Thirty years ago, Idi Amin’s military government was overthrown by a combined force of the Tanzanian army and a motley of armed Ugandan groups exiled in Kenya and Tanzania during the 1970s. In our continuing series on the events before and after the fall of the man who has gone down in history as one of the most brutal leaders in post colonial Africa, Timothy Kalyegira reports on the euphoria in Uganda and beyond after he was overthrown:-
For those who have lived long enough in Uganda to gauge public euphoria during changes of government, in order of ranking the change of government that was received with the greatest outpouring of cheers, screams, whistles, car horns, ululations, and tens of thousands of Ugandans pouring on the streets, was the January 25, 1971 military coup that brought the 42 year-old army commander, Major-General Idi Amin to power.
The second greatest such outpouring of euphoria was that which received the news, announced by Lt. Colonel David Oyite-Ojok on April 11, 1979, of the fall of the Amin regime.
The third most enthusiastically received change of government, based on an evaluation of crowd sizes, levels of cheer, and general ululation heard across the nation, was on January 26, 1986 that saw 41 year-old Yoweri Museveni take state power.***image1***
If this great roar and cheer in Uganda were to be combined with the excitement and relief outside Uganda and worldwide, there is no doubt that the fall of Idi Amin in April 1979, if it can be measured in weights, decibels of noise, brought about the greatest total volume of cheer and celebration ever witnessed for an event in Uganda.
To millions of Ugandans, there was nothing that felt so right as April 11, 1979. Nothing proved so convincingly that God exists, hears and acts on prayers, that justice eventually triumphs, and that evil is always defeated by good, as the fall of Amin.
In grocery markets in Kampala, traders cheerfully cut the price of sugar and meat by half so that Ugandans could celebrate Amin’s fall. Crowds cheered the Tanzanian soldiers everywhere they went. (My father gave his watch to a Tanzanian solder as the Tanzanians arrived in Entebbe on April 10).
A sea of happy, relieved, and disbelieving Ugandans walked up to the Parliament Buildings in Kampala on April 13 to witness the swearing-in ceremony of the soft-spoken, mild-mannered former Principal of Makerere University College, Prof. Yusuf Lule, who could not have cut a more different image from the semi-literate and cantankerous Idi Amin.
Shortly after Lule’s swearing-in, a huge crowd carried, shoulder-high, the new army chief of staff Lt. Colonel David Oyite-Ojok through the streets of Kampala. Soldiers of the Uganda National Liberation Army, the new national army that replaced the Uganda Army, affectionately referred to Oyite-Ojok as “Daudi.”
A student at Makerere University called Edward Kale Kayihura led a march of fellow students from Makerere through Kampala streets to celebrate the fall of the man who had gained the nickname “The butcher of Africa.”
Ugandans gave the Tanzanian soldiers watches, kisses, hugs, love, money, and food. It was the happiest moment in Ugandan history, at least the happiest since Independence Day in October 1962 or the day the Uganda Cranes football team qualified for the Africa Cup of Nations final in 1978.
The new government led by Lule settled down to work and after a few days of partying and celebration, so too did the rest of the country.
What came out of this euphoria was one of the best lessons in history. It demonstrated the importance of listening to both sides of every conflict and story. It proved that formal education and reading is not sufficient. The citizen has to remain all his life in a constant state of watchfulness, reading, re-reading, listening to every angle to everything, and searching and re-searching.
What very few Ugandans could see in April 1979 was that they were about to be painfully disillusioned and that disillusionment would last the next 30 years right into 2009.
The only people who knew what Ugandans were about to face were the recently ousted president Idi Amin and a few senior military officers of the Uganda Army and Airforce, and officers of the now disbanded and much-dreaded State Research Bureau intelligence agency.
They are the only people who had an accurate picture of what was going on during the Amin years. The second group of people who had a fairly accurate picture of events in Uganda during Amin’s dark rule were some of the senior Ugandan exiles.
The third group was the Israeli foreign intelligence agency, Mossad. To this day, most Ugandans and most of the outside world still do not know who Idi Amin was.
30 years since his fall from power, five years since his death, and even with the ocean of information called the Internet, the world at large still does not know who Amin was.
Amin, a simple, naïve, jovial, efficient, patriotic, and cantankerous man who always spoke his mind, clearly told Ugandans and the world who he was. But people refused to believe him.
He was, in the eyes of millions, a murderer, eater of human flesh, who ate one of his own children, murdered one of his wives along with 500,000 Ugandans, and destroyed Uganda’s economy and infrastructure. The story of how the world came to be deceived about Amin is one of the most incredible in modern human history.
So now that Amin was out of power and in exile in Libya, in April 1979, his army defeated, the State Research Bureau security service disbanded, his henchmen in jail, in hiding, or in exile, what new beginning could Ugandans expect?
They were about to find out, much to their horror.