- Revealed. Robert (Bob) Astles arrived in Uganda in 1949 as an unimportant colonial soldier, but dramatically climbed the power ladder to assume an outsized role in the post-independence era by retailing his loyalty to the Kabaka and presidents Milton Obote and Idi Amin.
In Part V of our serialisation of his memoir, Forty Tribes: A life in Uganda, Astles recounts the story of self-kidnap of a British diplomat and the early plight of Asians.
“A year for me in Uganda seemed but a day. Life is so short that every day should be an adventure and those early years when Africans were feeling really free for the first time were my most exciting, including the year of the floods.
But freedom meant that the Ugandans themselves must tackle their problems. It was easy to administer Kampala while there was a strong well-European civil service to fall back on, but it was in the Ugandan villages where the floods had destroyed the roads and prevented supplies from getting through that the inhabitants, who had voted the politicians into power, expected action.
It seemed to me that the newly independent Uganda needed a few crises to jolt the new masters and make them understand that they were responsible and must make decisions. Not only was this an initial problem for the new management but even the old masters, the British, would have to acknowledge the new leadership.
The staff of the recently created British High Commission were, in those early days, still floundering and quite a few Ugandan civil servants still felt that they could take their grievances there, which perhaps was not such a bad thing for in many other ways, a gentle transition period was needed.
But learning time ran out quickly and Uganda already had new ambassadors and consuls-general on the main street who were determined to see that Britain lost its influence in the country.
For a time, the staff in one prominent embassy, recently established in Uganda, never lost an opportunity to let it be known that Uganda’s British High Commissioner was the ex-head of MI6. This was absolute nonsense, but they were aware that at some time this man of outstanding ability had been in the intelligence service and they considered that it was their job to destroy him.
It was said that he had carried out some inspired work with the wartime ‘Ultra’ group and behind closed doors the Ugandan government admitted that this was the kind of mind that the new Uganda needed. I saw, and was involved in, these foreign power manipulations, but the first crisis did not come from them but from the British High Commission itself and involved the behaviour of a diplomat named B A Lea. It was an unfortunate affair and it concerned the Asians.
Asians coming to Uganda
The newly independent Uganda had within its borders a very large number of Asians with either Ugandan or British nationality, and this created a fundamental problem that remains today.
They and the missionaries had played a crucial part in bringing so-called civilisation and industry to Africa. In the case of East Africa, Asian trading along the coast over the centuries had influenced the area long before the whites had become prominent on the continent.
The Asians we are concerned with are those who were brought in to build the railway from the coast into the heart of Africa, and those who came from India to assist the British in their wars, especially the wars in Uganda at the turn of the century.
So it was the British who had brought the Asians to Uganda. They liked what they saw and as all men do when they find themselves better off in a strange land, they decided to settle. Although initially relatively few in number they made a considerable impact on the economy.
Asian life after independence
It was an Ismaili Koja who made the first safe supply route into Uganda, the Hindus who turned the hard land into estates, the Sikhs who assembled the first engines and became the pioneers of an industrial revolution.
The Asians were the police constables, the soldiers and the clerks who kept the books needed for a sound economy, for which the currency was the rupee. Even the first political parties, established a few decades earlier, had gained power by using Asian money.
Yet the Asians have had a raw deal in Africa and by 1962, with the effects of independence all around, they were in a very sorry state: deserted by the British representatives, unacknowledged by India and, seemingly, about to be exploited by the Ugandans, they were really frightened.
The citizenship question
By far the greatest number wanted to stay in Uganda where they had been born and that was their only home. Again, it has been argued that they never bothered to take out Ugandan citizenship. Here I want to emphasise something once and for all; that immediately after independence, in 1962/3, well over 30,000 Asians and other nationalities submitted papers for citizenship and amongst those applications was mine.
There is no question, but that the great majority wanted to remain part of the Uganda they loved. Nothing, absolutely nothing, was done about those applications except to bundle them up and pile them into cupboards in the immigration department where they stayed until I personally pulled them all out to examine the evidence when the Asian issue erupted again after Amin came to power.
These Asians, once the backbone of Africa, the very ones who had financed Ugandan farmers both white and black during the difficult war years and the time of the locust plagues, the very ones who had kept young colonials like me supplied with farm implements on credit without interest, were now living in ghettos often as many as 14 to a room in conditions similar to wartime concentration camps.
