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Commonwealth worries helped Idi Amin climb to power in Uganda

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Written by Trevor Grundy

London, England

Zambia’s  former President Kenneth Kaunda has never forgiven himself  for urging Milton Obote of Uganda to attend the 1971 Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in Singapore.

In his biography “Glimpses of a Global Life” which was published November 6 the former Secretary-General of the Commonwealth, Shridath (Sonny) Ramphal, says the former Zambian head of state told him “how bitterly he regretted the pressure he put on Obote to come to Singapore.”

The reason?

President Obote, a leader who was popular with both Kaunda and President Julius Nyerere of Tanzania because of his verbal commitment to socialism and his authorship of  “The  Common  Man’s Charter,”  was aware that a military coup was on the cards in his landlocked country, which Winston Churchill had called “the jewel of Africa.”

Obote did not want to leave home because he was aware that General Idi Amin was plotting to get rid of him.

Says Ramphal: “They (Uganda’s problems) had become so acute by the end of 1970 that Obote was reluctant to leave Kampala for Singapore. But trouble was looming at the conference (the first Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting) with (British Prime Minister) Ted heath’s announced plan to sell arms to South Africa.”

Ramphal, who was Secretary-General of the Commonwealth between 1975-1990, and various African leaders, urged Obote to be there at Singapore.

Ramphal says: ”Kenneth Kaunda was to tell me many years later how bitterly he regretted the pressure he put on Obote to come to Singapore.”

While there  – and during tirades against Britain by Kaunda and Nyerere – Obote was overthrown.

Ramphal writes: ”In the wake of the coup, there was much speculation that British and Israeli intelligence operatives had helped Amin to power. It did not help that Britain moved swiftly to recognise Amin and Heath received him in Downing Street within months of the coup.”

He goes on: “It did not take long for Amin to show the horrific nature of his cunning and his evil. In August 1971 Colin Legum (the South African- born journalist) would be reporting in the London “Observer” of the massacre of Acholi and Langi soldiers loyal to Obote. And so it continued. In 1977 Obote gave details to the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) in writing of the horrible deaths of some 80,000 Ugandans under Amin’s regime. But much sooner, in August 1972, had come the bizarre demand that Uganda’s 80,000 Asians must leave the country within ninety days – creating displacement problems of such international proportions that Britain, while taking some 28,000 of the Ugandan Asians spoke aloud about (but did not actually propose) Uganda’s expulsion from the Commonwealth. Matters continued to deteriorate but the OAU had recognized Amin almost from the beginning, and he sheltered in this haven.”

Julius Nyerere also went to his grave regretting the pressure he had put on his friend Obote to attend the CHOGM in Singapore. After Obote’s overthrow, Nyerere let Obote live in Dar es Salaam where he conducted a propaganda campaign against Amin, who was initially popular not only with Africans but also with many Asians who detested Obote’s socialism.

The CHOGM in 1971 was the only one which the symbolic head of the Commonwealth, Queen Elizabeth 11, did not attend until last year’s CHOGM in Sri Lanka where she was represented by Prince Charles.

In Dar es Salaam, Obote encouraged various “on side” journalists to write about Amin’s crimes against rival ethnic groups and the legend that the Ugandan dictator, who died in Saudi Arabia in August 2203, kept the heads of opponents in a fridge was born.

In his book, Ramphal tells how he flew to Uganda on a mission to stop Amin attending a meeting of African leaders in London in June 1977.

Amin at first insisted on attending and told Ramphal how he wanted to meet Queen Elizabeth, his Commander-in-Chief.

He told the Commonwealth Secretary- General that he would attend and bring with him a troupe of pygmy dancers.

“In the end,” says Raphael,” he didn’t come.”

Ramphal’s book was launched at Marlborough House, one of London’s best known stately homes and headquarters of the Commonwealth Secretariat.  It comes at a time when the reputation of the Commonwealth is  at an all-time low following last year’s CHOGM in Sri Lanka, a country infamous for its government’s systematic and on-going abuse of political opponents.

Many senior sources inside the Club of 53 countries insist (privately) that it was a terrible mistake to hold the meeting in Colombo, considering the organisation’s insistence on high human rights standards by its members.

Shridath Ramphal was born in Guyana in October 1928. In his book he paints a vivid and moving picture of his family life in a country built on the slave trade – first African slaves then indentured/contract workers from India – and how he was fortunate to study law alongside the great Zimbabwean nationalist leader Herbert Chitepo ( killed in Lusaka, March 1975) in London. Ramphal went on to become his country’s foreign minister. He was appointed Secretary- General of the Commonwealth in 1975, taking over from Canada’s Arnold Smith.

The book draws on various documents released under Britain’s 30-year rule to explain some of the internal workings of the Commonwealth’s efforts to end Ian Smith’s illegal declaration of “independence” in November 1965 and help in dismantling apartheid in South Africa.

The book has received high praise from various Commonwealth and UN figures.

Comments David Steel, former leader of the British Liberal Party: ” . . . a beautifully written and revelatory story stemming not just from his adroit use of 20th century papers released under the 30-year rule, but his description of his ancestral past and the links between slavery and indenture.”

Adds Kofi Annan, Secretary –General of the UN: ”The book provides a timely reminder of the importance of multilateral cooperation.”

The Ramphal story spans the years 1928 to almost the present and there is a chapter on the way the Commonwealth contributed to the release of President Nelson Mandela in 1990.

The book is almost bitterness-free. But an acid-flavoured note creeps in when the author writes about Margaret Thatcher who, almost until the end of the apartheid road, opposed sanctions against white-ruled South Africa.

Sonny Ramphal was at Mandela’s memorial service in Johannesburg last year and he writes –

“So much of my Commonwealth life has been spent in the anti-apartheid cause: it was a ‘thank you’ from an ineffable source I appropriated to the Commonwealth as well. And on that day of thanksgiving for Mandela’s life, I reflected on how much more we might have achieved in the Commonwealth  had Margaret Thatcher carried over to South Africa and apartheid the commitment to ‘black-majority rule’ that had made the ending of ‘UDI’ in Southern Rhodesia possible at Lusaka in 1979. Nelson Mandela, in my view, could have been freed from apartheid’s prisons as much as five years earlier than he was. What would that have meant for him, for South Africa, for the world?”

“Glimpses of a Global Life “ by Shridath Ramphal, published by Hansib, 2014 (info@hansibpublications.com). 624 pp /£17.99)

photo credit: President Mahinda Rajapaksa via photopin cc

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Trevor Grundy

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