January 18, 2007

Last king of Scotland crowned by Israel

Well well! According to Richard Dowden in the Independent, the widespread belief that the Brits organised the coup that brought Idi Amin to power in Uganda in 1971 is wrong. Dowden's beef here is that this erroneous belief is now being promoted by the film, The Last King of Scotland. So whodunnit?
If the British did have a hand in the events of 25 January 1971, the plotters neglected to tell the British high commissioner in Kampala, Richard Slater. Foreign Office telegrams reveal a man shocked and confused at reports of shooting in the streets. As the day rolls on, Slater reports that the man who knows all about the coup is Colonel Bar-Lev, the Israeli defence attaché - the ambassador was away. Quoting Bar-Lev as the source, Slater reports: "In the course of last night, General Amin caused to be arrested all officers in the armed forces sympathetic to Obote ... Amin is now firmly in control of all elements of [the] army ... the Israeli defence attaché discounts any possibility of moves against Amin."

In the following days, the Israelis take the lead. Bar-Lev is in constant contact with Amin. Slater tells London that Bar-Lev has explained to him "in considerable detail [how] ... all potential foci of resistance, both up-country and in Kampala, had been eliminated." How does he know this? The Uganda military radio network had been provided by the Israelis. Soon afterwards, Amin made his first trip as president - to Israel.

At the time of the coup, Slater had recently declared that Amin had "just enough intelligence to realise he couldn't run the country". He also said that he was fed up with the president, Milton Obote, who had taken a strong stand against British arms sales to South Africa, and was threatening to nationalise British companies in Uganda.

The suspicion at the time was that the British prime minister, Edward Heath, wanted Obote out of the way at the Commonwealth Conference then taking place in Singapore, where arms sales to South Africa would be a hot topic. But elsewhere in Africa, Britain tolerated critics. In Tanzania, President Julius Nyerere had nationalised British companies and was even more anti-apartheid than Obote. But when he had been threatened by a coup, the British sent in the Marines to keep him to power. The British never tried to remove President Kenneth Kaunda in Zambia, despite his critical stance on South Africa.

But why should Israel be interested in Uganda? Slater never directly accused Israel of being behind the coup, but he did explain why they might have been. In the Six-Day War, Sudan had backed the Arab cause, and Israel wanted to take the fight to its enemies. They were supporting rebellion in southern Sudan, supplying the Anya-Nya fighters with weapons. As Slater said: "They do not want the rebels to win. They want to keep them fighting."

Obote had been trying to make peace in Sudan, but, unknown to him, Amin, then head of his army, had been secretly supplying the Israeli weapons to the rebels. Amin had good friends in Israel, and suddenly the Israelis had the opportunity to remove the man who was trying to broker peace, and put their man in power.
Of course Amin would later try to bite the hand that fed him and he ended his days in Saudi.

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