Magazine article New African

Idi Amin and His British Friends: Recently Declassified Foreign & Commonwealth Office Files in London Offer a Telling Insight into the Sheepish, Yet Cunning Way Britain Responded to Idi Amin's 1971 Coup

Magazine article New African

Idi Amin and His British Friends: Recently Declassified Foreign & Commonwealth Office Files in London Offer a Telling Insight into the Sheepish, Yet Cunning Way Britain Responded to Idi Amin's 1971 Coup

Article excerpt

Idi Amin and his British friends: recently declassified Foreign & Commonwealth Office files in London offer a telling insight into the sheepish, yet cunning way Britain responded to Idi Amin's 1971 coup. In this month's "Tales from the Archives", Carina Ray uncovers the scathing indictments made by pan-African giants, such as Julius Nyerere and Kenneth Kaunda, of the motives behind Britain's recognition of Amin's government.

News of Idi Amin's coup in Uganda which overthrew the democratically-elected government of President Milton Obote on 25 January 1971 was welcomed by officials in Britain's Foreign & Commonwealth Office (FCO) because they felt British interests stood a better chance under Amin.

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In a memorandum written two days after the coup, Horace Smedley, an FCO analyst, told his superior, Lord Lothian: "We have no cause to shed tears on Dr Obote's departure. But we should not delude ourselves that Uganda will be much better run under the successor government. Amin is corrupt and unintelligent ... One point on which we should benefit is the position of private enterprise. The programme of socialisation was very much Obote's own."

To this end, Smedley noted that "British interests require that we should be in a position to deploy our influence as soon as possible after a government is formed."

The British, however, found themselves in a precarious position with regards to how soon they could begin exerting their "influence" on Amin. In a meeting with his cabinet, the Conservative prime minister Edward Heath, while hoping to recognise Amin's regime "as quickly as possible", voiced his awareness "of the arguments for not rushing in so fast that it looked as though we had been responsible for the army takeover."

The British hoped that several leading African nations would take the plunge first so that they could simply fall in line with "African opinion". Once this had happened, the Brits were fully prepared to assume normal relations with Amin; in fact so eager were they that No. 10 Downing Street did not "want to make democratic moves by General Amin a condition of [their] recognition".

What seemed like a clever plan was made quite difficult, however, by the wave of African opposition to Amin's takeover. In the days following the coup, Guinea, Tanzania, Zambia and Somalia, in particular, denounced Amin's seizure of power.

In a radio address, President Siyad Barre of Somalia declared: "We are certain that it is the duty of independent African states to make their stand on this clear and not to tolerate the takeover of power by the Uganda Armed Forces, which was unjustified and which was organised by the imperialists. We also hope that the revolutionary people of Uganda will arise to restore to their legal president the power to rule his country."

In a stinging expose of the fate befalling independent-minded African leaders, Barre further remarked that "it was regrettable that African leaders who loyally and honestly served the development and general interest of their countries without any compromise and who, at the same time, did not run after the wealth of the imperialists and neocolonialists, should always be intimidated, overthrown and murdered by the imperialists and their hirelings. It is because of this that the Somalia supports without reservation the former president of Uganda and recognises Dr Milton Obote as the legal president of Uganda."

Barre's remarks of course sidestepped the question of his own ascent to power through a military coup some two years earlier.

In another statement issued by President Julius Nyerere of Tanzania, he made clear that the "government and people of Tanzania unequivocally condemn the purported seizure of power by Major General Amin in Uganda. This is an act of treason to the whole cause of African progress and African freedom. It would if consolidated weaken the national independence of Uganda with the inevitable effects upon the strength of the whole region at a time when Africa's need for unity in opposition to supporters of racialism and colonialism is clear to the meanest intelligence. …

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