Britain’s arms supply to Uganda and rising unease with Idi Amin
What you need to know:
The second part of an extract from the author’s book, Unpeople: Britain’s Secret Human Rights Abuses, explains how Britain chose to protect its citizens in Uganda by remaining silent on killings and detention of civilians by Amin’s regime.
One year into Idi Amin ’s grip on power, in January 1972, Ugandan Defence Minister Oboth-Ofumbi visited Britain to buy arms and was shown “a wide range of military equipment” and given reassurances of “our willingness to help”.
“The main obstacle as far as we could see concerned the provision of funds,” British officials told him; any lingering human rights problems never appear to have been raised. Projected sales at this point included an air defence radar system, fast patrol boats and anti-tank missiles worth £10-20 million. The following month, the commander of the British army training team for Uganda visited the country.
By February 1972, High Commissioner Slater could amazingly say to the Foreign Office that he “had no immediate bilateral problems to discuss” with Amin – a few hundred murders, the banning of all political activity and beatings of expat civil servants apparently not worthy of discussion with the despot now in control in Kampala. “If anything special occurs to you, please let me know,” he added.
One thing that did occur to Edward Heath was to send an emissary to Amin hoping that it would “lead to agreement between us as to how your government can best surmount the difficulties with which it is presently faced”. The emissary, Lord Aldington, sought to advise Amin on economic matters and on arms procurement “and to secure those orders for the United Kingdom”. In his meetings in March, Aldington proposed sending an MoD team to discuss British arms exports, for which Amin “expressed complete approval”, he noted.
Aldington also recommended that Britain send the military training team already agreed to. Aldington met Amin on March 24. Four days before, the Foreign Office noted that Richard Slater: “confirms that during January anything up to 400 detainees at Mutukula were put to death in cold blood after appearing before some sort of kangaroo court.
Mr Slater thinks that Amin must have known what was going on but acquiesced… An unknown number of people appear to have been killed on February 27 at Soroti as a result… of army and police brutality”. The same note said Britain should continue to help the country “get out of the mess it is in” by economic aid and training missions.
Referring to the 400 deaths, another Foreign Office official noted that Amin may “have to resort to more unpleasant manifestations of his power in order to retain authority, ie, more disappearances and deaths”. “He may increasingly become an unsavoury friend to have”. This official also wrote: “It is a nasty business and seems bound to excite international attention. We may well get some awkward parliamentary questions… We are close to Amin and are known to be close to Amin and some of the odium may well rub off on us. If there are any more reports and if we get a spate of awkward questions, particularly if they refer to the help we are giving Amin, we may find it necessary to ask the High Commissioner to seek from Amin some explanation.”
Thus, after mass killings and clearly announced decrees of repression, Whitehall might simply seek “some explanation” from Amin, which might only be necessary due to “awkward parliamentary questions”.
The files show that by the early months of 1972, there were constant stories of killings by the army. This was when the first eight of the Saladin armoured cars – ideal for domestic repression, it should be said – were delivered. In May, Ministers approved the export of 20 Ferret armoured cars.
Also in May, an ex-MP and prominent lawyer, Anil Clerk was taken from his home by the police and was not heard of for weeks. The Clerk case received some press coverage in Britain, by which time the brutality of the Amin regime was public knowledge. At this point, Foreign Secretary Douglas-Home recommended sending “a strong message” to the Ugandan government saying that the Clerk case could lead to a deterioration in relations.
But Clerk’s disappearance promoted a rather extraordinary despatch by High Commissioner Slater. He wrote that: “So now we know who we are dealing with. On the one hand, a man [ie, Amin] of considerable charm, endowed with tremendous energy, concerned for the welfare of his people, well-disposed towards Britain. On the other hand, a tyrant, vindictive, ruthless, moody and stubborn as a child, often quite unamenable [sic] to reason, pathologically suspicious, a liar and hypocrite. On balance more Hyde than Jekyll, and not the man one would choose to do business with”.
But then, Slater argued, “we do not have a choice”. “We cannot tell him to stop murdering people” and “my plea is for business as usual”. Slater argued that Britain could not conceivably influence Amin by withdrawing some measures of support and any move against him “would be fraught with consequences for our community [ie, the thousands of British passport holders in Uganda] for which we are at present ill-prepared”.
Foreign Office official Simon Dawbarn noted later that there were reports that “Amin was personally responsible” for Clerk’s death but that “we must go on doing business with Amin” since “we have too many hostages in Uganda”, referring again to the British passport holders.
It was not until June 1972 that, according to the files, British officials began to consider cutting off support to the Amin regime. The Foreign Office recommended to the Prime Minister’s personal adviser, Lord Bridges, that the despatch of the military training team should be held up. The reason was that Amin had recently delivered several “wild and irresponsible’ public statements such as calling for “military action against the “imperialists” and joint naval exercises between African and Soviet vessels.
His hold on the country seemed “increasingly insecure” and the discipline of the army had deteriorated with killings continuing. “The army is now feared by the civilian population”, the Foreign Office noted. The military training team should be delayed since “there would be a risk of criticism in the press and parliament which would not be easy to refute”. Heath agreed to delay the despatch of the team in early June.
On August 5, Amin told the British High Commissioner of his intention to expel 80,000 Asian British passport holders from Uganda, giving them three months to leave, and accusing them of excluding Africans from business and being responsible for illegally exporting capital.
Heath wrote to Amin urging him to reverse this announcement saying that: “The British government have gone out of their way to try to be friendly and cooperate with Uganda ever since your administration took over. We were and are very anxious to help you in all the economic and security problems which face your country. I have hoped that our personal relations could be close”.