What you need to know:
Idi Amin’s coup was widely celebrated across the country, especially in Buganda where many were happy to see Obote go. He also appointed a cabinet that had some of the country’s best brains.
The coup that brought Idi Amin Dada to power received praise and support from the British and the Israelis but it was also widely rejoiced in most parts of the country.
A lot of the rejoicing was in Buganda, understandably, because of the hatred Milton Obote had incurred after abolishing the kingdom, but the support in the early days cut across many parts of the country.
This is not to suggest that Amin was widely admired and respected, or that support for the coup was unanimous. For starters, it was not a bloodless coup, for there was armed, albeit futile, resistance from pro-Obote forces in the country.
There were also immediate efforts by the pro-Obote faction to mobilise support from neighbouring countries to put down what they said was a mutiny by a section of the army.Historian Prof. Phares Mutibwa argues that Amin could have been toppled any time during his first few days in office if a military invasion from the outside had materialised.
Inside the country, however, the euphoria that surrounded the coup quickly gave Amin and his regime support and credibility. Part of the support came from British media outlets that were keen to show how unpopular Obote and his policies were in the country. A lot of the support, however, came from local public figures, many of whom had suffered political losses or jail during the Obote regime.
Amin’s political wit
Amin was not an unwitting beneficiary of the situation but quickly demonstrated political cunning that would resurrect several times in the years to come. Three days after his coup, he released all political detainees, some 55 in number, many of whom had been arrested during the 1966-67 political standoff.
Abubaker Kakyama Mayanja, who had fled to exile in Britain in 1966 during the attack on Mengo, and who had been the last Katikkiro of Buganda, was gushing in his praise on his return from exile after Amin’s coup.
“The new revolution of the coup is the country’s resurrection,” he said. “My pleasure is beyond words and is really not expressible, just leave it at jubilation.” Prof. Mutibwa notes that even prominent members of the Indian business community, were glad to see the back of Obote and his nationalisation policies.
“In his true colours as a staunch capitalist, multi-millionaire Jayant Madhvani spoke of the commercial opportunities opening up under the new regime after the ‘dwindling scope for private enterprise under the former Government of Obote’.”
So effusive was the support for Amin that the new leader had to publicly rebuke some of the Obote-era ministers, wondering why they were criticising their former leader instead of giving him better advice when he was still in power.
The chorus of praise, however, allowed Amin’s regime to get recognition from the international community, including the Organisation of African Unity whose council of ministers was meeting at the time in Addis Ababa.
“Essentially however,” writes Mutibwa, “this adulation and excessive praise gave Amin a confidence he had previously lacked, arousing ambition and a sense of destiny which he probably did not have at the time of the coup.”
How crucial was that early support to Amin’s regime? Would Amin have sought meaningful political alliances if his position was weaker after the coup? Could he have kept true to his early promise of handing power over to a civilian government?
These questions, easy to answer with the benefit of hindsight, are all hypothetical of course but they just go to show how blind trust and the warm blanket support offered to new leaders in Uganda’s history might have been good for them but bad for the country.
Iain Grahame, a British military officer under whose command Amin had served, mulled over the matter in his book, Amin and Uganda: A personal memoir. “Had the new President had the wisdom to hand over power to a civilian government in the spring of 1971, and concentrate his own energies on restoring peace and discipline within the army, much of the tragedy which was to befall Uganda might have been avoided,” he wrote.
“Encouraged, however, by adulation and euphoria, and quite unable to transcend the severe limits imposed by his lack of formal education, Idi Amin chose a course that was to take his country back down the dark tunnel to an era of barbarism and internecine slaughter.”
Messages of support to Amin
Prince George Mawanda-Cwa, elder brother of Sir Edward Mutesa writing on behalf of the royal clan of Buganda. “[We congratulate you, officers and men of the Uganda Army] for the successful bloodless coup which has saved our country from corruption and inconsiderate government. [We pray that the] Almighty God may grant your Excellency the light to lead our country to peace and prosperity and that under the inspiration of your rule the people of Uganda may enjoy the blessings of security, unity, liberty and justice…” .
Amos Sempa, a prominent Buganda politician who had been detained by the Obote regime.
“We are grateful to the new Military Head of State for the salvation he has brought to this country! In fact, he has cut his name on the memorial tablet of the Uganda braves by sheer courage and unselfishness.”
Joash Mayanja Nkangi, Katikkiro of Buganda during the 1966-67 attack on the monarchies.
“You and your brave officers and men of the Uganda Army have saved the honour, integrity and freedom of our country. Uganda, Africa and humanity owe you a deep and irreparable debt of gratitude. The whole country is behind you, our redeemer.”
Alderman Francis Walugembe, who would later fall victim to Amin’s henchmen, Maj. Maliyamungu and Abdul Nassar.
“No doubt all the people lived under fear during the former regime and could not express their views freely. You have freed us now. Thank you for having freed our fellow citizens from detention to enable them to take part in the development and growth of our dear nation…We will work hand in hand with you to fulfil the objectives which prompted your wise decision to take over the control of the Government of Uganda.”
[Source: Phares Mutibwa, Uganda Since Independence: A story of unfulfilled hopes.]
This article earlier said that Abu Kakyama Mayanga was the Katikkiro in 1966. He was not. The Katikkiro then was Joash Mayanja Nkangi. We had also dated the picture to 1979, although it was taken before that. We regret the errors.