four months to live, something that convinced the British authorities to release him to live out his remaining days in his home country. He died in May 2012, well beyond doctors’ expectations.