Extending an olive branch. As leaders of the Church of Uganda were preparing to depart for the 1978 Lambeth Conference, president Idi Amin asked Archbishop Silvanus Wani to help him deliver a special message to the British government.
In the evening of former president Idi Amin’s rule, with effects of the international isolation starting to bite, he thought of mending faces with the British government.
Though not coming out publically to court the British, Amin used the Church of Uganda, knowing it enjoyed good relations with the Church of England, which is close to the British monarchy and government.
Amin took the opportunity of the 1978 decennial conference of the leaders of the Anglican Church worldwide to launch his plea.
He had hopes that the Church of England would intervene the same way it did in the Church of Uganda dispute in 1971 that ended in the creation of Kampala Diocese.
Britain was the first country to have diplomatic relations with the independent Uganda by virtue of having been the colonial masters.
However, on July 27, 1976, after the Israeli raid on Entebbe on July 3, 1976, Amin accused Britain of plotting against him.
His accusations were based on information that the Israeli commandos used some Kenyan military equipment which had been supplied by the British government.
Amin accused Kenya of conspiracy and threatened military action. On the British side he expelled their diplomats from Uganda and promised to deal with the rest of the British nationals in Uganda. With relations at such a low level, the British decided to cut diplomatic ties with Uganda, leaving any interest left in Uganda in the hands of the French.
As leaders of the Church of Uganda were preparing to depart for the Lambeth Conference, a decennial assembly of the bishops of the Anglican Communion, they went to inform the president of their travel.
The Ugandan delegation was made up of the Archbishop Silvanus Wani, who replaced Janani Luwum, and two other bishops.
During their meeting, Amin asked the Archbishop to deliver a verbal message to British prime minister James Callaghan. Amin wanted the restoration of diplomatic relations between the two countries.
In carrying a political message under his cassock, Archbishop Wani put aside Church work while in London and attended to political work. Through the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Wani requested to meet with the British prime minister.
In his letter to the Foreign Office, he said: “I and my fellow bishops of the Church of Uganda, before we left Kampala for the Lambeth Conference, had an opportunity to say farewell to our President, His Excellency Field Marshal Dr Idi Amin Dada. On that occasion he expressed a desire to see our diplomatic relations with your country restored; and he requested us that while we are here we should seek an opportunity to convey this wish to you and your government.
“He especially requested us to inform you that on his part he has declared 1978 to be a year of reconciliation, peace and love. It was in this spirit that he requested restoration of relations between our two countries.”
Government, church respond
When Wani’s letter of August 7, 1978, was delivered to the Foreign Office it must have been treated with all sorts of contempt. In his letter, Wani had enclosed another letter containing Amin’s message to the British government under prime minister James Callaghan.
In less than a week, Wani got a response from the Foreign Office which stipulated Britain’s stand on Uganda and Amin as a person.
The letter referred to the instructions from the prime minister to the secretary of state for foreign and commonwealth affairs, Dr David Owen, saying: “The prime minister mentioned to Dr Owen in April that he had no interest whatever in warming up relations with Gen Amin. Dr Owen has concluded that it would be premature at this stage to take any initiative of a bilateral kind which could be interpreted by Amin and others as a first step towards the resumption of relations.”
The office not only expressed its unwillingness to forward the letter to the prime minister, but also asked 10 Downing Street, the official residence and office of the British prime minister, not to arrange a meeting between the prime minster and the archbishop.
Though the message was political in nature, the response the British government gave was religious in nature.
“The Anglican Church in Uganda has suffered considerable persecution at Amin’s hands. We do not want to take any action which might put its members at risk at home. Archbishop Wani is acting under instructions as an emissary of Amin for a political purpose. In these circumstances Dr Owen recommends against the prime minister or any other minister receiving the Archbishop,” the foreign office wrote.
Despite this stand, the foreign office wanted to strike a balance between not offending the Anglican community in Uganda and giving Amin a propaganda tool.
“Archbishop Wani should be received by a private secretary at No. 10. This would show that the prime minister had responded out of courtesy to the archbishop but need not involve any discussion of substance. The private secretary could simply take note of whatever Archbishop Wani had to say and at the most explain that any move towards re-establishing relations would depend on the human rights situation in Uganda,” the foreign office advised the prime minister’s office.
However, Amin must have chosen a wrong channel through which to revive the diplomatic relations. At the time of the Lambeth Conference, the Archbishop of Canterbury was Frederick Donald Coggan who had less than a year earlier made his feelings towards Amin known.
His stand towards Amin was quoted in an American church newspaper, The Living Church. In their October 30, 1977, edition the paper stated that shortly after the prelate’s death, (Archbishop Luwum) the Archbishop of Canterbury said the sooner president Amin was overthrown, the better. “I pray for the overthrowing of the (Ugandan) regime and the man (Amin) himself,” the newspaper quoted Coggan as saying.
Despite being given a low key reception at Plot 10, the meeting went ahead and there after the private secretary who had been instructed to meet the archbishop wrote, “I invited them to add anything they wished to their letter to the prime minister of August 4. In reply, they said they fully appreciated the reasons which had led Her Majesty’s Government to sever relations, but felt them to be outweighed by more compelling reasons.”
During their visit to Number 10, they had informed the secretary who met them that Amin had told them that he would be very glad to send an official delegation from Uganda for talks here if there was any prospect of an improvement in relations, and to meet a British delegation in Uganda subsequently. On the August 25, 1978, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office officially wrote to the Archbishop while still attending the Lambeth Conference, making clear the government’s stand on Uganda.
“We should, however, prefer to let matters rest. There is a risk that if we were to write suggesting improvements we would wish to see in Uganda, Amin would interpret this as a first step towards the resumption of relations, making renewed efforts to draw us into a dialogue,” the foreign office wrote.
“Moreover, we have to consider the position of Archbishop Wani and the members of his Church. We cannot rule out the possibility that he and the Church in Uganda would be made the scapegoat for any subsequent lack of progress in the restoration of our relations with Uganda. As it is, the Bishops have discharged their commission and can so report to Amin.”
Not wanting to put the archbishop and his followers at risk, neither the foreign and commonwealth office nor the prime minister’s office were committal to Amin’s request. Besides, they never made a formal reply to him through the archbishop.
Instead it was decided between the prime minister’s office and the foreign and commonwealth office to keep the status quo.