Did British foreign policy allow Amin to get away with murder?

Idi Amin tests a military hardware. Britain ignored early warning signs about Amin’s Brutality. COURTESY PHOTO

What you need to know:

National interest. This edited extract from the author’s book, Unpeople: Britain’s Secret Human Rights Abuses digs through official correspondence which suggests that Britain’s national interest allowed it to look the other way as Amin accumulated power and committed widespread human rights abuses.

By February 1971, Idi Amin had “concentrated all the powers of Parliament and of the former President in his hands”, the British High Commission in Kampala noted. He announced that elections would only take place in five years.

One Foreign Official wrote that “it is now beginning to look as if Uganda may merely have exchanged one form of authoritarian government for another”.
In early March, a decree banned all political activity for two years and people “continue to be detained without trial” – the High Commission officials estimated that the number was around 1,000.

With power being concentrated in Amin’s hands and officials recommending “authoritarian” government, the Uganda regime approached Britain for arms. “Armoured cars can go ahead. Strikemaster aircraft OK. Perhaps Harriers”, wrote the Foreign Office’s Eric Le Tocq.

British policy, he said, should be to show a willingness to supply arms to prevent Ugandans from going elsewhere but discourage them from purchases which are “overambitious, militarily, technically or financially’.

On 21 April, a British “Defence adviser” in Kampala met the Ugandan Defence Minister and subsequently reported that “the prospects for defence sales to Uganda are both clearer and brighter”. Under discussion were Saladin, Saracen and Ferret armoured cars, Jaguar aircraft, helicopters, radar and light guns. A deal to supply one million rounds of ammunition was approved.

A Foreign Office official wrote that: “We consider it important…both in order to keep his [Amin’s] goodwill and also to assist in maintaining the stability of his regime that we should facilitate as far as we can the meeting of requests for equipment from this country”. Another official wrote of the “political desirability of supporting General Amin”.

By mid-May, the High Commission was noting continued arrests with up to 1,000 inmates in one prison in Kampala. A further decree issued that month ordered that people could be detained with no time limit if ministers believed that they were engaged in subversive activities. The High Commission was also getting “several reports” of incidents in which British subjects “have fallen foul of the army”.

In one, a senior expatriate civil servant was severely beaten and his Ugandan deputy beaten to death “because it was thought that men working under him had been recruited for Obote”.

In early July, Amin announced that he wanted to visit Britain in the middle of the month to discuss British training of the Ugandan army and joint military exercises.
The British government quickly arranged what was in effect a state visit. After it was decided to host a lunch for Amin, Prime Minister Edward Heath’s personal adviser, Peter Moon, wrote that “the Prime Minister would like the guests to be of high level so that President Amin feels that he is being honoured”.

There should be “senior military representation and British businessmen with interests in Uganda”. It was understood that “the primary purpose of General Amin’s visit is to discuss military matters” as Amin met the Queen, the Prime Minister and the Defence Secretary, among others.

The brief from the Foreign Office read: “General Amin has abandoned Obote’s radical pan-African policies for a more moderate and pro-Western policy”. The new government, a High Commission official wrote, was “not ideal, but by African standards as good as could be hoped for”.

At these meetings, Foreign Secretary Douglas-Home told Amin that “we would help as best we could” on military and economic aid and with the training of troops, although supplying Harrier jets would be too costly for Uganda.

A £2 million contract to supply 26 Saladin and six Saracens armoured personnel carriers was signed. The Daily Telegraph wrote in an editorial that General Amin was: “a staunch friend of Britain… His request now for the purchase of equipment for the rebuilding of Uganda’s defences deserves the most sympathetic consideration from every point of view.”

These July agreements with the Ugandan military, were being signed while hundreds of soldiers were being massacred by Amin’s forces in Uganda. “The killings took place at a large number of army camps across Uganda”, a Foreign Office official wrote the following month. “A large number of officers and men, in particular from the Acholi and Langi tribes (those associated with Dr Obote) were killed’.

Three days after this note, on August 16, another Foreign Office official wrote that: “From the point of view of British interests, General Amin’s regime has so far served us well. He is extremely well-disposed to Britain… and his coup removed one of our more bitter African critics. We have already done much to assist in the establishment and recognition of his regime and we are doing what we can to help him overcome his present difficulties”.

By August, Amin had announced the establishment of a military junta. In the same month, Britain offered a £10 million loan for three years. High Commissioner Slater was saying that “despite some obvious deficiencies, he remains a net asset from Britain’s point of view”. Slater recognised that the Acholi and the Langi “have fled or been killed or imprisoned”, adding that “this is the rather sombre background to a bright chapter in Anglo-Ugandan relations”.

“I am sure that he [Amin] is sincerely grateful for what we have done and offered to do”, such as early recognition, military and police training and the financial loan. Slater added that: “So long as he stays in power, Ugandan reactions to controversial British policies in Africa will be containable and the influence of the moderates in the OAU [Organisation of African Unity] will be strengthened. It remains therefore a British interest to see his regime consolidated.”

This basic support was being offered despite officials’ “misgivings… about the course Uganda is taking”. This included “the continuing financial mess, with talk of expensive military equipment”, the “dangerous lack of civil law and order” and “the internecine strife in the army that threatens the whole basis of his rule”.

These were the beginnings of the eventual recognition that the Amin regime was so incompetent and corrupt that it was a liability. But this point had not yet been reached.

In November, the Foreign Office noted that “power remains firmly in Amin’s hands” and that “he is probably ruthless enough to brook no opposition”. It envisaged further “repressive measures” to “add to the unspecified numbers of those who have disappeared or are held in prison without trial”.

It also stated that “the prospect is of a continuing slow drift towards bankruptcy and the gradual emergence of the less savoury aspects of a military dictatorship”.
Officials were also becoming increasingly wary of Britain being publicly identified with Amin.

Britain’s “public and visible involvement with the regime” such as the military and police training teams and the visiting aid mission, meant that “we might well be saddled with some of the criticism belonging to the Amin regime”.
Continues tomorrow.