What you need to know:
The plan for Obote’s overthrow is executed and Amin, with the backing of Britain, takes over as president. However, he would, a few years later, give the British headache they had never anticipated.
The 1971 coup involved careful planning, with the British sending Beverly Gayer Barnard, known for masterminding coups, to oversee Milton Obote’s removal from power.
Citing Idi Amin as a suitable replacement (apparently because he would be easy to manipulate), the ball was set rolling towards 1971. A Commonwealth Summit held in Singapore in January 1971, and attended by Obote, became an opportunity for streamlining the coup plot. The most controversial issue at the Conference was the British sale of arms to South Africa.
In 1963 the United Nations Security Council passed a resolution calling on member states “to cease forthwith the sale and shipment of arms, ammunition of all types and military vehicles to abstained South Africa,” explains Hutton etal in How the West Established Idi Amin and Kept Him There.
Although Britain had abstained at the time of the passage of the resolution, the Labour Party government led by Harold Wilson that came to power in 1964, undertook to implement it. However, later when Labour lost the elections to the Conservatives, the new Prime Minister, Edward Heath resumed British arms sale to South Africa. This outraged the progressive elements in Africa.
Obote, for one, was vocal, and soon emerged as the most outspoken African leader against this reversal of policy. When a number of very respected African heads of State threatened to pull out of the Commonwealth, Premier Heath saw this as a “test of the virility of British foreign policy in Africa.” says Hutton etal.
The occasion for this test was the Commonwealth Prime Ministers conference scheduled for January 1971. Due to the unease at home, Obote had twice declined to attend the conference. Presidents Kenneth Kaunda and Julius Nyerere pleaded with him to attend. The Cabinet in Uganda also voted that he should go to Singapore.
When at one point in the conference Obote put Britain in a tight corner about the arms sale to South Africa, Prime Minister Heath retorted with a sadistic remark: “I wonder how many of you will be allowed to return to your own countries from this conference,” D. Hebditch and K. Connor recount in their book How to Stage a Military Coup: From Planning to Execution.
(It was to take Obote eight long years before he could go back to Uganda.) There is no doubt Obote’s departure to Singapore for the Commonwealth Conference presented the coup makers with a very unexpected opportunity. With him away, they could organise the coup with greater ease.
They zeroed on assassinating him as he arrived at Entebbe airport. However, when the coup makers suspected the plot had leaked, they changed plans and went out for a coup.
To execute the coup, they moved the men Barnard had been training in southern Sudan in lorries and buses supplied by a company partly owned by Defence Minister Felix Onama to a camp near Bombo. These were troops which it seems, were to help Amin seize power after Obote had been assassinated.
The same troops surrounded Parliament and took control of the Radio Uganda as well. In short, Barnard’s plans went very smoothly. There was a national broadcast announcing Idi Amin’s self-elevation to head of state. The broadcast laid out what it called 18-points why the Obote government had been overthrown.
These developments alarmed Richard Slater, the British High Commissioner and he rushed to Amin’s office to inquire. When he got there, he found, as Hebditch and Connor recount, the Israeli Defence Attache in Kampala, Col. Bar-Lev “with his feet metaphorically on the generals’ desk”. After all the two were old pals.
Amin must have facilitated for Bar-Lev the shipment of arms to southern Sudan in return for considerable commission. “The reason why it wasn’t Beverly Barnard’s polished shoes on Amin’s furniture was obvious: at the time MI6 didn’t officially exist; nor therefore did its officer Barnard,” notes Hebditch and Connor.
It is clear the British High Commissioner had been kept in the dark about what his government was doing in Uganda. This is not unusual.
The British press was elated about the coup as shown by the following sample quotations:
(a) “One good reason that might be advanced for holding Commonwealth Conferences more often is that the number of undesirable rulers overthrown as a result of their temporary absence, as has now happened to Dr Obote of Uganda, would be increased.”- Daily Telegraph, January 26, 1971.
(b) “I cannot say that I learned of the overthrow of Dr Milton Obote of Uganda with any great regret: if a choice is to be made between quiet military men and noisy civilian dictators then I prefer, in Africa at least, the military.”- Spectator, January 30, 1971.)
(c) “So far as Britain is concerned, Amin will undoubtedly be easier to deal with than the abrasive Obote.” - New Statesman, January 29, 1971.)
Not very long after Amin was flung into Buckingham palace to have lunch with the Queen of England. God knows what they chatted about.
Amin also made an official visit to Israel where he alarmed Prime Minister Golda Meir by demanding enough ammunitions to keep her country’s arms industry busy for a decade.
All these excitements were to be short-lived for Amin did not turn out to be what the coup mastermind had expected. The man who was expected to be manageable because he was short on the grey matter turned out to be totally unmanageable for the same reason.
Amin expels Asians
Amin became disillusioned with the British after they denied him arms to launch an invasion of Tanzania with the aim of acquiring a seaport for himself. He retaliated by expelling the entire Uganda Asians, most of whom were British citizens.
He also nationalised some British owned businesses; exactly what he was installed in power to stop.
By 1979, the British had had enough of Amin whom they then viewed as no more than a thug. Hebditch and Connor write that Dr David Owen, the then Foreign Secretary even proposed that MI6 be ordered to assassinate Amin.
In a BBC interview following Amin’s death, Dr Owen admitted that his proposal was seen as outrageous, but: “I’m not ashamed of considering it, because his regime goes down in the scale of Pol Pot as one of the worst of all African regimes.”
The irony here is that 10 years earlier, MI6 had actively been working for Obote’s assassination as an alternative to the coup plot. In addition to Barnard’s camp in the north of the country, there was another one in which Ugandan security personnel were being trained in the fine art of assassination by use of Improvised Explosive Devices -home-made bombs. The tuition must have been excellent as the team doing the job was from MI6’s own training facility at Fort Monkton near Gosport in Hampshire.
Eventually, Lord Owen’s proposed assassination of Amin was not necessary. “Milton Obote returned to power that same year (1979) when Tanzania lost patience with Amin’s repeated armed assaults across their border and invaded the country with the support of Ugandan exiles,” Hebditch and Connor note in How to Stage a Military Coup: From Planning to Execution.
“To show willingness, the British paid the Tanzanian government for the cost of the operation; hence paying to restore the man they had previously paid to dislodge.”