Here they were, not Ugandan citizens because their applications had not been processed; not able to find work of any type because they had no work permit; driven from their shops by Augustine Kamya’s boycott years before; without hope since Britain was taking only a few each year by quota.
The Lea affair
One of the people who saw and sympathised with their plight was B A Lea in the British High Commission in Uganda. The Lea affair has faded into history and the British Commonwealth Office was no doubt pleased that it should do so.
I understood some of the details from a book written by Akena Adoko, once the head of Uganda’s Secret Service, while he was staying at my farmhouse in the solitude and beauty of the forest. But I was also personally involved even before the crisis. I had seen the conditions under which the Asians lived and could recall nothing more appalling.
In those early years the British government of the time, or at least most of their representatives in Africa, were more racist than they admitted and so were the Ugandans (who remain unashamedly racist to this day and need to change if their 40 [now 65] tribes are to live in harmony). This resulted in a callousness that Lea did not share.
He mixed with the Asians as the officer responsible for operating the British quota system and they must have come to see him as their champion. Whatever the reason, he was drawn into an incident that startled the world when it woke up one morning to see the headlines in the newspapers; ‘British Diplomat Kidnapped in Uganda.’
The whole disreputable incident exploded just before a weekend, which is always the least convenient time for diplomats whose cars would have been loaded with golf clubs ready to escape from the endless round of diplomatic parties held in the small towns of the developing state.
The search begins
A diplomat kidnapped! Now this was news. At lunch time on Saturday in the Uganda Club, Dr Milton Obote, then prime minister, speculated to me on his whereabouts and I remember saying that I was sure he had not been kidnapped and Dr Obote seemed to agree although by then he had alerted the entire nation. In those days of strict chieftainship, little could happen involving a European without it reaching the ears of authority.
It was not until Monday evening that one of my boys’ clubs officials, Mr Kamya of the Dr Aggrey Memorial School club came to see me about the weekend activities at the main permanent Boys’ Club camp on the beach some miles east of Entebbe.
A group of boys at the weekend camp had heard from fishermen that a white man was stranded on an island and that his canoe had been found wrecked on a beach close to their camp after a storm.
It was a long shot but I rang Mr Hassan, the head of Criminal Investigations Department (CID) and an Asian, and we decided to go and look. We hired a boat from Roy Williams, who was running a small boat hire company at Entebbe, and went over to the island.
There was only one suitable place to put up a tent as the rest was thick undergrowth but when we got there we found no signs of habitation so we abandoned the search and crossed the water to the boys’ permanent camp.
The boys were adamant that there was someone on the island because they had seen the fires at night. They showed us the wrecked canoe, called Ssese, which is large and very strong to withstand high seas. It had a long piece of rope attached to its prow so obviously it had been tied up somewhere and had broken loose.
No Muganda fisherman ever ties up his canoe on Lake Victoria because the sudden storms are so violent that they have to be pulled right out of the water, the bows and keel being made for the purpose. So the canoe we were looking at must have been tied up by someone who was not used to the lake. All those standing around were excited when we told them about the missing white man and it was the general opinion of the villagers that this must be the boat he had used.
We went back to the island and this time the boys found tracks into the very thick undergrowth which they started to search. Soon we heard shouts and a small six-year-old boy came charging out of the bush holding a new plastic bath brush with a very long handle; other boys followed with books, plates, cups, frying pan and other utensils.
They had found the camp. We followed them back to a well-constructed grass hut, but there were no occupants. Now it was my turn to be worried because many criminals hide out on the smaller lake islands and they are merciless. The lake holds hundreds of secrets of their activities and often I had come across floating sacks with a body inside, a common method of disposing of the victim of a group murder.
Village roads in the area rarely saw a car from one month to the next and any that passed by were noticed. When we investigated these roads we were told of a car containing at least four Asians and a European that had been driven through the villages.
More than met the eye
From the manner in which the occupants addressed the locals when looking for directions to the lake (and certainly directions would have had to be sought in an area of jungle and intersecting tracks), there seemed to be no sinister behaviour in or out of the car. In fact, details were adding up to some kind of picnic party looking for the sandy shores of the lake.
