Amin, the ‘reliable helmsman’ falls out with the Israelis
What you need to know:
No permanent friends. Within a year of taking power Amin had started falling out with some of his allies, including the Israelis who had played a pivotal role in helping him with the 1971 coup.
The relationship between Idi Amin and the Israelis was, to borrow a well-worn cliché, a marriage of convenience; Amin needed the military and political support from Tel Aviv, which needed Uganda’s support to arm the Anyanya rebellion in South Sudan against the anti-Zionist regime in Khartoum.
The Israelis had supplied the Anyanya rebels in southern Sudan with arms as a way of punishing Khartoum for siding with the Arab world during the Six-Day War.
As Richard Slater, the British High Commissioner to Kampala, noted in a telegram, “The main Israeli objective here is to ensure that the rebellion in southern Sudan keeps on simmering for as long as conditions require the exploitation of any weakness in the Arab world”.
Amin had a dog in the fight, seeing that many of his Kakwa tribes mates lived in Southern Sudan where the Anyanya rebellion was based. Obote had fallen foul of the Israelis when he reached out to Gen. Jafaar Nimeiri of Sudan and offered the hand of friendship, seeking to end the fighting in a neighbouring country.
The Israelis had come to Uganda in the ‘60s and had immediately gone to work supporting the Obote regime, mainly in development of infrastructure including roads and housing units in Kampala and elsewhere.
Other Israeli firms worked on irrigation projects, a pesticide factory, and road works, among others. Relations between the two countries had grown quickly following visits to Uganda by then-Foreign Minister Golda Meir in September 1963 and Prime Minister Levi Eshkol in June 1966.
The Israelis had quickly come to play a significant role in the affairs of the country by providing equipment and training Uganda’s army and airforce. As early as July 1963, less than a year after Independence, Israel was training Ugandan soldiers, including Amin who would attend a paratrooper course in that country. Amin failed to complete his course but he was given a pass, anyway, because the Israeli’s recognised his important place in the country.
His hosts also named him Hagai Ne’eman, which means “the reliable helmsman” in Hebrew and later helped Amin with the coup in the hope that they had installed a malleable client regime that could do their bidding.
But the reliable helmsman was plotting ways to unshackle himself from the control of his Israeli handlers. The Six-Day war between Israeli and the Arab world had split many African countries and Amin, being a Muslim, now found himself supporting a country that many of this fellow Muslims did not like much.
Amin’s falling out began during his visit to Israeli where he got some arms and an executive jet but not the fighter jets and other sophisticated equipment he had hoped for, and which he wanted in order to deal with Tanzania, which was harbouring Milton Obote and remnants of his forces who had managed to flee across the border.
The British, whom Amin visited after Israel were also willing to pour tea and offer a grant of £10 million but were not willing to provide significant arms or armaments to him.
Neither the Chinese nor the Soviets were willing to touch him at that point, having been embraced by the West, and Amin now found himself exposed and bitterly disappointed. It was a situation that was confirmed in February 1972 during a visit to West Germany where no arms were forthcoming from his hosts, either.
“The writing was now on the wall: the West would not supply him with the kind of arms and the amounts of money that he wanted,” writes Prof. Phares Mutibwa. “The only people to whom he could now turn were the Arabs who, being Muslims, were natural allies.”
During Amin’s visit to Germany, he was approached by Libyan secret agents. Amin was at the time negotiating with a British company to explore oil on L. Albert, according to George Ivan Smith: Ghosts of Kampala, a biography of Idi Amin.
The agents invited Amin to visit Tripoli and meet Muammar Gaddafi, who had taken power in 1969. Amin duly did as soon as he returned to Kampala in mid-February.
On February 13, 1972 the two presidents issued a joint statement in Tripoli vowing to base their regimes on Islam and expressing support for the Arab struggle against “Zionism and imperialism,” for the liberation of the captured Arab territories, and for “the right of return of the Palestinian people to their homes.”
Less than 10 days later, a large Libyan delegation arrived in Kampala for high-level talks with Amin and officials of his government and immediately turned his head.
“Soon after [the delegation’s] departure, Amin began his accusations that the Israelis were sabotaging the economy and security of the country,” wrote Mutibwa, “although he had earlier on assured the Israeli ambassador, who called upon him to find out what had transpired in Tripoli, that Uganda’s relations with Israel would remain unchanged.”
During the meeting with the ambassador, Amin accused the Israeli military advisers in Kampala of trying to undermine him.
If the meeting was meant to break the ice, it failed. A few weeks later an Israeli newspaper reported that Amin had cancelled a planned trip to Egypt out of fear of an alleged internal coup plot against him.
In retaliation, Amin announced on March 22 that he would not renew military agreements with Israel and ordered all Israeli intelligence personnel in Uganda to leave immediately. The next day all Israeli military advisers were ordered to leave immediately and three days later Uganda cancelled all its orders for military equipment from Israeli and ordered all nationals to leave the country.
The separation was announced on March 30 when Amin ordered for the closure of the Israeli embassy in Kampala and severed diplomatic relations with the state, which he accused of mobilising a secret army of 700 men to overthrow him. A week later, on April 8, 1972, the divorce was finalised when the last of 470 Israelis left the country.
Amin had not simply brushed aside the hand that had fed him; he had swung to the extreme end and would return to bite it, with wide-reaching consequences for Uganda.