At the same time I was being told by Asians that Lea was championing their cause, but that they did not trust the Asian lawyer who had formed a committee to look into the plight of those stranded in Uganda. The general opinion was that if Lea were missing then this Asian should be asked to help in the enquiries. Hassan had been given this same information already and was quietly looking for the man concerned.
All this activity was over a period of 24 hours from the time we visited the island and later events seemed to show that Lea, over the same period, had been making preparations for his ‘discovery’.
Certainly, he suddenly reappeared with his story of kidnap and escape, not knowing that we had located the camp in which he had been hidden and were already interviewing those who had built the grass hut and the ones who had ferried him across to the island and lent him the canoe.
There was no doubt that plans had been made weeks before the actual ‘kidnapping’ and our information was that the Asian, but not Lea, had been present at the meetings. A substantial sum had been paid to prevent a leak of the plan to build the hut and there had even been an argument with the fishermen who were building it about how much they were to be paid.
They were not aware that a European was involved and were surprised to find him with the Asians when they took them all across the half-mile of water to the island.
No one was ever tried for kidnapping and the whole sordid business was quickly allowed to drop for behind it all was the appalling situation of the Asians which no one wanted to publicise. The Ugandans had no intention of giving them citizenship, without which they could not get permits to work, and the British did not want to expose the Ugandans because by doing so they would be under greatly increased pressure to relax their own policy, which would result in a new flood of immigrants to Britain and a political crisis at home.
An impossible situation
Only Lea, the officer responsible for the [issuance] of permits for permanent residence in Britain, was fully aware of their terrible conditions and was known to want to do something to help them. One possible explanation of the whole incident was that he did indeed voluntarily take part in a ‘kidnap’ knowing that there would be world-wide publicity and, because of his official position, this would focus attention on the plight of the Asians.
The mystery was never solved to the satisfaction of the Ugandan public. The mayor of Kampala, A .G. Patel, a barrister who had been born in Uganda, sympathised with Lea and described him to me as a hero.
Patel had scrutinised hundreds of those applications for Ugandan citizenship and knew that they were not being processed by the Ugandan government. He said to me: ‘Bob, all of you are going to be in trouble if you try to solve this case. My Asians are not going to get Ugandan citizenship and Britain does not want the boat rocked and have them flooding into their country. Keep out of it. Lea is an honest and brave man, but we have to bury him; we shall do so with honours.’
The next crisis was caused by disgruntled politicians. The new African government was endeavouring to show that it could and would lead Uganda into peace and prosperity, but there were those who undermined their efforts either because they felt the pace was too slow or because they wanted to sabotage every advance made by those elected to power.
There are bad losers all over the world but especially in Africa where the aggrieved can get a gun from the backers of those who have lost. But guns were not available then and most of the mischief was coming from young men armed with political slogans and it was just such a group that caused another potential disaster in those early days.
The political party in power was the Uganda Peoples Congress and it had a youth wing identified by bright red shirts with black piping and on the whole it was disciplined, except in Kampala and Mbarara (districts).
I believed at the time that these two wings were being led by disgruntled politicians who thought that Dr Obote had not treated them fairly in leaving them out of lucrative appointments. This was not the case. Their problems were of their own making and generally they were too violent and not prepared to follow the agreed line.”
Lea’s fate after the ‘kidnapping’
A Commonwealth Office investigator, who had been sent out from Britain, seems to have persuaded the British High Commissioner, Richard Slater, that Lea was completely innocent of any collusion with the ‘kidnap’. President Obote, to save the British from likely embarrassment, advised Slater to arrange for Lea to be quietly recalled to London.
But there were other pressures forcing a Commission of Enquiry and a Queen’s Counsel (QC) was brought from England to represent Lea. During this enquiry Lea kept to his story of being kidnapped but was unable to say where he had been kept as a hostage for ransom, except that he knew it was close to Entebbe because he had heard heavy aircraft landing.
The names of those responsible came to light during the investigations and the suspected Asian, who had acted for clients as a criminal lawyer for years in the Ugandan courts, was found to have been on the island with a European.
He was also found not to be a qualified lawyer, but to have been a police officer in his native India. He had come into Uganda with experience of police law and his deceased uncle’s law certificate, cleverly altered, which he had hung on his office wall.
Extracted by Sarah Aanyu